How Scott Bradlee Is Reinventing Pop Music

The musician reimagines today's hits in the style of eras past.
How Scott Bradlee Is Reinventing Pop Music
Photograph courtesy of the Birchmere.

Even casual listeners enjoy complaining that today’s pop is repetitive. Turn on the radio and it can be easy to confuse one artist for another, this week’s hit for one from two months ago. Helping combat that aural fatigue is Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox, a rotating cast of musicians led by New York performer Bradlee who are reinventing the pop wheel one song at a time.

The band, which plays the Birchmere January 19, has become famous for its YouTube channel featuring Top 40 songs recast in various historical styles—a ragtime “Call Me Maybe,” “No Diggity” as sultry jazz. (A doo-wop cover of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” has garnered more than 11 million page views.) “It’s about finding contrasts,” Bradlee says of deciding which tune to take on and what the sound will be. “By changing the genre, we change the meaning or the context of the song.”

The concept brings to mind “Weird Al” Yankovic, though Postmodern Jukebox’s songs aren’t parodies but playful homages. Bradlee filmed many of the videos, which feature performers dressed to match the era and musical style they emulate, in his Queens apartment using a fixed camera on a tripod—until noise complaints got him kicked out, inspiring him to name the band’s current gigs the Eviction Tour.

The relatively low-cost setup allows for a quick turnaround so the group can stay current with what’s on the radio. Bradlee cites another benefit: “The honesty of such a method draws people in—we’re doing everything live, not dubbed videos.” So far, they’ve turned their songs into four albums, including the aptly named Historical Misappropriation, released in September.

As for the critique that all modern music sounds alike, Bradlee says it’s not new: “You can recognize a ’50s song or a ’40s song because there are elements evocative of the specific era. In a sense, you can look at any musical period and see how it reflects the culture.” That’s certainly true of Postmodern Jukebox’s live act, which incorporates dancers and a theatrical element—or as Bradlee puts it, “The Lawrence Welk Show with more twerking.”

Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox play the Birchmere’s Flex Stage January 19. Tickets ($25) are available online.

This article appeared in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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