I always say the best sign of a good song is that it translates well to other mediums. A radio hit can use all the autotune and layered riffs in the world, but if someone was strumming it on an acoustic guitar or humming it on a street-corner, would it still be compelling?
To me that’s the difference between good pop music and disposable songs, as I alluded to in my recent Gaga post. Gaga tunes sound great from a hard rock band or on an acoustic piano. You could make an 8-bit video game version and they’d still be indelible. By contrast, with most newer Britney tunes you have to do some heavy lifting to make them work.
Most of Sara Bareilles’ repertoire passes the translation test. Certainly “Love Song” does, with it’s staff-spanning melodic leaps, but perhaps not as well as the hyper-pop single “King of Anything.” I was hooked on within twenty seconds of bro playing the video for me last fall.
Sam Tsui isn’t a new phenomenon, and neither is his cover. Tsui, from just outside Philly(!), is one of the biggest stars of YouTube. He has an unbelievably golden counter-tenor to rival Glee’s Chris Colfer, and he’s been all over the web and on television – even on Oprah! Meanwhile, this video is nearly a year old, and has five million views.
I’ve seen it dozens of times already, but I keep coming back to it for a few reasons.
1. Sara Bareilles was a show-choir singer in college, and I think it shows in how easily her songs translate to acapella. She writes for multiple voices. That doesn’t necessarily mean she writes with a choir in mind, but her arrangements are never just a melody sitting atop chords. “King” has a melody that’s totally distinct from its instrumental riff (itself made up of multiple component voices), plus an independent staccato rhythm section beneath.
2. Tsui and Schneider take full advantage of the distinct voices in the song by making the visually distinct in the video. Unlike their breakthrough “Don’t Stop Believin’,” here they add and subtract singing Sams as needed to exemplify the arrangement.
3. This video is the face of the viral era – performance chops combined with technology and production values. Yes, someone playing earnestly in their room can be compelling, but Tsui’s fanciful video version has over 50% of the hits of the official music video! Bedroom artists have to not only be good, but also increasingly imaginative if they want to find a wider audience on the web.
4. Tsui didn’t simply release the tune – he monetized it. From the moment of release there has been a link to a YouTube single. An ad plays before the video. The video ends with options for more videos hard-coded with links rather than the typical YouTube “you may also like” options. Even though Tsui has to pay back Bareilles on mechanical licensing, he can still profit from the experience.
Do I think about that every time I hear “King of Anything” from Sam or Sara? Nope. I usually just groove on the incredible song. But the fact that the layers exist proves not only that the song translates, but that Sam Tsui does as well.