The pop group Karmin, a duo consisting of multi-instrumentalist Nick Noonan and vocalist Amy Heidemann, started releasing music in 2010 but didn’t break until the following year, and it wasn’t on the strength of original material. Rather they got popular off a series of cover songs that they posted to YouTube: hit rap and R&B singles rendered with a jazzy, theatrical flair and an unmistakable wink. Hundreds of millions of plays would follow, as well as a spot on Ellen and a major-label contract.
Inherent in any cover song is the implication that the artist doing the covering is improving on the original in some way. Otherwise there’s really no point. This is why covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are so rare—the original performance perfectly nails what the song’s all about, so the idea of doing it better than Nirvana did it seems silly. (And deconstruction will only get you so far.)
The “improvements” that Heidemann and Noonan made to songs like Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes, and Lil Wayne’s “Look at Me Now” consisted primarily of performing minimalist versions of them, infused with the palpable sense of condescension with which music-school-educated performers often handle pop music (both are alumni of Boston’s esteemed Berklee School of Music), and by replacing the black male performers on the original versions with a white girl who projects a retro theatricality that may as well be the opposite of hip-hop aesthetics. It’s a shallow joke built on retrograde ideas about race, gender, and class, not to mention middlebrow snobbery, but it proved massively popular. Although critics and fans of the actual original songs contributed to Karmin’s YouTube counts via hate viewing, we were firmly in the minority.