Something (Not Quite) Familiar
Groups add fresh twist to famous hits
Aug. 6 promises a night of music to Northwest Arkansas unlike anything the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion has hosted before: a show of co-headlining performers taking today’s popular hits and turning them on their heads.
Straight No Chaser is the all-men a capella group from Indiana with six albums, four EPs and more than a decade singing together. And Postmodern Jukebox is a collective of more than 50 musicians taking YouTube by storm with their vintage restylings of contemporary hits. Some of their most popular videos include a ’50s doo wop version of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in 1920s Gatsby style and a vintage bluegrass/ barn dance cover of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
“You can push the limits pretty far in terms of changing the source material and still have it retain the elements of the song it is,” says Scott Bradlee, creator of Postmodern Jukebox.
“It’s actually pretty fun when you’re listening and you’re like, ‘Wait, what is this song? How do I know this song?’ And then there’s that lightbulb moment where you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, OK, of course, they’re playing Weezer, but it’s done in jazz.’”
A jazz pianist having trouble finding work, Bradlee started putting videos on YouTube not expecting anything to come of it. The video that set him on the path to Postmodern Jukebox was a collection of ’80s songs played in the style of ragtime. When the video kept raking in views — hundreds of thousands — the thought occurred to Bradlee: “There’s something here. There’s something that’s interesting to people [in] hearing these familiar songs played in a very unfamiliar way.”
A thread of trial-and-error projects (including the successful Motown tribute to Nickelback), convincing musician friends to help film videos in his living room, a few years and more than 650 million YouTube views later, Postmodern Jukebox is a global project.
“Obviously, we’ve always been aware of kind of the humor that is in taking something that seems so diametrically opposed to the styles that we’re covering, but even from the early days, I never wanted it to come off as parody,” Bradlee shares. “I think parody kind of has a shelf life; it doesn’t allow for a full range of expression. So I approach every song, whether it’s Nickelback or Kanye West or whatever, and really examine [it] and figure out how would these songs sound back in the 1920s or the swing era, and do it authentically and honestly.”
For any who may be skeptical of jazz or the big band style, Bradlee assures his diverse and balanced cast — “It’s not just people singing jazz; there’s amazing soul singers, there’s people who have this kind of comedic aspect to what they do, an incredible tap dancer” — and the character of the music will still draw them in.
“A lot of people who aren’t accustomed to those earlier styles, it’s mostly because they don’t know the material. I think most of us would go see Frank Sinatra live if we got the chance, even if we didn’t know the songs,” he muses. “There’s something that’s a timeless quality about that kind of music. And you know, it’s an experience. I would say we ease people in because you’re going to know the songs we’re playing; they’re some of the biggest hits in the world.”
“What’s cool about Straight No Chaser is they do a very similar thing in the sense that they’re taking familiar material and twisting it into a new context,” says Postmodern Jukebox creator Scott Bradlee (center). “It’s a very entertaining show, and it has that kind of upbeat atmosphere that matches ours very well. You’re going to see two great acts that are doing really creative stuff and keeping the audience engaged throughout. It’s definitely feel-good entertainment.”