SALT LAKE CITY — Although commercially successful, Nickelback is the group many music fans love to hate. The Canadian rock band holds the unusual position of being extremely popular and extremely criticized simultaneously, and for years, critics have decried Nickelback as one of the worst bands in the music industry.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Nickelback was slated to perform at the annual Detroit Lions’ Thanksgiving Day game in 2011, the home of Motown was outraged. Football fans and city residents protested the musical selection, and a petition with more than 50,000 signatures fought for a Motown-oriented act to replace Nickelback’s scheduled show.
Despite the protests, Nickelback took the stage that Thanksgiving Day. But Scott Bradlee will always have some gratitude for that unpopular performance, as it prompted the pianist to create and arrange “A Motown Tribute to Nickelback” and gave him his first taste of viral success.
Bradlee, a native of New York, took one of Nickelback’s biggest hits,“How You Remind Me,” and transformed the angsty, hard rock song into a lighthearted piece with a Motown vibe featuring, among other instruments, a soulful voice and a contagiously gleeful tambourine player.
Although Bradlee had been reinventing songs for some time, it was this Nickelback-turned-Motown video that started earning him notice, and a year later, the pianist had produced an entire album of Motown-themed Nickelback songs.
Today, Bradlee’s imaginative musical interpretations cover much more than Nickelback. Under the name of Postmodern Jukebox, which now has more than 3 million subscribers on YouTube, Bradlee works with a variety of singers and instrumentalists to provide what PMJ singer Robyn Adele Anderson calls a “makeover” of popular, contemporary music. That makeover visits Salt Lake City's The Depot on April 11.
“(Bradlee) can literally make an arrangement within seconds,” she told the Deseret News. ”I think a lot of people when they first see these videos or hear these songs, I think they’re really intrigued by the transformation aspect. Everyone loves a good makeover … and I think people just haven't heard any of these songs covered the way we do.”
And when Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” suddenly sounds as if it were written in the 1920s and “Sweet Child O' Mine” by Guns and Roses as if it came from the jazzy heart of New Orleans, Anderson’s statement doesn’t seem far off.
Anderson met Bradlee in New York City near the end of 2011, around the time the pianist's Motown tribute to Nickelback first kicked off. Bradlee was performing as part of the popular on-site theatrical experience “Sleep No More” in New York City, taking requests from the audience and mashing songs together and playing them as ragtime.
“I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Anderson recalled.
At the time Anderson, who had recently graduated after studying political science and Arabic, had a five-year plan that involved possibly going to graduate school and starting work for the U.N. — her dream job.
But that plan began to gradually shift when she introduced herself to Bradlee, and the pair quickly became friends and started performing karaoke together.
“(Growing up), I always loved music and loved singing, and I was always in choir,” Anderson said. “But I would audition for the musicals and not get in. I always felt like I had this desire to sing in front of people and have them hear me, but I don’t think I had the confidence at the time. Doing karaoke once in a while — that was my performing outlet.”
But when she and Bradlee did an impromptu performance of rapper Macklemore’s song “Thrift Shop” — making up their own melody and music since they weren’t all that familiar with the song — Bradlee thought “Thrift Shop” had potential for an old-timey musical makeover.
“I didn’t have any idea what I was doing or what I was about to get myself into, but we set up a camera in his living room and we did ‘Thrift Shop’ and he made it sound like 1920s ragtime,” she said. “And it literally went viral overnight.”
The video, which Postmodern Jukebox released in 2013, became the group’s first video to get a million views — a feat that happened in matter of a few days.
“Before we knew it, a little over a year after that first video, we were doing our first tour,” Anderson said. “The magic of the internet is really what it boils down to, but we found this formula, this niche concept that no one else was really doing. … It was really cool taking these songs that I already knew and loved but performing them in a completely different way that I didn’t even know I liked.”
Which brings things back to Nickelback. Like the love 'em or hate 'em rock band, Postmodern Jukebox is able to simultaneously occupy two contrasting positions: appealing to older generations with its nostalgic musical styles and attracting younger generations with its emphasis on contemporary music.
“There’s really something for everyone,” Anderson said. “It’s really cool having been a part of it since the very beginning and seeing the progress that’s been made and all the new singers that (have) come in. … It’s still kind of surreal for me to be a part of all this.”
If you go …
What: Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox
When: Wednesday, April 11, 7 p.m.
Where: The Depot, 400 W. South Temple
How much: $27 in advance; $32 the day of show