Interpreting Songs—Postmodern Jukebox

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 23, 2016

My generation embraced singer-song writers back in the 1960s. We wanted bands that played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. Before that, bands and song-writers were often not the same, and popular songs would be performed by all the crooners of the day. Hell, jazz musicians made an art form of interpreting songs. Being part of the generation that grew up with The Beatles, made us prejudice against “cover bands.” I had to age some to appreciate Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.

Last year I discovered Postmodern Jukebox, a group that specializes in taking modern songs and putting a period spin on them. The best way I can prove what I’m talking about is to play the songs off of YouTube. Listen to “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. It’s from 2003, and very edgy. Meg’s spare drumming and Jack’s angry guitar make the song unique, driving, defining it’s era. It’s gotten 97 million hits on YouTube. Listen to this original version of “Seven Nation Army” first.

Can you imagine anyone covering this song? Now, lets listen to how Postmodern Jukebox arranges the song. Is it even the same song? Musically, it’s still simple. The words are the same. But the mood of the song has changed. The music of The White Stripes grabs me, but the lyrics dominated in the Postmodern Jukebox production. Of course it’s hard to ignore Haley Reinhart, the vocalist, but she really makes the words more important than the individual instruments.

Here is Radiohead’s “Creep.” The two versions are much closer. Is Thom Yorke just creepier than Haley, so he fits the lyrics better? Is Haley too pretty to be a creep? How much does the rock sound color the song compared to the vintage arrangement by PMJ? Does each of these versions convey a different message?

When Haley sings, “I want a perfect body, want a perfect soul” do you think something different than when listening to Radiohead? Are songs less authentic when sung by people who didn’t write them? Especially if we feel the original songs represent the artist?

How much of a song’s flavor comes from the time in which it was produced? If Elle Goulding had been recorded back in the 1960s, would she have sounded like the Postmodern Jukebox version?

Do I prefer this oldie version because that’s how music sounded when I was growing up?

What if Postmodern Jukebox did the opposite of what they normally do – taking a new song and making it sound old – and took at old song and made it sound new. I’d like to see what they would do with “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” by Frank Sinatra. Could they do it in the fashion of The White Stripes, Radiohead or Elle Goulding?

Visit the Postmodern Jukebox page on YouTube for dozens of more great interpretations.

[If you got this as an email, you’ll have to follow the link below and visit the web to hear the songs.]


4 thoughts on “Interpreting Songs—Postmodern Jukebox”

  1. This is an interesting thread to me, James. I’m looking forward to viewing the numbers on my computer when I am back in my suburban house, near Albany, NY, and commenting back to you.

    Right now I am at my Adirondack lake house, one of my several golden nuggets of a glorious retirement. I have only my iPhone up here. I’m planning on participating in your retirement thread, too.

    I just thought I would extend a nod betimes because I hate it when I post something I think is scintillating and receive no response.

  2. James, I have been going through the numbers you posted, and will provide my reactions, soon. While I’m doing that, I have linked some of the interesting pop music coming out of Japan. There are many unique subgenres, and I am fascinated by just about all of them. To me, Western music now seems anemic in comparison.

    The first, “Real Existence” by Band Maid is simple rock. How about the energy of the drummer?

    The second is of the Death Metal, or Kawaii Metal, subgenre. It’s the most creative piece I have seen from Japan. It’s about the need for a young girl to resist temptation, using chocolate as the metaphor. These girls range from 12 to 15.

    This third is a movement that takes ordinary girls with ordinary voices and apotheosizes them into Shinto Gods. This girl, Milky, is singing a Salingeresque song about climbing to the top of a jungle gym at night, when she can do it in her skirt. She sits on a steel bar, which frightened her as a child, but now feels good. She contemplates that she may never want love, because it is too complicated. She looks off to a Teeter Totter, from which one person has gotten off leaving the other wondering. She says she never wants to climb down.

    This genre of singer pledges celibacy with boys and men, and doesn’t even associate with the opposite sex. They have sex with other girls only. The purpose is so that a boy or man can believe that he is as close to the girl as any other boy or man in the universe, which goes a long way toward making the girls candidates for deification. The girls also sing “I love you” to their audiences, and mean it. Observe the adoration from the huge “congregation.”

    1. I liked the first two a lot, even without understanding the language. The third was was pretty, but without Japanese it doesn’t work. The first two were very visually creative. The later two were concerts with big audiences, so they must be big pop stars then. It’s a shame that language, culture and distance keep us from enjoying pop culture from other countries. Obviously, Earl, that hasn’t stopped you. Do you know much about Japan and its language? Does Band Maid play their on instruments, or was that just for the video? So they write their songs? The video is well produced, so they must be fairly big. Babymetal puts on a great show.

      By the way, how did you make your videos so big? I’m going to add the first two to my Watch Later queue on YouTube so I can see them on my big TV through my Roku.

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