Every few years a musical trend comes along that taps in to the public’s appetite for the sounds of the past, but with a difference. Punks reinvented rockabilly, house music resurrected disco, and rappers put new bounce into the beats they sampled from old jazz and funk 45s. Into this time-traveling arena steps Postmodern Jukebox, or PMJ as they are more commonly known, a rotating cast of singers and musicians helmed by pianist/arranger Scott Bradlee.
Beginning in 2011, PMJ began posting videos on YouTube that rework contemporary hits in different vintage musical genres. In just a few short years, and operating out of Bradlee’s living room studio, PMJ has earned astonishing success, with more than 500 million views and more than 2 million subscribers to their YouTube channel. By covering the hits of Katy Perry, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Meghan Trainor, and many, many other stars of today, PMJ has given these new songs a second life while at the same time developing a passionate fan base for old time musical styles and the artists who perform them. Star singers from the PMJ roster include Robyn Adele Anderson, Kate Davis, Shoshana Bean, Morgan James, Sara Niemietz, and Von Smith.
In addition to keeping their YouTube channel up to date with weekly premieres, PMJ has hit the road with a concert tour that’s modeled on old-fashioned variety revues, complete with a big band, an MC, backup singers, and dancers. That’s what’s coming to the Arlington on Valentine’s Day thanks to UCSB’s Arts and Lectures, and anticipation among the PMJ faithful is running high for that night. I spoke with PMJ founder Scott Bradlee last week, and he had lots to say about how he got started creating and performing these witty arrangements.
I’m impressed with how often you produce these segments. It looks like for several years you have been averaging one a week. How do you do it? It’s a little different from how things work for a normal band. For a traditional record label, it often takes up to six months from when the recording is finished until the music is released. With YouTube as our distribution channel, we can record something and release it the next day.
What got you started making these unusual arrangements?
As a kid playing piano, I discovered jazz and that pitted me against my friends, who were listening to pop. As a way to push back I started taking their favorite songs and adapting them to the styles of music that I was into. Mostly at first I was doing it to make them laugh, but overtime, I began to see the potential that was there for something more.
How did you go from entertaining your friends to starting Postmodern Jukebox?
It became PMJ when I developed this group of other performers who would come in and work with me to make the YouTube videos. Then I started hearing from the people who were watching them, and I discovered that there was this whole online community of people who were into it.
Do you like the pop songs that you arrange? Do you respect them as music?
I feel that if a song has the ability to reach millions of people, which is what all these pop songs that I work on have in common, then that means that the song has done its job, and I do respect that very much. Appreciating pop music comes from understanding its function.
Are you mocking the music when you change it around in this way?
No, I don’t think so. Of course there’s a lot of unintentional irony that just happens when you take something familiar and then put it into a radically different context, but what we are doing is not satire. We’re not putting the music down in our versions.
PMJ has become a very big draw as a live act. What are the audiences like?
The demographic that we attract to our shows is quite wide. Some nights there are literally three generations that come out to see us perform, and each will take away something different from the show. One of the more surprising things that has developed is how much people love to dress up for these shows. They really get into creating these retro outfits. It’s become a kind of special occasion for people.
How would you describe the show?
It’s what I imagine a Rat Pack party variety show would be like. Five or six singers, dancers, an emcee, and numbers that recall styles from the 1920s all the way through the 1960s, and the audience in their vintage clothing makes the whole thing that much more festive.