Asked what appealed to him about the popular music of the 1920s, ragtime especially, he says, “I could play it fast and loud. It was brash. And it had contempt for rules, which really appealed to me.”
Bradlee began his career as a jazz pianist during high school with a standing gig at a local eatery; he began his career as a pop-cultural provocateur during high school with a “this might be cool” ragtime medley of classic rock songs. “Not much has changed,” he says of the lyrical content of pop music. “In the 1920s, in the ’60s and ’70s, today – it’s still about love and drinking and dancing.”
He pursued Jazz Studies at the University of Hartford, then moved to New York to become a starving artist. He booked gigs, but as he puts it, “Jazz pianists are a dime a dozen in New York City.” So he moved to Astoria to save on rent and, in 2009, started making videos. “There was this niche on YouTube where people were doing experimental, interesting, funny things with music,” he notes. “It was another way to reach an audience.”
Bradlee’s first video was straight-up jazz. He didn’t have much footage of himself, however, so he decided to try a video experiment of his own: a ragtime medley of ’80s pop. He managed to amass 100 views. But through one of those viewers, Neil Gaiman discovered him. The author tweeted Bradlee’s flying fingers to his millions-strong Twitter following. Within a week, Bradlee reports, “more people had seen that video than had seen me play live my entire life.”
Things went viral from there, affording Bradlee and the coalescing Postmodern Jukebox a receptive online crowd. Among Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox’s subsequent hits are a New Orleans-flavored take on Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” – 3+ million views; the “grandpa-style” reiteration of “Thrift Shop” – 6 million views; and “We Can’t Stop” – 10.5 million views. Media coverage, including the likes of “Good Morning America” and NPR, ensued.
How does he come up with this stuff? “A lot of pop songs are constructed of elements that lend themselves to a certain feel,” he points out. “The simple progression of the bass line in ‘Blurred Lines,’ for instance, reminded me of bluegrass. ‘Sweet Child’ sounds like an old blues song – the structure, the way the chorus repeats ...” With Cyrus, it was more an instance of tongue-in-cheeky cultural criticism: “She’d gained all that notoriety from her 2013 VMA appearance. I had to recast her song for the ’50s, which everyone thinks of as this squeaky-clean era.”
Then there were the gifts from the pop-music gods, like Meghan Trainor’s #1 hit “All About That Bass.” Bradlee knew a musician-singer named Kate Davis. “I’d wanted to do something with Kate for a while,” he reveals, “but I was waiting for the right song to come along.” Check the PMJ video for “All About That Bass” and you’ll find Davis singing – and playing stand-up bass. If you do click there, you’ll be in good company: 5.4 million views and counting.