Why I hope Karmin's "Acapella" flops



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.

Us "haters"—a term I'll wear proudly in this situation—have probably been anticipating the pair's major-label debut, Pulses, even more than their actual fans. It's one thing to smirk your way through chart-topping hits, but it's something else entirely to come up with original material that can compete against them. The schadenfreude potential is far, far off the charts.

The pair and their label, Epic, appear to be hedging the bets they've placed on this album in a big way. According to a Wikipedia page that's so packed with banal details that I'm willing to trust it's being vigorously patrolled by hard-core Karmin fans, the extremely long (even for a pop album) list of collaborators working on it includes producers Tricky Stewart ("Umbrella"), Hit-Boy ("Niggas in Paris"), and J.R. Rotem (Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls"), songwriters Bonnie McKee (a bunch of Katy Perry stuff), the Stargate (tons of recent hits), and the legendary Diane Warren, and a total of 30 assorted ringers. Karmin and Epic aren't taking any chances.

The new album's first single, "Acapella," rose this week to number 72 on the Hot 100 after entering at 98 the week before. To the haters' relief, despite all the talent they brought in it's a straight-up mess.

The beat's a bland rehash of Timbaland's production on the first Justin Timberlake album, which was recorded more than a decade ago, littered with the flickering triplet hi-hats that sound newer but no less cliched after several years of excessive use by hip-hop and R&B producers. The vocal part's a pastiche of bits lifted from songs by Rihanna, Fergie, and Nicki Minaj, and the melody's slight enough to be easily forgotten. The lyrics aim for cleverness but land in the groan-inducing territory of "Thought he was gluten-free / but all that I got was bread." It's hard to tell if this is actually an honest attempt at a pop hit or a parody of the form. Actually, it's probably both, a real grab for chart success swaddled in enough irony to keep their middlebrow fan base winking along.

The dramatic irony here is rich and delicious. If this is the strongest cut on the album, Pulses is going to flop because it doesn't reach the same people who made "Look at Me Now" a hit, the lowbrow pop audience that's a lot harder to win over than most snobs think. The only thing that could make this situation better is if a couple of musicians record their own insufferably smirking cover of "Acapella" and post it to YouTube and it becomes a massive viral hit.

Miles Raymer writes about what's on the charts on Tuesday.

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