The “Baby” Project, Part 1: Punk Rock

The song “Baby” by Justin Bieber is, to say the least, polarizing. It elicits shrieks of joy from 14 year-old girls and groans from, well, most other people. Those who fall into the latter camp often say they can’t understand the appeal of this song and its immense popularity. I don’t blame those who have that reaction. On the surface, it’s a crushingly generic pop song, both musically and lyrically. The Ludacris rap interlude comes way, waaaay out of left field. Bieber’s vocal delivery, though competent, is nothing to write home about.

In other words, it’s perfect for Overthinking.

I thought about writing a fairly extensive piece of analysis that looked closely at both the music and lyrics, but I came up with a more interesting way of subjecting this song to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve:

I’m going to cover this song in as many genres as possible.

Starting with punk rock.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “The ‘Baby’ Project.”

[Updated 8/21: By popular demand, MP3 download of the song is now available.]

OK. Now that you’ve survived the sonic one-two-three punch of Justin Bieber, Ludacris, and me doing my best Rancid/Ramones/Green Day impression, let’s explore what’s going on here.

The original “Baby” is a slick, highly produced dance pop song with Autotuned vocals, drum machine beats, and shimmering synthesizers. Part of the idea behind “The ‘Baby’ Project” is to strip these elements away and cast the same musical raw materials (melody, harmony, and rhythm) into a completely new setting to better understand the sonic makeup of the original.

Its harmonic structure in particular lends itself very well to cross-genre export, as it’s brain dead simple: I-vi-IV-V, or for those who aren’t versed in music theory, the same chord progression that powers countless hit pop songs, from “Unchained Melody” to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The song does not deviate from it at all; unlike most other pop songs, there’s no bridge section to keep it from getting too monotonous (the rap accomplishes that function, but we’ll come back to that later). It just plows relentlessly along, those same 4 familiar chords. It’s the complete opposite of something like a Radiohead song which, is about as harmonically adventurous you can get without leaving the realm of “popular music.”

"Blitzkrieg Bieber Bop" should be a song. Someone should get on that. Oh, wait...

This simplicity is one of the main reasons why I chose punk as the first genre in which to recast “Baby.” It’s a genre that’s practically defined by its lack of harmonic complexity. The Ramones famously recycled the same 3 or 4 chords across over a dozen studio albums.

Melody-wise, it’s not quite as natural of a transition, particularly in the chorus, when the high “ooh”s and “noo”s punctuate the lower “baby, baby, baby”s in a way that you’d rarely find in punk. This, to me, is one of the defining charactersics of “Baby” and what makes it stand out enough for it to be a monster hit. It’s actually kind of clever in the way it accents the emotion with the first “ooh,” then pushes it even higher with the second “noo.”

Maybe it’s just my vocal delivery, but I think those high interjections sound out of place in the punk version. I wasn’t going to change it–part of the idea of The “Baby” Project is to stay as close to the original as possible–but if I were trying to just make a good punk song, rather than a faithful punk reinterpretation of this song, then I probably wouldn’t have thought to do such a thing with the melody.

I did, however, choose to leave out one crucial part of the sound: the synth countermelody that you hear in the chorus. Like those high “ooh”s and “noo”s, this part of the music helps push this song from merely competent to notable enough to become a hit. I couldn’t think of a way to translate the exacting precisison of the synth with an instrument that wouldn’t have been out of place in the punk context. If you can think of a way it could have worked, let me know in the comments.

Um, it was the first Google Image Search result for "Justin Bieber Ludacris."

And that brings us to the rap. The utterly bizarre, out of place, and dare I say, ludicrous Ludacris rap interlude. As I mentioned before, it functions as the song’s bridge–a break from the verse-chorus repetition–but thematically, it goes beyond that. Ludacris is here, I suppose, to lend his “edginess” and “cred” to the 15 year old child trying to break into the music business. But he does so by…rapping about playground love among 13 year olds? It’s wrong on so many levels, but like everything else in this song, it gets the job done, and then some. It serves its purpose as the bridge, and its utter weirdness again helps take the song over the top from forgettable to notable, just like the high peaks in the melody and the synth countermelody.

The one thing the original has that the punk version can never have is the obvious connection of the rap lyrics about young love to the young singer and his young target audience (“When I was thirteen”). Divorcing this song and these lyrics from Justin Bieber turns the rap into pure kitsch. The accelerated tempo of the punk version (Ludacris speed?) doesn’t help either.

So is it just kitsch? Or could you possibly imagine an alternate universe in which this song somehow made its way to a pop-punk group instead of Justin Bieber? Or is there something about the artist and his delivery that’s exceptionally well suited to deliver this song and that’s lacking from my punk rendition?

While we discuss both the original’s merits and that of the punk version, I’ll be busy recording Part 2: the Country installment of The “Baby” Project. After that, it’s a bit up in the air, so I’m open for suggestions on additional genres. Let me know in the comments!

29 Comments on “The “Baby” Project, Part 1: Punk Rock”

  1. Brylan #

    As a fellow music nerd, I love this and the idea behind it. Other genre suggestions are folk, 50′s pop, swing (though the meter might be tough to work around), and metal. Looking forward to the next installment.

     
  2. Wordsmith #

    This is incredible. I’m intrigued to see where this goes – and I’d love to see the lament of the loss of young loves transposed into a 20′s torch jazz song, as well as a big-band style swing number (if you approach it right, the rap could even sound like a scat-esque vocalese). Surely you’ve got to try a swelling ballad at some point, too…

    But this is srsly lol awsum. Now where’s the mp3? :P

     
  3. Darin #

    I know nothing of music theory, but I have this irrational, teenage, insane desire for…

    Monster ballad Bieber

     
  4. NawaML #

    Black Metal Bieber? (Maybe the Black Metal Vegan Chef can help!)

     
  5. Ed #

    Monster ballad… Yes. 3 times yes.

     
  6. Neil #

    I know with more time, I’ll find things to overthink regarding this experiment, but I also try to do my best and hold onto my first visceral reactions, because when you’re taking on any pop culture, that has to be taken into account. So, as my first reaction, I’ll just say this.. Dude, Lee. That kicked ass.

     
  7. Blake #

    I like most of the suggestions so far, but don’t think there is a good way to do it as metal. I’ll add to the list screamo and industrial.

     
  8. Timothy J Swann #

    You could do something linked to the Shamantis version of U Smile (a section of which is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QspuCt1FM9M ). Or indeed, I could, I have paulstretch, there’s bound to be a free cover somewhere I could utilise…/will this be copyright covered by parody etc.?

     
  9. Rob #

    Great stuff, Mark. This is really rich territory. Can’t wait to hear the next few.

    I might stay away from doing “Baby” in metal form, if only because Andy Rehfeldt has already done it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bqRpXPy4kM
    But there’s so much to work with in so many other genres – country, bluegrass, swing, old-time jazz / scat, monster ballad, soul; allow me to suggest as a cantata (the rap interlude could be a recitative).

     
  10. Neil #

    Country. I think it’s rife for overthinking as a country song.

     
  11. Gab #

    I agree with others that metal wouldn’t work logistically, perhaps- but it would probably be hilarious.

    Ska. Try a ska version.

    As for this one, that rap solo kind of ruins it- I actually think it could have a chance as a punk rock song without that freakishly out-of-place rap part, and I have a feeling that’s going to get in the way in a number of your iterations of this song. But it’s pretty catchy, and the “oh” and “no”s in the chorus made me think of the Smiths. I think you’re right, they capture some extra emotion that makes the song stand out a bit. So maybe an emo (or screamo) version is necessary, too. Just don’t apologize for bleeding on anybody’s shirts. ;)

     
  12. Patchwork Poltergeist #

    Oh, a blues cover is an absolute must. It’s begging for a slow tempo low-fi grumbling gravely vocal

     
  13. Steven #

    Congratulations Mark, you finally made me listen to “Baby”. This site has already made me listen to bad music, (The Musical Talmud, Rebecca Black’s Friday) but I actually started singing along with the chorus. I absolutely loved it and if I could send you 23.7 minutes of cyber applause I would. To clear this up though, did you get the music online, or did you get it by ear? Did you play all the instruments yourself? (You have a great singing voice!) And how do you define something like Punk, Country, or Metal, or Dance, when you are talking about the same song? I assume you just listened to alot of the genre and picked out similar themes, but how can you translate something like Nirvana (Is that the right genre?) to Justin Bieber? Finally, a Piano Rag would be epic.

     
  14. StevE #

    Go for the Eric Clapton trifecta. Rock blues (original Layla), slow blues (unplugged Layla), reggae (I Shot the Sheriff).

     
  15. Wenyip #

    Ska, or at least something Caribbean, would be great. oh, and Opera. There absolutely has to be Opera.

     
  16. Stu #

    You should do a Medieval trouvere song, like d’Arras’ Ce fut en mai!
    That or a Steve Reich styled minimalist variation.
    You could layer in synths and single beat percussion, while the listener just waits for the piece to develop into something, or be over…kinda like a Bieber tune. (Oh crap, sorry for just comparing Reich to Bieber).
    Also, great job on the Transplants styled rap-esque interlude. The Oohs and Noos fit pretty well, especially the way you sing them.

     
  17. Kenley #

    I think psychedelic might work. It might be really interesting, but METAL must be your priority. It would be hilarious.

     
  18. David #

    Most of these suggestions are very interesting – although a metal/screamo version would be difficult without getting rid of most of the melody. Hilarious, probably, but perhaps not so suitable for the concept.

    My idea would be to revert to the golden age of the pop single: the 50s/60s – roughly speaking, between the period between ‘It’s Alright Mama’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. You have Roy Orbison crooning, Elvis/Little Richard rock ‘n’ roll, British Invasion, the dawn of R’n’B and soul/Motown… The possibilities of classic pop song renditions are virtually endless. I’m personally looking forward most to Orbison and Motown versions, but those – especially the latter! – might be difficult to pull off by yourself within a feasible time-frame, especially with Phil Spector currently unavailable.

    I don’t know, maybe you can invite and friend and go Everly Brothers on the song?

    One final thought: although I’m certainly not a fan of the original, I am the first to admit it’s damn catchy. Hearing that chorus once is to remember it always. Who knows, that might a useful philosophy for a next attempt.

     
  19. Lee #

    Thanks for all of the responses and suggestions!

    Country is definitely next (it’s practically done). After that, it’s wide open. I do like the idea of the Phil Spector wall-of-sound version; it’ll take a while but could be totally worth it. Timpani, strings, lots of backup vocals. I can hear it now.

    I’m surprised no one has suggested indie rock a la Arcade Fire.

    I’m also thinking about discarding the rap for some versions. There’s plenty of comedic value in this punk version (and yes, in the country version), but that’s kind of distracting from the point of this exercise, which is to evaluate the song “Baby” as a musical piece without the biases a lot of people have against the artists and its status as a disposable teen pop song.

     
  20. KT #

    Metal. OR, a Tori Amos style slow piano playing dramatic reinterpretation. Think of Tori’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Or, once I heard Will Smith do a spoken word dramatic reading of the the song “Mmmm Bop” by The Hansons and it was amazing (and did actually bring out lots of aspects to the lyrics that I’d never paid attention to before). I want to see you do that to this song.

     
  21. lex #

    I will shamelessly admit I’ve had the original baby on loop for the past 30 mins now bc of your post.

    excited for country. heartily support monster ballad, r&b motown and opera. perhaps, the strong insinuations by the rap treatment of the bridge can be shed by reading as spoken lyrics which is often done across genres, espcially r&b.

     
  22. Shana Mlawski #

    Your mention of Radiohead in the article makes me wonder: could you do the song as a Radiohead ditty? It would probably require you alter the melody (from major to minor) and the rhythm (to 7/8s timing or something else ridiculous). I guess it wouldn’t really be recognizable after that… or would it?

    I also like your suggestion of an indie version. How would you make this song into something the Pitchfork crowd would unironically enjoy? You wouldn’t have to go the Arcade Fire-arena rock route, though. There are plenty of other subgenres you can choose from: electronic pop, indie folk, chillwave, whatever they’re calling that stripped down depressing R&B music the hipster children are enjoying these days…

     
  23. Darin #

    I was wondering about “Santeria” by Sublime ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrLJ6Saq7u4 ). I’m not sure if that would be dub or dance hall or funk or what, but, for whatever reason, I think “Baby” would go well. Maybe one is about teenage love and the other is about ex-girlfriend. Maybe, it’s the simplicity of the beats, dunno.

    Anyone agree/disagree?

     
  24. Sean #

    80s Hair Metal.
    Picture Baby as though it were sung by Axl Rose or Dee Snider.
    The I-VI-IV-V chord progression was rife in hair metal – and the high pitched ooh’s and noo’s would suit the Axl Rose style perfectly.

     
  25. Rooks #

    This is delightful. I scanned the comments, so I’m not absolutely certain that no one else has mentioned it, but the El-P remix of “Baby” was mindblowing, to say the least, though I’m as yet unsure that it was in that good way. (Beiber-approved, which is intriguing given the following quote from El-P: “im gonna be honest, i was a little surprised at the amount of profanity @justinbieber had me include in this remix, but hey its his shit.”) It seems worth a mention in Overthinking “Baby,” anyway.

    http://www.prefixmag.com/media/justin-bieber/baby-el-p-death-mix/41946/