Nine-year old Willow Smith has an infectious pop hit circulating the Internet (a full album seems to be forthcoming). “Whip My Hair” is an intense affirmation song and is good repetitious fun:
Here’s a cover of the song rendered on piano in a ragtime-jazz-ish style. I don’t know who the pianist is, but you can hear how he works with and improvises on Smith’s repetitious chorus melody:
Finally, here is late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon (with Bruce Springsteen later on in the clip) doing an impression of the iconic Canadian folk singer Neil Young singing–you guessed it, “I Whip My Hair.”
What makes all of these renditions so interesting to me is how they foreground the importance of musical style as a filter for what we choose to listen to. Smith’s song, produced by Jukebox, is a high-tech, electronic pop music production, and attracts one kind of audience. It sounds really good played loud too. The solo piano version is adventurous and chromatic, with new harmonizations creeping in under the right hand melody. Fallon’s Neil Young version slows everything way down and sets the lyrics against a old-fashioned two-chord strumming pattern. It’s quintessential 1970s Young (and Fallon has nailed Young’s grain of the voice too). What makes Fallon’s version funny is that somehow Smith’s lyrics don’t seem “deep” enough for the reflective folk idiom; there’s a disconnect between the seriousness of Fallon’s Young and Smith’s young-playful lyrics. But it actually works.
I happen to like Smith’s original version the best because it makes the best sense stylistically: the music and her voice seem of one (heavily technologized) piece. But the cover versions remind us that just about any music can travel from one idiom to another. And when a song like “Whip My Hair” lands in jazz piano land or the folk music orbit, it asks us to consider for a moment which musical styles resonate the most for us, and more mysteriously, why.