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.