By Roland Betancourt
The cover video is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous YouTube videos out there. They can be immensely complex music-video renditions, or simple a cappella vlog-style iPhone videos. Its prolific character makes it difficult to categorize or to produce any all-encompassing argument about the format. Here, however, I am more interested in sketching out a conceptual system for the logic of the cover as a prevailing structural mode of thought and production, rather than an all-encompassing survey of the trend. My interests lie precisely in the cover as a structure of thinking creatively and originally about an inherently derivative product.
The discursive sphere of contemporary pop operates within a strange double bind. On the one hand, it glorifies stereotypical postmodern culture of manic citation and reference, identifying the layering of source material as an indicator and generator of complexity and erudition. On the other hand, these layers of citation are simultaneously criticized as unoriginal, derivative, and as rip-offs.
The former is the logic of BuzzFeed, for example, whose litanies of gifs, short analyses, and iterative comparisons construct compendia of intertextual, intervisual analyses, which find their gravitas in their iterative power. Like the florilegia of medieval authors who appended their texts with lists of excerpts from canonical sources that supported the claims of their arguments, the BuzzFeed lists allow for the construction of relational knowledge through short, rapid-fire, sequential captioned images that, while seemingly unrelated, generate logics through their encounter upon this tabula.
For example, a few weeks ago Aylin Zafar expertly composed a cohesive litany of Gaga’s cultural citations in “Applause” entitled, “Every Cultural Reference You Probably Didn’t Catch in Lady Gaga’s New Video.” Aylin Zafar’s florilegium of sources was a fascinating moment for contributors of a blog like Gaga Stigmata: it demonstrated a form of scholarly, academic production that was self-reflexive on both the medium of its circulation (pop), and the content it addressed (pop). That is, it was a rigorous discussion of pop in the medium of pop.
Consequently, this manifested the possibility of academic writing and presentation that is often difficult for us – those who are often steeped in the academy – to willingly explore. To a certain extent, it requires that we relinquish our agency as authors who construct robust and well-argued theses, and instead present audiences with rigorous fragments through which we enable readers to conduct their own analyses in the comments. However, this is not a full relinquishing of agency, since it is the manner in which those fragments are arranged and what fragments are included that enable arguments to arise.
Reading through Zafar’s compendium and noticing how Gaga Stigmata was cited presented a model where the tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) assumed logic of a project like BuzzFeed collided head-on with a project like Stigmata, which allows for concerted, longer analyses that for me – and my overly verbose approach to things – has always been a draw and an exciting aspect of GS. Let’s face it: in the digital blogosphere there is a lot of discussion, but even the lengthy posts are often quite limited comparatively. On Gaga Stigmata we often encounter what are essentially 20-minute conference paper length works – hence being true to the form of a common scholarly method of exchange, and not sacrificing the space to allow thoughts to develop and explore various options.
In contrast, Zafar’s incisive observations in a bullet-point format readily enabled users to produce a critical analysis of “Applause” by providing a robust and deep vocabulary that not only featured external sources, but also presented Gaga’s own precedents for much of the imagery of her “Applause” video – a crucial element that is often overlooked by such blog-driven posts, particularly when their intentions are to prove a dearth of originality. Hence, projects like Gaga Stigmata and BuzzFeed find a generative collision precisely in the friction generated from their contact.
How then does this play in at all with the logic of the cover?
I do not see BuzzFeed as a derivative or condensation of Gaga Stigmata’s work simply because it took some of its information or arguments from it. Instead, I see the two as covers of one another, understanding that knowledge is not just produced by some and disseminated by others: the two constantly feed upon one another and develop audiences not as mutually exclusive spheres, but in the interstitial sites that occur between the two. One does not merely read Stigmata for the whole/longer argument, but rather for a different form of argumentation.
The same system is in play with the cover video, which cannot be said to copy or riff on an original, but rather generates audiences through the iterative permutations it enables.
A key illustration of this function of the cover emerges when we encounter covers that engender their own covers, and therefore muddle the chains of contribution and alteration. This was evident when Glee blatantly used Jonathan Coulton’s cover of Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back” without giving any authority or recognition to Coulton for his slowed-down cover, despite the fact that the Glee cover even featured a lyric alteration from Coulton’s song (where they sing “Johnny C’s in trouble,” a change that Coulton made to adapt the original’s “Sir Mixalot’s in trouble”). This then led Jonathan Coulton to release another version of his own cover “in the style of Glee,” making the chain of covers nearly unrecognizable – a veritable snake biting its own tail.
This is a process that occurs daily as YouTubers constantly cover and re-cover songs not only from their favorite artists, but also from their fellow YouTubers and other permutations – such as a performance on Glee. What is noteworthy here is that just as you learned from playing telephone in elementary school, with each transmission information is radically reconfigured and repurposed, thereby leading to the creation of new and unique performances – not only when a quasi-heroic figure takes on the task to reimagine a classic or contemporary tune. For example, one group that came to fame with its creative takes on songs is the real-life couple Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan of Karmin. Karmin went viral following their 12 April 2011 cover of Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” (ft. Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes), which was even featured on Ellen. The song not only involved an impressive rap session by Heidemann, but also included the use of internal covers and citations – such as fragments of the Lord of the Rings main theme woven into the song itself.
After the hits from their first album Hello – “Crash My Party” and particularly “Brokenhearted” – this summer Karmin released a new single, “Acapella,” off their upcoming album Pulses. While “Acapella” has not received the attention it deserves (drowned out by all the other mega-songs of the summer), the song manifests precisely the generative logic of the group’s roots. True to their original medium, the song has its origins in Anna Kendrick’s “Cups (When I’m Gone)” from Pitch Perfect. As Heidemann describes it, “Acapella” reflects on the use of household, unorthodox objects to produce unusual beats. This fits in as part of a Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) trend, rooted in the proliferation of YouTube videos and covers. Given their origins on YouTube, they produced this song with the perspective that if you can do it yourself, you can also do it a cappella. Hence the song relies mainly on beats created through the use of their own voices.
As such, Karmin’s song falls within an long line of covers. Not only does it riff on “Cups” – a song that itself has inspired a slew of covers on YouTube, and is in itself a complex cover (see below) – but “Cups” itself manifested the logic of household production that both speaks to a drive to make do with what one has immediately around, but also to create innovative products that emerge from such a D.I.Y.-aesthetic, which has now become in itself a specific medium or trope that constantly tries to outdo itself with new and unique types of covers or music videos.
This medium of cover productions is best exemplified by the formerly Yale-based duo, Sam Tsui and Kurt Hugo Schneider, YouTube stars whose claim to fame is a series of early covers where Tsui sings on stage alongside many iterations of himself, and their web-series College Musical, primarily with the hit “I Wanna Bone My TA.” Tsui and Schneider’s early cover videos fit well into a category of covers that play directly with the notion of singing a cappella and pushing it to its limits, by recording different elements of the song and syncing them together in a video.
Mike Topkins is one YouTuber who has uniquely utilized this method by producing simple videos that show him at the center of the screen and surrounded by close-ups of his mouth, each labeled with the instrument or element of the song’s mix that it is playing. It is perhaps quite fortuitous that Tompkins is currently performing along with Karmin as part of the Jonas Brothers tour. Tompkins’ videos manifest the technical complexity of a cappella musical production that mimics the full-bodied sound of the original song through the human voice alone.
Similarly, Sam Tsui’s early videos use the singular person as a way of producing the sound of a college a cappella group, like the well-known Yale Whiffenpoofs. As with his “Michael Jackson Medley” (which has over 30 million views), Tsui’s early videos usually began the same way: he walks onto the stage and is soon joined by other reduplications of himself who play various parts of the harmony. The non-existent audience cheers as he walks onto the Yale stage, emulating the experience of an a cappella group performance or competition. As such, his videos seek to make manifest – and internalize – the very logic of viral reproduction that his videos partake in. The performer is reduplicated across the stage in a microcosmic manifestation of the logic of the cover, and of the video’s own unfolding across the Internet.
In his collaborations with Tsui and others, Kurt Hugo Schneider’s videos (beside the ones produced for Tsui) capitalize on a clever understanding of his medium, while also deploying product placement as a creative and generative part of this production – an aspect that speaks to the experience of YouTubers operating on the brink of virality and thriving on such forms of advertising-patronage. See, for example, his recent Coca-Cola video that uses Coke bottles to produce various songs, including Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks,” and Calvin Harris’s “Feels So Close” (with Sam Tsui).
His 14 December 2012 “Holiday Medley” featuring Victoria Justice and Max Schneider deployed Sprint-sponsored smartphones to unfold the narrative of the music video. The camera focused on four phones that were moved around as video played on them: the singers walked through and across the phones, while scene changes occurred as Schneider moved the phones or ‘swiped’ through different screens. The video was filmed in one continuous shot and was not digitally altered. Not only did the video cleverly utilize product placement, but it also unfolded through the kinesthetic, gestural logics that smartphones have enabled, and it was true to the YouTube trope of the challenge video since it was shot in one take, which required repeated practice and training so as to be able to pull off the feat.
Schneider’s earlier Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars medleys also employed the one-take format while the singers, again Justice and (Max) Schneider, walked through a house singing and dancing along with (Kurt) Schneider. In the “Maroon 5 Medley,” Schneider ups the challenge from the Bruno Mars iteration by combining this one-take format with a lyric video. This “live lyric” video includes the trio moving around the house singing the medley as the lyrics appear on pillows, posters, clothing, walls, etc. In all these subsequent iterations, we witness Kurt Schneider always attempting to outdo himself, pushing his medium further while actively responding to new YouTube video formats and tropes.
However, this process of out-doing oneself also operates as a kind of constantly “covering” one’s own productions. When he utilizes Victoria Justice and Max Schneider as singers in subsequent videos, Kurt Schneider is, in a sense, manifesting his medium and articulating that each subsequent iteration is a sort of cover of his own previous works, as much as it is a cover of another performer. Of course, this process crescendos in his “Holiday Medley” on smartphones, as it neatly encompasses the various levels of the cover’s logic by deploying the very technical apparatuses on which most of his viewers watch his videos.
In one of Kurt Schneider’s most recent collaborations with Sam Tsui, he covers Kendrick’s “Cups” song – done in one take, in a park, with four people who continuously pass the cups among one another as the camera spins around them and they take turns singing. Here Schneider introduces a host of variables, from ambient noise to a camera man tripping. What is most fascinating is the manner in which “doing the Cups song” has become a common challenge video on YouTube, analogous to the infamous “Cinnamon Challenge.” Mega-YouTubers like DailyGrace and GloZell have done such challenge videos, and some of the particularly successful iterations – by non-YouTube stars – have even gone viral.
Here, we seem to have come full circle. But it now becomes difficult to consider which came first if we try to ascribe some sort of developmental, creative narrative. (Particularly, when we consider that viewers often encounter a cover before they encounter the original. This happens often with Glee, which leads in turn to the original song’s newfound popularity.) While we can chart these iterations on a temporal timeline, I would have a problem saying that Kurt Schneider’s rendition of “Cups” is a cover of Anna Kendrick’s, since in a sense Kendrick’s performance was a cover of Schneider’s, Karmin’s, and a slew of other pioneering YouTubers. The Wikipedia entry for the “Cups” song best manifests the intricate and deep history of the cover through which this song has been refracted. As the Wikipedia entry reads:
“Cups” (also known as “Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I'm Gone)”) is a song popularized by American actress Anna Kendrick from the film Pitch Perfect. The basic song, “When I’m Gone”, was written by A. P. Carter and Luisa Gerstein and was performed in 1931 by the Carter Family, with later versions by J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers and Charlie Monroe. In 2009 the band Lulu and the Lampshades combined the song “When I'm Gone” with a common children's game known as the Cup game, in which plastic or styrofoam cups are tapped and hit on a table to create a distinct rhythm. This created the modern version of the song known as “Cups (When I'm Gone)” or alternately “When I'm Gone (Cups)”. In 2011 Anna Burden uploaded a version of the song on YouTube that then went viral and became the inspiration for Kendrick’s version. The Kendrick version of the song is considered a sleeper hit in the United States, and Kendrick’s first top 10 on Billboard Hot 100 chart.
As such, the success of “Cups” has not only been its D.I.Y. aesthetic that has encouraged mega and minor YouTubers alike to perform it as a challenge, but also the manner in which it operates within the very medium of the viral cover video, and within the logic of the cover, to perform the song.
Hence, a good YouTube video is not one that necessarily produces something we have never seen before, but rather one that is hyperaware of the tropes and formats of YouTube videos, and actively works to produce videos that play with those systems.
It is not about creative genius, defined by some unrealistic notion of pure originality that breaks with established canons – originality is not creative, it is merely a copout. Yes. I know that what I am saying here is not something new or unique; in fact it’s a pretty simplistic and dated, a banal notion of artistic production. And yet, the problem is that most of the attacks on such popular productions, or even on the pop superstar, are precisely criticisms of their citations, references, and rip-offs; such criticisms operate with the implicit desire for some radical and unique artistic break.
The problem with such breaks, with this notion of the event reified into an aesthetic theory, is that the event proper is fundamentally outside of history. It is that which is fundamentally unthinkable. It cannot be construed as part of any aesthetic manifesto, for it must be outside the skill of the artist. Instead, the event in the image can only manifest itself through that which is imparted upon the image outside of skill, that which occurs as a truly unthinkable and uncontrollable break. The event in the aesthetic can only exist in the realm of virality. To go viral is the event.
Hence, if we allow this shorthand logic to fully develop, I would have to say that, (if you allow me to identify originality as eventness), originality in the work of art only exists in its capacity to go viral. Originality is virality and nothing more. If the event as originality could be reduced to aesthetic innovation then it could not go viral, because to be wholly, unthinkably unique is a mode of isolation and alienation – it is to distance oneself from fields of discourse, from being comprehended, understood.
The most crucial artists in history were not innovative geniuses that broke from the past and inaugurated something new; they were the ones who deeply and intimately understood their field of operation and their field of discourse, their peers and their colleagues.
With this in mind, let us now return to Karmin, and consider the video for their single, “Acapella.” In this video, Karmin dances with four others against a white backdrop while clothed monochromatically in accordance with each specific scene. The shots of them dancing are interwoven with literal depictions of some of their key lyrics: “I thought he was gluten free, but all I got was bread,” for example, is accompanied by a vulgar yellow loaf falling upon a dimensionless blue ground. The creative direction and choreography was done by Lady Gaga’s choreographer, Richard “Richy Squirrel” Jackson, and the video seems to be reminiscent in its approach to Lady Gaga’s own “Applause,” which would come out months later. Given that Gaga described the “Applause” video as a battle between black-and-white and color – and her consequent deployment of Pierrot’s white body – the white ground of the video and its monochromatic scenes almost seem to riff on and be in sync with a similar (if not more literal) chromatomachy, as that alluded to by Lady Gaga.
While Lady Gaga’s “Applause” captures the virality of the music video in its embrace of the cheers and acclaims of her adoring fans, “Acapella” manifests the response of the fan in their production of D.I.Y., a cappella covers, while also embodying the manner through which Karmin became famous. Because of this, Karmin’s video operates as a proleptic cover of “Applause.” Karmin’s video was essentially a cover of the “Applause” video even before it came out.
By being closely tuned in to pop-culture, Karmin produced a video that riffed on the same aesthetic concerns with color that Gaga’s video would later manifest, while also reflecting on the processes of fame-production, particularly that of a YouTube success. In these respects, Karmin’s video is more successful than Lady Gaga’s because it speaks fluently to the production of its own fame and to the logic of the music video as a pop-cultural phenomenon in its own native language. They are simply both covers of one another.
Whereas Gaga delves into the archive to produce a video that deploys images of circus and jesters, Karmin more simply presents its concern with chromatics as a sort of color swag that is constructed through a kitschy aesthetic of American Apparel clothes on a simple white ground. Karmin’s overly-literal depictions of lyrics almost operate as a visual lyric video, reminiscent of Jay-Z’s music video for “On to the Next One,” for example. When Amy Heidemann dances in a blue forced-perspective hallway with fluorescent lights, with her leathery blue costume and the fisheye lens view, it reads like a scene out of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” video.
There is something wonderfully terrible about Karmin’s video that is not nostalgic, but rather embraces the logic of the cover as a distinct cultural production.
Roland Betancourt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University.