A Vintage Filter On Today's Top 40

Sep 13, 2013

What do you think of when you hear "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus? Twerking, teddy bears, tongue ... doo-wop? New York composer and musician Scott Bradlee and his Postmodern Jukebox project takes current Top 40 hits and re-imagines them as coming from older eras of popular music. For instance, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" turns into an Irish drinking song, while Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" throws back to a ragtime romp. It's oddly infectious and quite viral — "We Can't Stop" currently has more than 4 million views on YouTube.

Crossover cover songs have become popular on YouTube lately. But as Bradlee tells NPR's Audie Cornish, "[Jazz] musicians were taking Broadway songs, which were the pop music of the day, and they were transforming them, re-harmonizing them in ways that made them sound like jazz. This is just an extension of that tradition."

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

And a note in advance of our next interview...


MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) Can I get a hell no?

CORNISH: No. ATC is not going all Top 40. But we do need to play a little more of this song.


CYRUS: (Singing) So la da di da di, we like to party, dancing with Miley, doing whatever we want. This is our house, this is our rules, and we can't stop...

CORNISH: Yes. "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus. Most recently associated with twerking, teddy bears and tongue.


CYRUS: (Singing) To my home girls here with the big butt, shaking it like we at a strip club...

CORNISH: But we found a version online that gives 2013 hit a touch of 1950s class.


ROBYN ADELE ANDERSON: (Singing) To my home girls here with the big butt, shaking it like we at a strip club, remember only God can judge us. Forget the haters because somebody loves you.

CORNISH: "We Can't Stop" has gone doo wop on YouTube. That's where Scott Bradlee and his Postmodern Jukebox project post their video remakes of pop hits. And I got to say, it made this song, you know, actually enjoyable.


ANDERSON: (Singing) You see it's we who run the night. You see it's we who about that life. And we can't stop...

CORNISH: It is infectious in a good way, so it's no surprise the video is now viral. The man behind this musical rearranging joins us from our New York Bureau, Scott Bradlee, welcome to the program.

SCOTT BRADLEE: Hi. Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: So how many hits on YouTube so far for your version of "We Can't Stop?"

BRADLEE: Oh. The last time I checked, which was maybe yesterday, we just passed 4 million. And so...

CORNISH: Wow. And that's without any twerking? You are just sitting at a piano.

BRADLEE: No twerking. Mine's just another piano. There is not even an opportunity for me to twerk. So...


CORNISH: And I thank you.


CORNISH: So this is part of what you call your Postmodern Jukebox, and talk about what eras you're partial to.

BRADLEE: Sure. The whole idea behind Postmodern Jukebox, it's kind of imagine an alternate universe of pop music where the songs that we hear today are somehow, you know, stuck in a time machine and come out, you know, in the 1930s or the 1940s or the '50s. Kind of like a, you know, for "Seinfeld" fans, a Bizarro world of music.


BRADLEE: So that's - that's kind of like the basic idea. And, you know, it really kind of taught me that no song has to be tied to one particular genre. You know, and I see it also on YouTube, there are lots of people doing cross genre covers, and I think it's becoming like a big thing now, you know? There's more collaboration between and across genre lines.

CORNISH: I was going to ask about that. You're right. This covering of songs is very popular on YouTube. And one thing it does is it exposes the strengths and weaknesses of a song, right? And I'm thinking of Selena Gomez's "Come And Get It."

BRADLEE: Oh, yeah.


SELENA GOMEZ: (Singing) When you're ready come and get it. Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na.

CORNISH: And you redo this very shiny pop hit, right, that we've been hearing this summer as '40s jazz.


ANDERSON: (Singing) When you're ready come and get it. Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na. When you're ready come and get it. Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na. When you're ready...

BRADLEE: What I did in that song was a reharmonization, which means, like, I took the chorus of the song and I changed them. And the melody kind of went itself to be kind of reimagined in a jazz sense and, you know, jazz musicians. That's something that's been all the time. I mean, the idea when jazz first came to prominence, musicians were taking Broadway songs which were the pop music of the day, and they were kind of transforming them. They were reharmonizing them in ways that made them sound like jazz. So this was really just an extension of that tradition.


ANDERSON: (Singing) Even if you knock it, ain't no way to stop it. Forever you're mine, baby, I'm addicted. No lie, no lie. I'm not...

CORNISH: All right. So while jazz and ragtime are obviously a favorite both for the Postmodern Jukebox, you also venture into other genres. And one that struck me was the country version of the Ke$ha song, "Die Young."


ANDERSON: (Singing) So while you're here in my arms, let's make the most of the night like we're going to die young. We're going to die young.

CORNISH: But there's also an Irish waltz version of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." So first, I don't even know why we have to play it because it's like the hit of the summer. Here's the original.


PHARELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) She's up all to the night to the sun. I'm up all night to get some. She's up all night for good fun. I'm up all night to get lucky.


CORNISH: And I really thought I had heard every cover of this song...



CORNISH: ...until I heard this one.


MITCHELL JARVIS: (Singing) Like the legend of the phoenix, all ends with beginnings. What keeps the planet spinning, the force from the beginning.

CORNISH: OK. In this...


CORNISH: In this performance in the video, a can of Guinness appears, so does a box of Lucky Charms. I'm not going to make any judgments about that...


CORNISH: ...but talk a little bit about doing this and not, you know, verging into parody. Is it parody?

BRADLEE: This one, I think, is definitely a lot - this is more a parody in this one. Largely, because I think as soon as that song came out and it was such a big hit for Daft Punk, everyone was expecting us to do a 1920s cover of it, because that's what we had been doing up into that point. So I kind of wanted to do something completely different. And I mean, the phrase, get lucky, you know, lucky, the luck of the Irish, so I pretty much played into like every Irish stereotype there that, you know, Americans might have. But...


BRADLEE: And, you know, I brought aboard Mitch Jarvis, who is a really talented actor and writer. You know, he's just hilarious in this. He just...


BRADLEE: He kind of created this whole very over-the-top Irish tenor character.


ANDERSON: (Singing) I'm up all night to the sun.

JARVIS: (Singing) I'm up all night to get some.

ANDERSON: (Singing) I'm up all night for good fun.

JARVIS: (Singing) I'm up all night to get lucky.

BRADLEE: You know, I think another thing that I'm kind of trying to showcase in this particular series is that these older styles of music, they're not dead genres. They're not, you know, no longer relevant. Just by taking modern contemporary source material, we can kind of revitalize them a bit. And we're getting a lot of comments of people that never really listen to jazz or never really listen to ragtime or doo wop or whatever, but they're finding that they really have an affinity for when it's presented in a way that's interesting and relevant to them.

CORNISH: Does it give you a different perspective on the originals?

BRADLEE: I think so. You know, I've never really listened to the lyrics until I would do these things. And now I know all the words to all these songs.


BRADLEE: So it's - but it made me realize that as much as, you know, people may call the lyrics inane of some of these songs, it does reach a very large demographic of people. I mean, these are songs that are big hits. And I think that there's a definite skill in writing for, you know, a mass audience like that. And that's something that I don't think I could do.

CORNISH: So fess up, in the end, did you learn to love "We Can't Stop," the Miley Cyrus version?

BRADLEE: Well, you know what, I got to say that our version is stuck in my head just from all the hours of editing. So every so often I heard it on the radio and I'm like, oh, somebody remixed our song. That's awesome. But...


BRADLEE: I mean, it's definitely a catchy song.

CORNISH: That's New York-based musician Scott Bradlee. Scott, thank you so much for talking with us.

BRADLEE: You got it.

CORNISH: And when Scott not rearranging pop hits to the sounds of bygone eras, he is the music director of "Sleep No More," an off-Broadway immersive theatre production.


ANDERSON: (Singing) And we won't stop. run things, things don't run we. We don't take nothing from nobody. Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.