loopification (n) | \lü-pə-fə-ˈkā-shən, lyü-\
Origin: Middle English loupe; portmanteau coined by Swedish band Dirty Loops.
1: the transformation of a smash pop single by way of slick jazzy chord progressions, crisp arrangement, and tasteful solo.
Formed in 2008 at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Dirty Loops rose to YouTube prominence on the merits of their loopification of songs like Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ and Britney Spears’s ‘Circus.’ It is the preternatural musical ability of vocalist/pianist Jonah Nilsson, bassist Henrik Linder, and drummer Aron Mellergardh that makes their covers possible. Watching them retool pop songs is like watching a wizard mechanic retool a 1992 Geo Prizm to make it look and run like a 2021 Lamborghini Aventador. Dirty Loops covers boggle the mind, but the loopification formula is in fact simple. I wrote about it two years ago:
In modal jazz, there is one chord rather than a series of chords. Modal jazz is stripped down such that it provides a base over which an improviser can superimpose an unlimited amount of harmonic substitutions. The one chord doesn’t change, so there is incentive for one to expand beyond its basic prescriptions and create a sense of forward harmonic movement as a series of chords might. It is open-ended music. What Dirty Loops realized is that superimposing new chords over the simple melodies and lyrics of songs like Baby is relatively easy. Most of the melodic phrases in ‘Baby’ use three or less notes. But it’s not like they are moralizing kitschy pop songs by making it high art —- they synthesize jazz, funk, pop, and rock in equal parts, so that ‘Baby’ retains its fundamental catchiness while being elevated to new levels of sophistication.
Dirty Loops released their debut album Loopified in the United States on August 19th. Loopified presents a different sort of challenge from covering pop songs: writing all-original material. As adversity reveals character, Loopified demonstrates Dirty Loops’ musical principles. To what extent do they want to be perceived “just” as a pop band? To what extent do they merely play with pop to disclose and embellish the band’s deeper and more serious jazz proclivities?
Jazz is a distinct idiom with its own mythology and vocabulary that also informs and relates to nearly every form of music that came about in the 20th century. Its elements can be easily fused with funk, R&B, rock, hip-hop, and electronic music. In 2014, jazz is probably furthest away FROM – and maybe even diametrically opposed TO – pop. Thus jazz, when blended with pop, poses a quandary. Because jazz always emerges from that commitment to the “idea” of jazz, both the integrity of its history and its impulse to experiment and evolve. When it comes to Dirty Loops — does the pop component cheapen the jazz component? Does the jazz component redeem the pop component? Can the two components coexist?
Stevie Wonder, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, George Benson, J Dilla. For decades musicians have sought to crossover and uphold the jazz tradition in more popular forms of music. And vice versa; for example, the avant-garde jazz trio The Bad Plus covered ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on their 2003 album These Are the Vistas. But even then The Bad Plus reach back in time through a somewhat nostalgic mist to reinvent the greatest rock song of its era, whereas Dirty Loops tends to spring for freshly released pop songs, the more banal the better.
There has never been a band quite like Dirty Loops, whose impulse is to simultaneously reach for both extremes of the musical spectrum, to couch bald-faced pop music in obscure jazz harmonies. It is reductive to talk about Dirty Loops in terms of jazz and pop, because they draw on other genres as well, but playing jazz and pop off one other is at the core of what loopification is about. While Dirty Loops subverts the pop nature of the songs they cover on YouTube, it is the very banality of those songs that accounts for both Dirty Loops’ internet success and the perceived quality of their covers – the distance accrued between original and end product.
Dirty Loops’ approach to writing original material for Loopified is similar to their approach to YouTube covers. Linder describes the songwriting process in an interview: “We want to write simple pop songs from the beginning and then mess with them our way afterward. We want to write a melody that’s catchy… we don’t start with the fancy chords, we put those in last.” Basically, they are loopifying themselves. They are both the original and end product.
Self-loopification is most apparent on Loopified in the lyrics, which the band co-wrote with former N’Sync and Backstreet Boys producer Andreas Carlsson. The lyrics are astonishingly generic, with nearly every song an impersonal tale of love, lust, and heartbreak. The most memorable lyrical moment occurs at the outset of ‘Sexy Girls.’ Nilsson belts: “Sexy girls in the club / I’ll be whatever you want me to be. Sexy girls in the club / the night is young and the party’s on me.” According to Nilsson, those particular lyrics are meant to be ironic. The weird thing is, the song would be worse off if its lyrics were reflective, profound, honest — anything but ironic. The lyrics serve as a trope – the original – to contrast with the other components of the music – the end product. In short: better lyrics would compromise the self-loopification process.
Loopified is at its worst on the ballads: ‘Crash and Burn Delight,’ ‘It Hurts,’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Take on the World.’ These songs suffer from lazy arranging. Where are the solos, the infectious groove, the weird chords?? Linder and Mellergardh all but disappear, and Nilsson is forced to carry more weight than he can bear. He is an awesome vocalist with great presence and pitch control, a threat to break off a two-octave run at any moment. But for all his admirable qualities he doesn’t have the emotional range to pull off these ballads all by his lonesome. Dirty Loops is most enjoyable when Nilsson’s voice recedes to the middleground so that it’s just another instrument – vocals, keys, bass, drums in a row, harmonizing and gesticulating like a barbershop quartet.
Good things happen when Dirty Loops picks up the pace. This is most true on ‘Hit Me,’ ‘Lost in You,’ ‘The Way She Walks,’ ‘Roller Coaster,’ and ‘Accidentally in Love.’ Their obscure jazz harmonies have life once more – they are most effective when played in rapid succession, like a combo breaker in a video game. They just need a bit of air under them to fly. Also – there are now horns! The inclusion of horns forces Dirty Loops to pay the arrangement more attention. They are maximalists at heart. The more action, the better. Mellergardh grows less passive, more keen to engage with his bandmates and indulge himself in rhythmic hits rather than simply keep time. When Dirty Loops picks up the pace, the pall that beleaguered the ballads evaporates. Suddenly there is more space in every dimension – more space to carve out a wider dynamic range, more space for Nilsson to sneak in a dapper keyboard solo, more space for the head to duck and weave to the beat.
But the greatest gift that Loopified gives is the gift of Henrik Linder. Sensei. Nilsson often doubles the bass in his left hand, freeing Linder to roam away from the pocket and unleash his always imaginative bag of tricks – slap bass fills, arpeggios, chord hits. He is not unlike Philip Lahm, star fullback for Bayern Munich. Lahm is solid as a rock in the back, but he likes to ventures forward, where he can more creatively employ his ample footballing brain. A technical master, Lahm outperforms his teammates at their respective positions more often than not, ultimately shaming not only his opponent but his teammates as well.
Dirty Loops went all-in on Loopified with a self-loopification strategy. Banal, shallow lyrics became the transgressive means to illuminate their finest musical qualities. And for the most part those qualities shone through. But unlike loopification, self-loopification is not failsafe. The listener cannot compare the original to the end product. They are the same thing, and they must be consumed at the same time. The dopamine still hits, but there is no rebirth, no redemption. Is it better for the phoenix to die and rise from the ashes, or never die in the first place?