Monday, December 9th, 2013

AMNESTY 2013: Anna Kendrick – Cups

AMNESTY WEEK 2K13 STARTS NOW, with this year’s first Thing We Should’ve Covered Ages Ago That Isn’t Drake Or Macklemore…

Zach Lyon: A Small-Town Waitress Was Yearning To See The World. You’ll Never Guess How This One Drinking Cup Gave Her The Inspiration To Finally Get Away.

Andy Hutchins: The difference between the original version of “Cups,” haunting and spare and the best thing about Pitch Perfect, and the one that we are reviewing, which kudzu’d radio midway through 2013, is that the former is a 1:17 song that is practically a cappella — the clap-and-stamp rhythm of the actual cup game is the only production beyond Kendrick’s vocals — and the latter is a 2:07 confection that somehow stretches two verses and two hooks to the point of irritation. Mostly, that’s the fault of the added banjo-and-drum bits, too twee and bright, but Kendrick’s vocals are noticeably reworked and honeyed; all the haunting and spare is wasted, but the end result is a product that allows the many, many millions who enjoyed Pitch Perfect (start here, end here, and consider also that it has been on HBO for basically the entirety of 2013) to sip from a Cup Nostalgia that was both barely even eligible for nostalgia and significantly inferior to the real McCoy, itself a cover of a previous cover of the original. At least the lyrics are superb, even if Kendrick’s not quite the singer I would pick to sing “You’re gonna miss me by my hair / You’re gonna miss me everywhere.”

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: Listening to the pleasant two-minute strum of “Cups” makes me feel like I’ve missed a huge swathe of what was actually popular (or at least viral) in 2013: Films about competitive acapella groups! Stacey Pilgrim! Bluegrass songs from the thirties! YouTube tutorials! The US actually winning a men’s football tournament! Was 2013 bizarro land?

Edward Okulicz: It seems kind of cruel to appraise a trifle from a scene in a movie that’s been extended to breaking point for the purposes of YouTube, but The Hot 100 Made Us Do It. The snippet version of this song wasn’t a particularly important part of my enjoyment of Pitch Perfect, and without the ingenious choreography of the clip, it seems out of place as a hit single on the say-so of the new chart overlords.

Iain Mew: Extract from an email from me as part of a discussion about what we needed to catch up on this year, re “Cups”: “It was presumably in the charts on the basis of people seeking it out because they actually liked it, coupled with some element of links to the video being passed around because people think it’s a cool song/video combo? If it gained steam after being made available to buy, people obviously liked the song! Contra “Harlem Shake”/”Gone”/fucking “Chinese Food”, I’d say “Cups” is a rare case where Billboard’s streaming metric is actually doing what it should do and showing up the number of people who like a song.” That’s more about the how of its success rather than the why, but it’s a sweet song whose performance maintains a believably spontaneous air even away from the video. It’s not like “Ho Hey” was much more substantial.

Will Adams: Notable not for its transformation from a tiny movie scene into an unavoidable pop hit but for dressing up a ditty in shuffling drums, ukelele and an extra minute and making it seem just as slight.

Brad Shoup: It’s so slight! An audition scene blown up to twice the length, with a video nearly twice as long as that. A plaintive melody hung onto for dear life — well, not entirely; Kendrick bites into a couple phrases — and a singular cup, in defiance of the title. When I think of cups (and since the producer foregrounded all this clattering percussion at the expense of the humbler uke cascade, why wouldn’t I) stacking comes to mind, and the speed required. Something breakneck — perhaps half the length of the original — could have been fun. This is just diverting.

Patrick St. Michel: It has been a couple of banner years for cup stacking in music. I sure hope someone wrote an article about it while the novelty remains!

Juana Giaimo: Maybe Anna Kendrick’s cover doesn’t have the nostalgic warmth of the original recording by the Carter Family or the amusing percussion of the one by Lulu and the Lampshades, but it’s nevertheless a lovely and easily enjoyable version.

Katherine St Asaph: In-universe: A girl from a small town, as small-town girls do every afternoon, clicks to a Lulu and the Lampshades video, crinkles her voice into harmonies and grabs the nearest state fair souvenir; a month later, job-bound but suddenly piqued, she starts idly twiddling a cup, imagines flinging herself up a dusty road, hears her voice echo to twice its size, is momentarily free. Out of universe: The Carter Family records a subtly evocative standard; youth pastors clap out a 4/4 with cups, and lore meets lore; Reddit and self-marketing boost one girl and one song in a succession of girls and songs; Anna Kendrick watches it once being cast in a film that, like Glee and High School Musical before it, elevates the extracurricular habits of suburban girls; folklore and commerce canonize it all. As folk in 2013, these stories ring truer than “Civil War re-enactors with Dylan complexes, without the war.” As streaming coups for Billboard, they trounce “Norwegian weird-als cash in their favor from Stargate” and “Baauer becomes trap feudal lord” and definitely “Ark Music Factory stripling records a thing even Neetzan Zimmerman passed up”; as a song this is so pleasant, and so harmless in a year packed with the un-harmless, that if you dislike it your priorities might be hopelessly warped. Docked a point because adding uke and tinny synths reveals the industry’s laziest workings.

Madeleine Lee: There is nothing that is not inherently likeable about this song, from the charm of summer camp dining hall games to the instantly familiar sound of a tune that’s been in the air for 80 years. The only reason it didn’t go viral earlier is because there was no dial-up in the Great Depression.

Jer Fairall: As a soundtrack cut from a movie I’ll likely never see, sung by an actress only known to me as George Clooney’s sidekick in some middling Oscar-bait from a few years back, I’m in no position to understand what is supposed to be special about this, but given my limited frame of reference, it’s not particularly embarrassing. She sings somewhat better than the Glee kids and about as well as Taylor Swift, and the standard lends itself rather easily to this particular brand of pluck. But come on, guys, this is karaoke.

Anthony Easton: Her voice is narrow and thin, and the claps are less integral than shtick. Pitch Perfect was raunchy, with some genuinely subversive performances, but this is so sentimental that it seems to betray the film, which might be why one overshadowed the other. That said, I have spent a few months having this pop up somewhere in the depths of my brain, which must mean something.

Jonathan Bradley: Blame Feist or blame Apple? Ever since “1234” soundtracked a iPod Nano spot, advertisers have found in this specific indie-pop sound the perfect accompaniment for a product pitch. But what is it about trad-folk facsimile, merely good-enough vocals, airy arrangements, and musique concrete hooks — chimes, claps, whistling, cups — that so evidently suggests 21st century commerce? Well, there’s plenty of aural space for voice over. The style of singing is approachable in the same way punk is; the amateurism is inclusive. The acoustic sounds suggest a Walden-esque (or at least Etsy-an) authenticity. Given the — fair or otherwise — cultural connotations indie rock shares with a young and cosmopolitan leisure class, there’s probably an aspirational element as well. And it helps that many people seem to genuinely like this music; the mode is fun and the hooks are ear-catching in their compositional unfamiliarity. The problem is that the symbiosis between the sound and the shill has become so effective that I hear a jingle even in tunes that aren’t trying to sell me anything. I’ve made this complaint before and it’s unfair; “Cups” is from a movie, not a commercial; bands that do offer their songs to advertisers have to eat just like I do; I tend to really, really (really) enjoy products. But maybe the reason music that sounds like this is so good for selling things is that it’s music that exists to model a position rather than to convey mood or message. Anna Kendrick’s character is not trying to persuade me that I will miss her when she’s gone. She’s demonstrating that she can do something clever. That’s fine for a film, but I simply don’t see a point in putting clever on repeat.

Alfred Soto: Stephin Merritt’s lugubrious voice would have saved this C-side in 1999. Perk — feh.

Crystal Leww: My eight-year-old godsister LOVES this song, and my mother HATES this song. As the person who is somewhere in between their age ranges, my ambivalence towards it has to do with the fact that I am pretty okay with movie tie-ins and cheap gimmicks but not really super into them. A snapshot of the youth and olds in America, y’all!

Frank Kogan: I remember that when I was a senior in high school a spinoff of a Coca-Cola commercial became a facile, vacuous Up With People type hit for the Hillside Singers, “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” and that at a school assembly some students had put together a dance for it and invited all of us to join. Of course I was one of the people who stayed on the sidelines. Watching, I realized that the dancers had found their way into a rhythm and were having an electric moment, and I felt a bit foolish for sitting at an arm’s length. I’m wondering if in the context of Pitch Perfect or elsewhere over the years “Cups” might be such an electric moment. As it is, it grates on me, this easy uplift and Kendrick’s competent but very pale lilt. The Carter Family’s more stately version doesn’t grab me either, to tell you the truth. I actually like the revamped lyrics divorced from the damn video: roaming wish-fulfillment or something (as I said, I don’t know). There was a surprising and fun few seconds in the vid when the whole lunch joint began playing cups, before the game kept going and going. I still think my adolescent self was right to hate.

Reader average: [4.5] (4 votes)

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17 Responses to “AMNESTY 2013: Anna Kendrick – Cups”

  1. “But what is it about trad-folk facsimile, merely good-enough vocals, airy arrangements, and musique concrete hooks — chimes, claps, whistling, cups — that so evidently suggests 21st century commerce?”

    JBradz the beauty of this sentence is that so many of the bands recruited for this particular sound have capitalized on a faux-transcendentalist/Thoreau-ean (esque?) angle as part of their image.

  2. I’d guess this sound is used precisely because it is associated with the opposite of commerce. Twee indie folk used to be as anti-commercial as you could get while still being melodic at some point ten or fifteen years ago.

  3. Hey Andy, your mourning for the original version amused me because I thought the version with the country instrumentation was the original. I say that because Top 40 stations around here play a house remix with the country instrumentation completely buried under a programmed drumbeat that sounds like it could have been on a Black Eyed Peas song. You think the video version of this song is a travesty? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

  4. Kudos all around, but Katherine, J. Brad and Frank in particular have wonderful write-ups !

  5. Frank, you gotta see *Pitch Perfect* — it’s good! And yes, the cups bit works a lot better in context, given where the song comes from in our understanding of Anna Kendrick’s character (amateur mash-up DJ reluctantly trying out for the acapella squad). In the movie it’s just her and the cups (doing what I guess is the lunchroom move in the video, which I haven’t seen).

  6. I would cosign that Frank should watch Pitch Perfect. I was thinking I’d hate it like I hate Glee but story-arc wise it’s a lot closer to Bring It On or even Strictly Ballroom and all the better for it.


  8. Yes, Zach’s blurb is awesome. I liked all of these! Couldn’t think of a better way to start off Amnesty Week.

  9. Trap Feudal Lord In Stores Now

  10. oh btw here’s a great case in point of jonathan’s observation:

    i fear we are in for a wave of electrofolk hybrids on the radio (see also: wake me up)


  11. Well if it’s specifically that you’re after, look no further than Sweden. Taking bets now on how many Eurovision entries take that tack next year.

  12. I love elextrofolx!!!!

  13. i shared a five hour car ride with an electro-swing dj, he was belgian and almost as obnoxious as his music.

  14. I just associate “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” with elementary school choir, the same year responsible for my groaning out “Cold and Fugue Season” every time I get sick (case in point: now)

  15. I’ve had my taste of electro swing during the summer and I’m – fucking – alright – with – not – hearing – any – more – of – it

  16. I actually had the Pitch Perfect DVD on loan from Denver Public Library for two weeks in August but never got the chance to pop it in the computer.

    Speaking of things I never got around to, I’d have given the EvoL 9, Meek Mill 8, Lee Hyori 8, White Wizzard 4 (but Josh’s writeup is my favorite blurb this amnesty week; it happens that the bright and open-hearted singing is what sunk the song for me), Gary Allan 3 (I had the line “doesn’t hang together” but couldn’t make it work; I generally recommend Allan highly, btw).

  17. i am 16 pages behind on tsj. these “cups” reviews are all good and make good points.