The 11 Most Infuriating Songs Of 2011, No. 3: [White Person], [White Person Cutely/Seriously Performing Urban-Radio Hit]

karmin_lookatmenow.jpg
The Songs: Karmin, "Super Bass" and "Look At Me Now" and way too many others; Mac Lethal, "Cook Wit Me Now"; Jackson Foote and friends, "Get Low"; Sophia Grace, "Super Bass"; probably more that are shooting up the Reddit charts right now.
The Crimes: Anti-pop snobbery; humorlessness in the name of "musicality"; pandering to the commenting hordes on tech blogs who consider themselves above pop music, but not above being catered to directly and embarrassingly. And let's not forget the racist viral hit of late November, Texts From Bennett, which came from one of the above auteurs.

Internet attention is precious currency for up-and-coming bands, who have to make their way past a torrent of acts both established and brand-new in order to get themselves heard. Those artists who have figured out that a pretty easy way to skip the line, so to speak, is to pander to the world of social-news sites—places like Reddit and Digg that are overwhelmingly male and extremely pop-averse, among other things—have held a depressing competitive advantage over the past few years, with their modest successes breeding breathless "future of the biz" stories that led to even more success and press and so on. There's one other common thread between all these musicians; the geek-beloved strummer Jonathan Coulton, for example, suggests that people listen to his chiming cover of "Baby Got Back" before almost anything else he's recorded; last year, the Bay Area duo Pomplamoose snagged a deal to annoy TV-watching Americans during the holidays after thrilling Digg and with wall-eyed, "real-music" versions of fun songs like "Single Ladies" and "Telephone."

Yes; even though it's been some 27 years since "Rappin' Duke," the "white people turn urban-radio tropes into something more similar to what they might listen to, with hilarity possibly ensuing" tack is still guaranteed to hit pay dirt among certain subgroups of people who consider themselves both musical aesthetes and "geeks." Whether they're cowed by the technologically forward production (irony alert!), unsure of which Urban Dictionary definition to use when figuring out just what the lyrics might mean, or just trying to fight the man, man (never mind that their computers were made by multinational conglomerates), these sorts of covers still get eaten up by YouTube viewers like they're ice-cream sundaes made by dairy geniuses. And thanks to the increased importance of "virality" in 2011, artists who took this tack were often rewarded by showers of likes, buckets of retweets, and hordes of people delighting in the knowledge that there were a lot of people out there whose noses were all upturned at exactly the same angle—which meant that they could only multiply. The four most egregious examples below.


Karmin, "Look At Me Now"
This year's most prominent example of turning urban-radio hits into Serious Music, Karmin is a Berklee-educated duo who managed to parlay their Internet-borne fame into something resembling pop stardom. That their first single, the fizzly Dr. Luke bite "Crash Your Party," isn't a rap song for the most part shouldn't surprise after listening to about 30 seconds of one of the hip-hop covers that made them famous; they don't really seem to enjoy the source material they're working with, despite its proven ability to send Reddit types over the moon. Here, they dispense of the Diplo-and-Afrojack beat in favor of some ominous-sounding keyboards, and Amy Heidemann's pained mugging at the camera while gutting her way through the original makes one wonder if she's attached some sort of beartrap to her leg, one that will not unsnap until she makes it through the recording process without committing a syllabic error. Only when the chorus hits, and she can unleash her trained singing voice and show the world that yes, she is a serious musician, does she actually seem like she's enjoying what she's doing.


Mac Lethal, "Cook Wit Me Now" (a.k.a. "Nerdy white kid KILLS 'Look at Me Now'")
This Kansas City rapper at least leaves the "Look At Me Now" beat intact while going the "Weird Al" Yankovic route, turning Chris Brown's spacey hit into an ode to making breakfast. Competent, for sure, although Mac Lethal proved that he lacks the class of the accordion-wielding song parodist by launching Texts From Bennett, which thrilled way too many people the Internet with its tales of a poor guy aspiring to live the life of a third-segment Jerry Springer guest. Only after it was revealed to be some ill-advised bit of viral marketing for Lethal's hip-hop ventures did people wake up and realize that they were reposting humor that was simultaneously racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic to all their friends' Facebook walls. Good job, everybody.


Jackson Foote, Eden Neville, Alex Koste, "Get Low"
This one is probably the worst of them all, taking the overproduction of Glee, the exacting musicality of college acapella crews, the smugness of a bunch of kids hanging out in their dorm room getting high and making fun of MTV Jams, and the excruciating experience of punishing overenunciation, and then turning the resulting pile of mugging and delight in "playing street" into a ball of solid paste. If you're ever having a good day and you want to specifically ruin it by making yourself feel really, really bad about the world, your place in it, and notions of "privilege," watch this clip.


Sophia Grace Brownlee, "Super Bass"

Probably the only place this trend could go: An eight-year-old mushmouthing her way through "Super Bass"—the clean version, where the coke dealer is actually hawking automobiles—bravely enough to get the notice of the Internet, and Ellen DeGeneres (also a Karmin fan!), and, eventually, Nicki Minaj. I hate picking on a little kid, but watching this performance makes me wonder one thing: How many of the YouTube viewers stumbling across "Super Bass" for the first time via this video realized after the fact that they liked Brownlee's version of the song better than the original because it's "cuter"? Right.

The 11 Most Infuriating Songs Of 2011
11. Kreayshawn, "Gucci Gucci"
10. will.i.am feat. Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez, "T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever)"
9. Katy Perry feat. Missy Elliott, "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) (Remix)"
8. Tyler, The Creator, "Bitch Suck Dick"
7. Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera, "Moves Like Jagger"
6. Bon Iver, "Holocene"
5. Rihanna, "S&M"
4. Brian McFadden, "Just The Way You Are (Drunk At The Bar)"
3. [White Person], [White Person Cutely/"Seriously" Performing Urban-Radio Hit]
2. Lana Del Rey, "Video Games"
1. Jessie J, "Price Tag"

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15 comments
Zimbardo
Zimbardo

Uh, so how seriously should we be taking "Get Low"? Also, should I burn my computer?

Derpworthy.
Derpworthy.

You mad. 

Forums for comment/critique have always featured backlash and parody of obnoxious popular trends--particularly those forums that offer anonymity. I think there is a good deal of satire and snark in these covers--and I think there should be. American pop culture trends are asinine; and if that isn't obvious to you, you've failed or been failed by your forebears.

This sorta thing has been going on forever; in music, visual art, writing and film. I'll take it, it reassures me that someone out there can smell the bullshit too.

Craig
Craig

Actually I think Jonathan Coulton would rather you listen to his new album, which is prominently posted at the top of his home page. He clearly lists his cover of "Baby Got Back" under the most popular entry, because it was, duh, one of his earlier hits. Talk about grasping at straws.

TimSPC
TimSPC

I get the impression that, at least with Karmin (and obviously the little kids), they really do like the original they're covering. The crimes you've outlined, while pretty dead on, are more for the people who react by over hyping how mind blowing they are.

Eric Javier Rivera-García
Eric Javier Rivera-García

Maura Johnston bless your heart for this entry!! This totally encapsulates my anger towards Karmin when they made comments about making hip-hop "less intimidating" for the "normal people".

Nathan DeVantier
Nathan DeVantier

I don't really buy Texts From Bennett being anything but classist. It's a pretty dead-on satire of how a lot of kids are now. Playing a couple hours of an online shooter will demonstrate this nicely.

Lackzguy
Lackzguy

Talk about a shitty article. You guys act like no one has ever used the internet to make a joke before. Ever stop to think that these are just videos of people have fun, and enjoying what their doing. Why is every anti-pop and smug and snobby? The internet has always been a place where you can say what you want and have fun, just because its 2011 doesn't mean the internet has changed. Lighten up and learn to laugh a little.

jonblistein
jonblistein

Yay stupidly long comments! 

I get that there are a lot of problems with these covers--chief among them that, yes, they all range from bland to pretty awful--but in none of these clips do I see any sort of "smugness" or smarter-than-thou posturing to denote that these people are trying to turn pop into "serious music." Quality of the finished project aside, these covers must have come from a love of the original: Why put so much energy into rearranging, rehearsing, and then recording a song you hate? To be ironic? To stick it to the world of standardized commercial pop? To turn the supposedly "low-brow" into something "high-brow"? I don't see any of that. That said, these songs, as you noted, do stir up such reactions in listeners who listen Beyonce and Chris Brown on the sly while raising their noses and bashing them openly (I know how it goes--I totally used to be one of those kids). But you're conflating the reactions of some audience members with the artists' intentions, and I dunno if I buy it.

Heidemann's "pained mugging" seems more like a result of a trained singer attempting to replicate a musical style she hasn't been doing all her life while also adding her own spin to it--basically, concentration while also trying to have some fun. I mean, jeez, based on the smile she cracks about a minute in she seems to be enjoying herself. As for the "Get Low" kids, yeah, it's a horrible cover and that RHCP poster in the background is head-slapingly too good to be true--but again, these kids grew up listening to Top 40 pop and hip-hop, realized they loved it, and seem to be putting their relatively legit musical talents towards recreating a track they dig. Their "'playing street"' is embarrassingly obnoxious, but it's more indicative of blissfully ignorant middle-class perceptions of urban music and culture as filtered through suburbia, in a moment when the camera's on you and you've gotta try to be entertaining or goofy--not smugness, privileged mockery, or stoned snobbery.

Again, as you rightly say, these covers pander to certain subsets like suburbanites who watch too much "Glee" and that ridiculous, so-far-up-their-own-ass, anti-pop Reddit crowd (again, totally used to be one, and I've spent more hours lurking in the comments section of the "Music" sub-Reddit than I care to admit). I mean Mac Lethal, who you're spot on about, definitely seems like the best example of the ironic snobbery facet of this trend--and maybe I'm a bit too wont to give the rest of them the benefit of the doubt because, I dunno, up with people or something--but I just don't see how Karmin, Pomplamoose, or, for god sakes, the Brownlee girls are representative of that attitude. (Not to mention the majority of the reactions to those latter artists seems to fall more on the side of "OOOOOO that was really fun! you have such a great voice. i think i like this more than the original!!" rather than "This was a stellar rendition--so much more raw and real and serious than the computerized, auto-tuned schlock the music industry force-feeds to the rest of the sheeple. ZEPPELIN RULES!") You're right to point out and critique why audiences respond so positively to these covers (whether that's because they find the new versions more serious, cute, more easily digestible, etc. than the original) because that's what's so interesting about this trend; but it's not impossible for indie artists, or Berklee School of Music grads, or privileged suburban kids to recreate a song in a style of music they're good at/familiar with because, y'know, they really love the song and like playing it with their friends.

Chris
Chris

I agree that this is a loathesome trend and I can't find any inner masochism to press play on the above clips, but what bothers me more are the prominent indie figures who think covering pop songs is funny, like Ben Gibbard giggling his way through "Complicated" or Jeff Tweedy singing Black Eyed Peas songs. Karmin is easy enough for me to ignore (though I may not say that if they're still on the bill of a local top 40 radio station's soon-to-be rescheduled Christmas show), but if Justin Vernon ever decides covering "Tik Tok" would be good for a laugh, my Twitter and Facebook feeds would explode.

ey
ey

that 'Get Low' cover actually makes me angry. they just ooze smugness.

sas
sas

"(never mind that their computers were made by multinational conglomerates)"

Oh come on. I think you're a great critic, but that's no less petty here than when it gets lobbed at OWS kids.

Lackzguy
Lackzguy

more importantly. if you don't like it, don't watch it. It's not difficult to avoid the things you supposedly "despise", so do it. (this is hardly the first year that parody and cover videos have been around)

Daniel Jimenez
Daniel Jimenez

"Why put so much energy into rearranging, rehearsing, and then recording a song you hate? To be ironic?"

In a word: Yes. Or, more accurately, to do something you think is ironic, while betraying how little understanding you have of the concept of "irony."

maura
maura

I did mean it half-jokingly. (Maybe less so toward those members of the Cult of Apple who are enthralled with their bucking of the entertainment-industrial system, though.)

Cristi Stefanescu
Cristi Stefanescu

Or you kind of like the song but you think the people who recorded it managed to completely fuck it up, and think you can do better/improve it considerably.

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