Sometimes we just have to take a step back and assess the music culture around us. The music current is fast and unrelenting, with trends forever changing and staying relevant in the game becoming an ever harder struggle for artists, blah blah blah industry garble.
This is why when composer and arranger Jerry Shen, also known as Tronicbox's remix of Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean," started floating around the Internet with an intense vigor earlier last week, I was absolutely delighted. Rarely do you hear a modern day pop song reformatted in the style of that classic 80s sound, snazzy synths and saxophone solos galore, and have it sound so fitting and actually kind of catchy. Also the whole track is kind of hilarious, the harder you think about it. And who knew the Biebs could look so good with a mullet?
Since Shen released "What Do You Mean It's 1985" a month ago, the track has since accumulated over a million listens, most definitely fueled by media coverage and social media over the past few days.
I got a few words from Shen himself on the whole shebang. Of course, he was "Justin Bieber’s producer during the mid 1980s" but now works as a software developer for a telecome in Saskatchewan, Canada. In all seriousness, though, Shen tells me that "software development is my day job. I just happen to love music. I played in jazz band throughout high school and sang in choirs. I’ve had a couple of my own bands as well."
Maybe I read into things too much, but to me Shen's rendition of Bieber's hits and several other popular songs was fun, but it also felt like the guy was giving commentary on current music trends. Shen explains,
I think it’s really more of me “taking advantage” of the remix culture rather than “giving commentary”. The emergence of “remix” into the mainstream along with the advancement in digital media are both very good things. It opens up a lot of possibilities to allow for many people with different backgrounds to come in and “tell the story” from completely different perspectives. We’ve seen good examples of that turning into real internet phenomenons (musicless MV, shred videos just to name a couple). So I just happen to do similar things with the music itself. I take it out of its usual context and put it in a different one.
In particular, the inspiration for “What Do You Mean” stems from "the idea of 'getting Michael Bolton’s band to play for Justin Bieber.'". Shen found the idea quite intriguing and is glad many people feel the same way.
Another reason I found Shen's rework of "What Do You Mean" interesting was how he lent a different perspective to this whole remix game that's being played by everyone, it seems. You know what I mean-- just look at all those artists with 20+ "official" remixes of their track, anytime you're on SoundCloud, or perusing Spotify. Sometimes it's overwhelming, especially when you've listened to so many remixes of "Weight In Gold" that you just want to lock yourself in a room with nothing but the original track.
In this respect, Shen refers to himself as an arranger and composer instead of a producer. This is because, he explains,
What most people refer to as “remixes” are essentially “rearrangements”. I re-wrote everything from the ground up except the vocals.
Huh. Well.. whether you admire, hate, or feel entertained by Justin Bieber's blast into the past with "What Do You Mean It's 1985", there's no doubt that Tronicbox has given us all something to ponder about what it really means to "remix" a song.
Oh, and if you're wondering how Shen managed to achieve that classic 80s sound, this is what he has to say:
These are what I consider the 1980s essentials:
- A HUGE snare that sounds like you are chopping down a tree.
- A Piano that’s obviously not real