There’s a curious album that’s available for sale in the iTunes Store right now: 100% Top 40: Hottest Hits 2010, credited to the outfit Audio Grooves. Its 40-song tracklist is more “now” than Now; there’s Gaga and Ke$ha, Katy and Justin, Adam and Usher. Or rather, the ideas of such; the album is actually a 40-track covers album, full of rushed-to-press versions of those songs that haven’t even had a chance to slip into recurrent playlists yet. Think “Kidz Bop,” only without the performers getting at least a courtesy of being branded with a catchy name.
Audio Groove has 12 albums on the iTunes Music Store, most of which operate under the same formula — other titles in the series include 100% Top Hits 2009, 100% Smash Hits 2009, and 100% Summer 2010. (It should be noted that this is the lone “100%” compilation to not be advertised on the cover by a scantily clad pair of female breasts, which might speak to the strength of the material within.) The most recent version costs $15.99 and has 40 tracks, all of which charted somewhere. (“Stereo Love,” for example, was origianlly recorded by the Romanian duo of Edward Maya and Vika Jigulina; it reached No. 1 in France and Ireland, and No. 4 in the UK.) Since purchasing all 40 tracks individually would likely cost a U.S. listener somewhere in the 40 to 50 dollar range, getting Audio Groove’s cheap knock-offs is quite the bargain.
Or is it? When people dismiss pop music, the pejoratives employed tend to pass off the genre as something that’s easy to do — “generic,” “copycat,” “one song with a different outfit and personality.” But listening to the versions put forth by Audio Groove on this album reveal both the craft required to create good pop music and the importance of the personae behind the songs, no matter how Katy Perry-level annoying they may be. Even through there are generous dollops of AutoTune smeared all over the circuit boards that created these mimings, they clearly aren’t the real thing; if anything, the mishmash that is 100% Top 40 sounds like a heat-warped VHS dub of the music videos on endless loop at the gym. “Can’t computers make anyone sound like anyone else?” anti-pop purists argue. Well, no, or if there are ones that do, they’re clearly out of Audio Grooves’ price range.
The vocalists — of which there are somewhere between 15 and 20, by my count — blend into not just the songs, but into each other. Say what you will about the Valley Girl wasteoid-bot Ke$ha and the moptopped teen idol Justin Bieber, the way the two of them ooze out of producers’ mixing boards and into listeners’ ears are very different. Yet on 100% Top 40 Hits, the singers are so interchangeable, I had to listen multiple times to make sure that the tracks originally performed by Ke$ha weren’t sung by the same person who warbles the Bieb’s “Baby.” I’m still not entirely sure, a result that is more than a little disconcerting and could probably result in quite the gender-studies paper for an enterprising scholar of pop music. (The Ludacris impersonator introducing himself as “Luda” on the Bieber track did sound like himself, at least, although he did not resemble Chris Bridges in the slightest.)
Is it persona? Is it projection? Would all of this been a non-issue in the pre-video era — or even before the current moment, when people didn’t seem more acquainted with the people behind pop songs than they were with the beats themselves? Perhaps.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the Lady Gaga songs, all of which come from The Fame Monster, in which the seams on these cover versions come apart most noticeably. The keyboards on “Bad Romance” are too loud; the chorus on “Alejandro” is garbled so much, one wonders if the guide track the singer was having piped into her headphones just fuzzed out at that song’s crucial moment. . The Beyoncé stand-in on “Telephone” disappears into the mix — something that Lady B would never let happen to her in real life, although they did get that song’s phone-interference effect exactly correct. (Perhaps the Audio Grooves team has some AT&T customers on its payroll.)
The record that I kept coming to over and over again while listening to these faithful versions was Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True,” which is the biggest-selling album to ever be taken out of print. (Shrink-wrapped copies are currently going for $36.99 on Amazon.) The revelation that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were in fact miming their songs shocked people who had been so impressed by the ability of the two men to fit hours-long braiding sessions and hours-long recording sessions into their days; there were so many stories about their hair flying around when they were on the way up, you could be excused for thinking that those locks were just as crucial to their success as the catchiness of “Girl You Know It’s True.” On Audio Grooves’ quick-and-dirty mass-cover efforts, a similar illusion occurs; only this time it’s the images of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are being used to sell these Canal Street knock-offs of their own tracks, with the producers hoping that they’ll be starry-eyed enough to gloss over the often-glaring differences in their mix.
Above, Audio Grooves’ version of “Bad Romance.” This is the piece I read at last night’s Three-Minute Readings event. It was really fun! Also, three minutes might seem like not a lot of time, but given ever-shrinking word counts everywhere, it’s actually an opportunity to say a lot.
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- rendit said: "MORE VIOLIN"
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- andrewtsks said: This is so bizarre. That it sounds so much like the original at points and so little like it at others is quite disconcerting.
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- choire said: It’s incredibly hard to reproduce electronic sound, oddly, unless you have some base to work with. Although I’m VERY impressed with the faux Gaga, I am actually impressed by the music tracks. (Despite the shortcomings you note.)
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- shorterexcerpts said: Not having the money for talented engineers/mixers shows big-time too. The drums on this one just sound wimpy, but they can tear the cover off old speakers on the original.
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- popularfavorites said: this was brilliant!
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