Chances are, if you’ve been on YouTube in the last couple of years, then you’re familiar with the everything-new-is-old-again brilliance of the viral phenomenon known as Postmodern Jukebox. A revolving and ever-evolving collective of dizzyingly talented musicians and vocalists who convene weekly in producer/arranger Scott Bradlee’s modest living room to perform genius jazz remakes of modern-day hits, PMJ has exploded into a full-fledged phenomenon – with sold-out international concert tours and more than 200 million YouTube views and 1 million subscribers.
“The kind of music I liked as a kid wasn’t cool, so we had to go and make it cool,” says Bradlee, who fell in love with jazz as a child after hearing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”; was the only jazz fan at his school in New Jersey; and used to perform ragtime covers of Sublime and Tupac songs to impress his friends. “I figured, let’s make these older styles of music cool again – and make creativity cool.”
YouTube was the perfect showcase for Bradlee and his creative comrades, since, he explains, “This is a project that no record label would have taken a chance on five years ago. But we found that there are so many people out there who just want to hear real musicians doing real songs and giving great performances. It doesn’t matter if there are no tricky camera effects or anything like that. Our method has always been very simple, just playing music.
"The beauty of YouTube is you can have something that initially has a niche audience and it can turn into a pop phenomenon, whether it’s Pentatonix or Lindsey Stirling. There’s no machine, no industry you have to satisfy. You’re going directly to the fans, and that’s what keeps me on that platform.”
Like fellow YouTube sensations Pentatonix, who got their start as the winners of The Sing-Off Season 3, and Stirling, who was a semifinalist on America’s Got Talent, Postmodern Jukebox has ties to reality television. Two of the group’s regulars are American Idol Season 10 fan favorites Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams; Idol runner-up Blake Lewis recently worked his beatboxing magic on PMJ’s cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive”; and Blake’s Season 6 castmate Brandon Rogers just lent his doo-wop vocals to PMJ’s most recent video, the Titanic theme remake seen above.
“All of them have very jazzy sensibilities already and this retro thing. Haley has this combination of Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, a really unique style. Casey is awesome, just a force of nature. You just put a camera on him and he creates awesome stuff,” raves Bradlee.
However, Bradlee admits he’s no fan of TV talent shows like Idol and The Voice.
“Really the only good thing about those kinds of competitions is they can introduce talent to America, and there are so many awesome performers such as Casey and Haley and Blake. I think it’s valuable to do those shows just for exposure, but I think the worst thing that can happen to you is you win one of those shows, because you’re going to give away all your freedom,” he warns. “And I realize that nowadays, you don’t really need to give up all that. You don’t need to sign a restrictive contract to get exposure. It’s just not necessary. What those shows provide for an artist isn’t worth what you’re required to give up.”
Perhaps Bradlee’s disdain has something to do with those shows using his arrangements, he claims, without proper credit. While last season’s Voice contestant Kimberly Nichole, who performed a version of Radiohead’s “Creep” that sounded suspiciously similar to Reinhart and PMJ’s recent version, later tweeted that PMJ was her inspiration, other shows and contestants haven’t been quite as transparent, Bradlee gripes.
“It happened on The Voice U.K., when they directly ripped off our version of Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ and took the same horn lines,” Bradlee says. “Dancing With the Stars did a version of Jason Derulo’s 'Wiggle’ where they actually took our arrangement and just recorded it with a different singer so they wouldn’t have to clear it. I just thought that was kind of lazy. Why don’t they call me and have me do it? I’d be happy to put together something for those shows.”
One reality contestant that actually helped the PMJ cause, however, was Joey Cook from American Idol Season 12, who did her own PMJ-inspired rendition of “Fancy” this year and praised PMJ during her backstage interview with Ryan Seacrest.
“Joey was actually the first one to give us credit; she was responsible for our first prime-time television shoutout,” says Bradlee. “That was such a flattering thing, and even kind of unnecessary, because her arrangement of 'Fancy’ was much different from ours. But it shows what an awesome person she is, along with being an awesome talent. She’s going to be somebody to watch, somebody big. We are going to be working together, and who knows what will happen.”
Cook isn’t the only singer giving Postmodern Jukebox shoutouts these days. Beyoncé shared the group’s video of “Drunk in Love” on social media; the Backstreet Boys shared PMJ’s “I Want It That Way”; Meghan Trainor shared “All About That Bass”; and Lorde even went on the record saying her all-time favorite cover of “Royals” is the one by PMJ and another underground viral sensation, Puddles the Clown.
Bradlee optimistically says he’s “still waiting for one of the original artists to make a cameo in one of our videos,” but the way things are going for PMJ right now, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Lorde or Beyoncé ended up in his living room one day.