The internet is changing, and it is not doing so in favor of anything that is soft or weird or unprofitable. Vine is dead. SoundCloud is dying. Tumblr has been in crisis for years and is now owned by Verizon. YouTube, once a wonderland where it was easy and fun to find something bizarre to watch and share and love, has morphed over 10 years into a glorified ad platform with a homepage that favors music videos, movie trailers, and vloggers with professional setups and millions of subscribers.
But one good, soft, weird thing remains. And while it literally goes gentle into that good night, it won't figuratively go gentle into that good night. That’s the acoustic song cover recorded in an ugly bedroom. As long as YouTube has existed, this has been a signature format. Most of the videos are recorded from an angle that implies the use of a built-in webcam. Most of the bedrooms are beige, with the minutiae of the parts of life that are spent indoors lingering around the frame. Most of the singers wear T-shirts and don’t bother to push piles of laundry and crumpled comforters out of the background.
In 2014, writer Paul Ford used amateur production YouTube videos to define “The American Room,” crediting this video style with a unique and useful window into the homes of the 100 million people who live in the nation’s suburbs. He wrote, “All of their frolic is bounded by a set of conventions that are essentially invisible yet define our national physical and technological architecture. Their dancing, talking bodies are the only non-standardized things in the videos.”
Non-standardized singing heads are comforting to me for two reasons. For one, they are acting out, as Ford argued, against the blandness of their surroundings. Almost any bedroom is just as stupid-looking as all of these, and it’s nice to consider yourself the only interesting thing in yours. More importantly, a video that takes place only in a bedroom, oriented solely around the quiet performance of a piece of music, doesn’t suggest anything of a world outside itself. Other than, by way of volume, the likely desire to go unheard by parents or siblings.
The outside world is coming for the rest of YouTube — with political scandals rocking its biggest communities, enormous personalities demanding their own tabloid coverage, and brands trying to figure out if there are non-risky ways to make some money on one of the web’s biggest platforms. But here, we’re just hanging out. We’re all fine. We just have a few minutes of free time.
You can find a nice bedroom cover version of essentially anything, making a song you’ve heard too many times fresh again with a new arrangement and a new voice with interesting flaws and vulnerable presentation. This is the only thing that I like at the end of a long, bad week online.
This young woman does a few nervous duck faces while she’s performing a relaxing ukulele cover of the best song of 2016. Her video was posted in October of last year, a full two months after Frank Ocean’s Blonde was released. I bet, for a lot of people, it was just the right moment for a cover that reminded them of the original that they had played 3,000 times, but also sounded a little different.
What a useful service, and it’s for free.
One of the best subgenres of acoustic bedroom covers is “teenagers covering The Strokes,” because there is just something really sweet about people who were babies when The Strokes were popular finding this song many years later and feeling a rush of discovery. I’ve watched at least a dozen covers of “Is This It” in particular and it’s beautiful that every single person uses the first “we’re not enemies” in the chorus to show off their chops. It’s an aspiring disaffected-cool-kid move to pick out a Strokes song, but the sincere kid peeks out from behind the curtain on that line seemingly every time.
The “stuff” in this video is worth noting, too. The hand-painted Snoopy poster, the cheap-looking candles, the bookshelf with what looks like some summer reading assignments — thank you for letting me into your life a little bit!
Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” is a rock song, with a melodramatic, roaring guitar line. But it’s important that a version like the above cover exists. In the original, “I think I’ll regret this” is a throwaway line that you can easily just not even hear, but this woman pulls it out into a new emotional centerpiece of the song. I can see her Beyoncé poster and her laundry hamper while she’s breaking my heart, which is, I think, a fair exchange.
And she messes up a little at the 1:20 mark. Cover artists, maybe afraid that they won’t have the guts to start again if they have to stop, often make mistakes and keep going. This is anti-“content.” It hasn’t been scrubbed of its flinches or missed beats and edited to perfection. It’s a little bad, and I like that better.
With each new platform and software update, it feels harder and harder to come by authenticity online. But for all YouTube’s flaws, and all of its aggressive moves to turn teens into stars (and advertising commodities), the site still freely hosts young people with nothing more than a room, a guitar, a voice, and a little gumption.
It’s wild that finding them is still as easy as typing the name of any song you’ve ever liked into the YouTube search bar and then scrolling. If anything ever messes with this feature of the internet then forget it.