Saturday, July 2, 2011

Everybody cover Radiohead. Go!

Maybe you are a hip young classical music group feeling down in the dumps about your number of YouTube hits. Or maybe you're feeling insecure about your street cred since that skinny-jeans and elvis-costello-glasses wearing singer/songwriter keeps stealing your lunch money. Well, did you know there's a sure-fire way to prop up your sense of cultural relevance? Believe it or not, it's actually the same secret method the singer/songwriter has been using for years: cover a Radiohead song. Everybody's doing it. Certain musicians have based entire careers on it. Some are semi-famous for it: Christopher O'Riley, Brad Mehldau. The Signal Ensemble in New York put Johnny Greenwood on a concert with Ligeti and Philip Glass. It's a cross-genre prescription. Here's the alternative-bluegrass group Punch Brothers:

Now just because everybody's doing it doesn't mean all these musicians, toiling away in the more technically virtuosic yet obscure musical genres, have an inferiority complex over Radiohead's insane worldwide popularity or something. Actually, yes it does mean that. But to be fair, it's only a small part of the story. Because also they want to get a lot of YouTube hits. And not be so down in the dumps about their street cred. And I'm pretty sure that many of these artists genuinely love Radiohead, which I suppose you could make the argument is a legitimate reason to cover Radiohead. But also, covering Radiohead has just become a thing that you do. Like Giant Steps, or law degrees. You gotta prove your chops.

One advantage that groups that involve singing have when covering Radiohead is that they involve singing. This is because often the vocal line and lyrics provide a great deal of interest in a good pop song. Here is the all-female Belgian choir Scala, which rocketed to stardom after their Radiohead cover was used in The Social Network Trailer. It turns out they do a little more than cover Radiohead. They also cover Nirvana.

Many listeners consider covering Radiohead to be the greatest thing ever. This is because many people love Radiohead so much, and because most people like to listen to music that they already know. Hence the popularity of Momma Mia! So when some strange combination of absurd instruments cover Radiohead, they experience the exciting arousal of recognition. They feel included. This is very important, and something that aspiring hip young classical groups ignore at their own peril.

As you get ready to cover Radiohead, take note that the most successful Radiohead covers are covers of Radiohead that you don't need to recognize as a Radiohead cover to enjoy. It is possible to create a Radiohead cover that is successful in its own right, as a stand alone musical experience. Try to bring something of your own to the table. This is the gold standard of the truly great Radiohead cover. It's got to be about more than just getting YouTube hits and street cred, though if in the process you gain some then good for you! You also included people.

Just remember, when you cover Radiohead, you are also in a way competing with Radiohead. You're also helping to increase their performance royalty checks. You are offering up your own creation to be judged alongside all the covers of Radiohead that ever were and that ever will be. It's enough to make you feel kind of down in the dumps. After all, the originals are pretty good.

If, by some chance, you find that covering Radiohead doesn't work, and that singer/songwriter is still giving you a hard time, one other thing that you can try is to wear an ironical t-shirt.