They just don’t make good music like they used to.
What was once a common gripe is reinvented as a viral video, thanks to a new doo-wop cover of Miley Cyrus’s utterly addictive, utterly ridiculous summer single “We Can’t Stop.” Postmodern Jukebox, a jazz collective that reinvents modern pop hits by setting them to vintage musical arrangements, is behind the delightful rendition of Cyrus’s hit.
The group has applied similar treatments to pop songs, cheesy or otherwise, like “Thrift Shop” (“Grandpa” style), “Get Lucky” (“Irish Tenor” style), and Psy’s “Gentleman” (“1920s Gatsby” style)…and once created a “Motown Tribute to Nickelback.” Now Postmodern Jukebox’s almost unrecognizable cover of “We Can’t Stop” has racked up nearly 4 million views. BuzzFeed called it “basically perfect.” MSN said it’s “strictly awesome.”
In other words, it’s, like, really, really good.
Featuring Ella Fitzgerald by way of Adele vocals from singer Robyn Anderson, the rendition classes up the song without losing any of its let’s-party appeal. The swinging, bluesy orchestration may do even more to lure the listener to the dance floor than the Autotuned catcalling and twerking in Cyrus’s original.
We called up Scott Bradlee, the New York-based conductor and pianist who heads Postmodern Jukebox (when he’s not working as the music director at the wildly popular theater experience Sleep No More), to find out more about his brilliant rearrangements.
I’ve been busted three times today dancing along to this at my desk. It’s brilliant. Did you expect this cover to catch fire so quickly?
I don’t think any of us predicted it would take off that quickly. I had a few other covers of songs that were viral and got a good deal of hits, but this one got close to 3 million in a day. It was the most viewed on YouTube that day it came out. That was nuts! I knew it would be a cool idea to do, especially in light of the whole VMAs controversy. Whenever something like this Miley performance happens, people are like, “I miss the good ole days of music.” I don’t know if music was better back then, but there’s nostalgia for the past. So I thought it’d be interesting to take a song like that. I knew a doo-wop group that sings in the subway and around the city, and I wanted to get them involved. When I edited it, I thought, This is really good. It’s going to do well.
Why do you think the Miley Cyrus song took off, among all the other great covers you’ve done?
I think everyone on some level loves doo-wop. It’s feel-good music. It’s easy to listen to. It has a strong melody. It’s simple. Part of it, too, was the timing in response to a pretty big news story in the entertainment world. I think it was interesting to everybody. And sure, it’s funny that the lyrics are ridiculous by ’50s standards, too.
What do you think of Miley’s original version of “We Can’t Stop”?
I never really thought too much about it until doing this project. I read that somebody on Reddit posted an interesting critique of the lyrics saying it’s a song about excesses of partying and not meant to be taken on face value. That definitely gives it more artistic merit, if that’s true. I don’t know if Miley or her team of writers meant that.
But do you like it?
It’s catchy. Most songs when I hear them I immediately start thinking what style of music I can turn it into. I don’t listen to them on face value. I’m always thinking about that.
Do you listen to a lot of pop hits?
I do. Sometimes it’s for research purposes. I hear them in the gym. They’re kind of inescapable.
It’s impossible not to be drawn to the timelessness of this idea. How did it start?
I guess when I was a kid, I was into the piano. That was what got me interested in music. Ragtime, New Orleans jazz is what I gravitated towards. You would never hear ragtime on the radio. You wouldn’t hear that style of music at all. I tried to bridge the gap, so when I was 17 or 18 I would take pop or classic rock songs like “Stairway to Heaven” and turn them into ragtime on the piano. Years passed and I decided to upload a medley of these ragtime rock songs on YouTube, and that gained some traction. It’s great, especially for people who don’t like pop music—at one time I didn’t like it all. Plus, this idea goes way back. It’s what jazz musicians used to do with Broadway standards: reinterpret them in that style.
You said yourself that you never hear this style of music—ragtime, jazz—on the radio anymore. But people hear something like your doo-wop version of “We Can’t Stop” and fall in love.
I think it’s never really gone away. I think there’s always going to be a niche for these older styles of music. I don’t think it will ever be a full revival of older styles. They’ll just be incorporated into something new. Amy Winehouse incorporated a lot of Motown and soul and doo-wop into her stuff, an updated version of it. People will continue to pull from these older styles. It’s a surprise to me how many people realize after posting this how much they like this style of music. People might not say or even realize how much they like jazz, but just because they’re not exposed to it in a way that’s relevant to them. That’s what we’re hoping to do with these videos, make it relevant again.
Is there a particularly tragic pop song that you think you rehabbed the most by setting it to a vintage arrangement?
The funniest one for us was the “Motown Tribute to Nickelback.” It was a controversial band, and we made it sort of in response to a petition that was essentially trying to bar Nickeback from playing a Detroit Lions halftime show. It fell into place very easily. Everyone loves Motown, and a lot of people hate Nickelback, so let’s split the difference. It’s very subtle so people can't tell—we don’t really tell either way whether it’s parody. I don’t approach it as parody. There’s obviously a tongue-in-cheek aspect, but I’m really trying to imagine the song as Motown and make it sound good.
“Most songs when I hear them I immediately start thinking what style of music I can turn it into. I don’t listen to them on face value. I’m always thinking about that.”
Robyn Adele Anderson, the woman singing these songs, is like jaw-droppingly good. Insanely good. Tell me all about her.
Robyn’s actually my girlfriend. We dated for about a year before I put her in one of the videos, too. “Thrift Shop” I wasn’t even familiar with at the top, and she was one day just sort of singing it in jazz style. I thought, We should do video of this. And we did and posted it. It was her first video singing in public. And that has over 2 million views now.
With all these genres, what do you think is the best kind of music?
That’s so hard to say. It’s depending on mood, really. I think it’s a copout to say you like all types of music. But I do. I find value in everything.
Well that’s really why this project is so great. It finds as much value in a cheesy, bad pop song as it does in a classic musical genre.
Exactly. A lot of times it will be picking things you don’t listen to and give it a shot. Whether it’s country and opera or things like that. Jazz is always going to be my favorite, just because that’s the first that I learned about growing up.
Have any of the artists whose songs you’ve rearranged ever contacted you?
I have reason to believe that a lot of them have seen it. The only direct tweet we got was from Nickelback. Someone asked them what they thought of it and they said, “Killer.”
Any songs on the horizon that you think would be good?
I’d say “The Fox” song. I’ve been digging that. That song’s hilarious. Maybe a jazz version.