I was searching YouTube the other day when some demon algorithm used its dark forces to suggest a particular video in evil thumbnail form on the upper right hand side of my computer screen. I didn’t want to watch it, but the most morbid of curiosities took root and suddenly I had clicked on it and it was too late. The video was music duo Pomplamousse’s cover of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” And it was awful.
Full disclosure: I do not care for Pomplamousse and I knew that going in. I first became aware of them a few years ago when one of their songs served as the jingle for a holiday season car commercial, the kind of heavy-rotation spot that cemented their treacly melody in my grey matter regardless of my best efforts to prevent that from happening. Because I prefer the devil I know, I looked into the song, and therefore the group, and found that they are just not for me. Fine. I knew that they had made their name online, one of the pioneers in the DIY style of music career making, via MySpace and YouTube. Good for them! Their name is an intentional misspelling of pamplemousse, the French word for grapefruit. Okaaaaayyyyyyy.
I’m an old-school fool and one of the things I don’t like about YouTube is that, with precious few limitations, anyone can do anything. I endorse freedom, but when it comes to music, this means every third person born has a channel where they shakily sing the top radio hits of the day into their webcam and I don’t want this in my life. I know, that makes me a Grinch and a Scrooge and whatever other fictional character you’d like to lob at me. I’ll be that.
The success of musical acts like Pomplamousse has been largely contingent upon their earnest covers of popular songs by black musicians. And I don’t like that. When white people wistfully strum a guitar and quietly sing the lyrics of a rap song or an R&B classic, other white people who run advertising companies and make record deals snatch them up like shiny marbles, because they’ve taken something popular and made it palatable in a way that will sell across the country. Pomplamoose went from that first, nagging car commercial to a multi-tier commercial contract for yet another car company. In the industry, it’s a conflict to advertise for different makers of the same product, but an exception was made. That’s how incredibly popular these two are.
You know I keep it real with you, so if it sounds like I’m being a hater, I’ll shrug off that label, but I will say I’m bitter. When Pomplamoose gets to the next level of success or similar group Karmin become the toast of the viral video town by adorably rap-speaking Chris Brown and Busta Rhymes’ “Look At Me Now,” I am bitter because there is simply no equivalent for a black woman.
I’m not a hater because I genuinely think that both of these groups are very talented. Their musical abilities and arranging skills are not in question, and I salute them. But they have capitalized on our present Cover Culture in a way that makes me sick. I have friends who are pop singers. The music industry is a hideous beast and even established acts have had to throw anything at the wall and see what sticks in order to move those units. I get it. Once the digital destruction of the industry took hold, we were in a brave new world where suddenly nearly everyone had access to what was formerly a mystery world of recording and releasing music.
What glory! This meant that all sorts of fresh voices could be heard and that’s a good thing, right? Right! But the sheer volume of people now putting things out there coupled with shortened attention spans because there is so much to wade through means that the need for a gimmick multiplied tenfold.
The cliché of the struggling musician trying to get people to listen to their demo has existed for ages. And there is a scientific fact that recognition sparks something in the brain—if someone does a cover of a familiar song, they might grab your attention faster or keep it longer because of the recognizable elements, yet they are still getting you to listen to them perform. Around the same time, TV shows like The Office introduced a new, stripped-down aesthetic to our living rooms and considering that most amateur, unsigned musicians didn’t have the means to make a polished-looking video anyway, boom. The YouTube cover genre took off.
Historically, this is not new, either. Covering music has happened forever but back in the day, if a cover was how a singer who then went on to great success got our attention, they likely didn’t carry on making a career of covers, nor did that initial cover blow up the way these viral videos do today, because that was impossible then. And when there was less freedom and the occasional record producer to pop in and tell people that something might not be a great idea, that meant that covers often added something to the source material, or illuminated some aspect of the original song through the cover artist’s unique take. They weren’t intentionally cutesy or clever in an effort to get YouTube views and a shoutout from Jimmy Kimmel.
The novelty of someone outside of a genre of music performing that genre simply doesn’t translate when you turn the tables racially. Every now and again a young black person pops up on one of these vocal competition TV shows with an acoustic guitar and a dream to remind us that it can be done, but where are their massive commercial contracts and US tours? (Wishing continued good luck to Aloe Blacc, though!)
Scott Bradlee is a white man, but he puts musically stellar spins on the genre-bending YouTube cover/mashup game and he features fantastic women of color such as Karen Marie, who skips through about ten genres with ease in this fun “Fever” medley. Last year YouTube heavy hitter Smoothiefreak put out a video cover of Anna Kendrick’s absurdly popular single “Cups” that we excitedly passed around the internet lunch table, but the real lure of that mashup was the rapping of Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse. So again, rap makes the day. And yet largely, an amateur black woman sincerely rapping original material well or stepping outside of her genre to cover a folk song is met with polite silence or a pat on the head, not multi-tier contracts.
I’m a trained singer with numerous Broadway and National Tour credits and also a folk music fan. I enjoy many genres, and I want to be clear that it is not the folk/folk-pop genre that I object to, it’s the twee application of their genre where it was neither wanted nor needed. I will listen to James Taylor’s cool, clear voice forever and ever amen but the world I live in never needed a calm Pomplamoose cover of James Brown’s raucous anthem. And if an artist has already established themselves with their own voice, to me, all bets are off. As far as I’m concerned, my faves Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who have recorded as The Swell Season as well as on their own, and starred in the impeccable 2006 folk movie musical Once are free to cover whatever the hell they please since they’ve already provided us with multiple albums of original music.
But when that is your main claim to fame, I have questions. This is a lane that is simply not open to us, and yet it employs music that is uniquely “us.” Of course these groups have covered music by non-black artists as well, but nothing quite makes a splash like when they hip-hop or Beyoncé it up for kicks. Their covers and mashups require genuine skill to pull off and I just wish they applied those skills with a little less theft.
I love the Lonely Island guys more than cooked food and I want to have, like, a thousand of their babies but we can’t deny that they first came onto our radar by rapping about a Lazy Sunday. I get it. The song is funny and it’s ironic that they’re rapping in that style about Google Maps and eating cupcakes. Fine.
But I love rap. UN-ironically. I don’t need the lyrics or the delivery to be subversive plays on whiteness in order to appreciate hip hop on its own merit. I want to hear it done well, not lazily as part of a recording where the non-rap delivery is part of the joke, wink wink. Make your own music. Use your voice. If you can genuinely spit a hot sixteen, whatever race you are, I cordially invite you to come with that hot fiyah. A true musician shouldn’t be perched by the radio waiting to co-opt someone else’s singles for profit. Stake your claim, in your way. And then feel free to go buckwild on that beat, son.