May 23, 2011


New Skeleton, Old Flesh

Nobody seems to know who the mad YouTube genius behind Bad Lip Reading could be, but whoever it is has invented a new way to write a song. BLR first came to prominence with "Gang Fight," a riff on Rebecca Black's inescapable quasi-hit "Friday" that kept its video intact but constructed an entirely new song around what Black appeared to be singing--a different tune, a different arrangement, and a totally inverted if wildly incoherent sentiment. ("The gang is down to fight, yeah!/Have I brought this chicken for us to thaw?")

Since then, BLR has dropped another couple of gems, constructed the same way. "Black Umbrella (The Right Stuff)" turns Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A." into an anthem for getting baked around a bonfire (part of the chorus comes out as "I'm'a get dumb and bang a wizard"), and throws in a verse by the rather un-Miley-ish Snoop Dogg.

And now we've got her (or his, or their) masterpiece to date: "Magic Man," no relation to the Heart song. (Note: even if you know the Heart song already, do click on that link for an amazing 8-minute TV performance that makes it clear that they really, really wanted to be Led Zeppelin, and also that bassist Steve Fossen had fashion sense that was outré even by 1976 standards.) It starts out as a bad-lip-reading version of Ludacris's inescapable hit from last year, "My Chick Bad," and a pretty funny one at that--it seems to have some kind of Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings concept going on, the vocalist sounds a lot like Luda might if he sang, and it manages to integrate Ludacris's body language into the joke. (The thumb-and-fingers gesture of "fool, pipe down, you ain't talkin' 'bout sh--" in the original gets mapped onto the adorable "little white mouses crawl in my bed" in BLR's version.)

Then, a minute into the song, it takes a turn for the very weird.

"Aww naw, look out y'all, it's the Bee Gees!" the fake Luda declares, and indeed, there they are, on one of the monitors from the original video, with a singer who's doing a pretty dead-on Barry Gibb impression. It's such a natural transition in the context of "Magic Man" that it's easy to wonder for a moment if they really are on Ludacris's track. (They're not: Maurice Gibb died in 2003, and Barry and Robin Gibb have only performed a couple of times since then.) Only then does the significant absence from "Magic Man" become evident: Bad Lip Reading has edited out Nicki Minaj's verse of "My Chick Bad." Who knows why? Maybe it's that it would be impossible for a rewrite to be funnier than Minaj's own words.

The open question, then, is what Bee Gees video BLR is working from, and the answer is a rather unexpected one: not one of their uptempo disco or post-disco hits, but "Too Much Heaven," a lush ballad (featuring Chicago's horn section) with richly layered vocals that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the first week of 1979, and has since been all but forgotten.

It's got a completely different groove from "Magic Man"'s, but of course that doesn't matter: it's cut to the beat in exactly the same way that the "My Chick Bad" video is, which has to make it easier to synch up to lyrics like "I'm a magic man, got a magic goose."

What BLR's doing is essentially a variation on a couple of old comedy tricks: creating visuals that deliberately misinterpret what a song sounds like, as with the misheard version of Joe Cocker's Woodstock performance of "With a Little Help From My Friends," or rewriting a song's lyrics to describe what happens in the video, as with the "literal version" of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels." But it's cleverer than either of those techniques, because it actually creates a new song—and if all of their songs are as catchy as "Magic Man" and "Gang Fight," they may not need to keep making them funny to get them across.