Shakira, but make it mediaeval: Bardcore takes today's music back in time

Bardcore has given the mediaeval treatment to modern hits from Foster The People's Pumped Up Kicks to Kelis' Milkshake. PHOTO: STANTOUGH/YOUTUBE
A visual in the mediaeval Bayeux tapestry style for a bardcore cover by Stantough of Hips Don't Lie by Shakira. PHOTO: STANTOUGH/YOUTUBE

SINGAPORE - Bored during lockdown in Germany, Singaporean engineer Stanley Yong decided, for a lark, to set Shakira's sultry 2006 dance hit Hips Don't Lie to mediaeval instruments.

The 35-year-old, who goes by the name Stantough online, never expected it to go viral in the weird and wonderful corner of the Internet called "bardcore", where people post covers of modern-day music as if it were played in the Middle Ages.

"So nostalgic", users commented on his YouTube video, which has racked up 4.6 million views. "Remember listening to this song while staying home to avoid getting the plague."

On TikTok, they posted videos of themselves in faux peasant garb, bobbing sedately to Mine Hips Do Not Bear False Witness.

One of the stranger tides of the pandemic has been the rise of viral online trends that hark back to the songs and styles of yesteryear.

The latest of these is #ShantyTok, a TikTok craze for sea shanties that set sail when Scottish postal worker Nathan Evans covered Wellerman, a 19th-century whaling song. His cover gained millions of views on TikTok, topped United Kingdom charts last month and scored him a record deal.

As with most of the waves that rock the Internet, it is not clear what leads such trends to sink or swim, or why millions might suddenly fall in love with century-old music styles overnight.

Bardcore pioneer Hildegard von Blingin' says in an e-mail interview: "We're seeing an unprecedented number of creative trends on the internet, and I think it absolutely has something to do with the lockdown. That, and a global sense of ennui and loneliness."

Ms von Blingin', whose pseudonym alludes to the 12th-century saint Hildegard von Bingen, declines to give her real name, though she says she is a Canadian illustrator working in television.

"I don't know if I ever would have had the time to make my channel if not for the fact that I was unemployed and bored at the time," she says. "There is of course the unavoidable comparison between our situation and the Black Death."

Though mediaeval music covers have been around since before the pandemic, the bardcore trend - also known as tavernwave - dates back to April last year, as the world was succumbing to coronavirus.

It grew out of another Internet meme, the coffin dance, which pairs videos of a group of dancing Ghanaian pallbearers with Tony Igy's electronic dance track Astronomia.

German web developer Cornelius Link saw on WhatsApp an image of the coffin dance edited in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry, a famous 11th-century embroidery hanging. He thought it would be hilarious to remix Astronomia with mediaeval instruments and wound up going viral. Others, like Ms von Blingin' and Mr Yong, jumped on the bandwagon and the trend was born.

"I'm no specialist in old music," says Mr Link, 27, in an e-mail interview. "You could say that I try to transfer the spirit and the general sound of that time to our modern society. Everyone is trying to make the best out of the current situation and a little bit of distraction from all the problems we have helps a lot."

Bardcore has given the mediaeval treatment to modern hits from Foster The People's Pumped Up Kicks to Kelis' Milkshake. Some creators write and sing their own lyrics - Ms von Blingin' is especially noted for her ballad takes on the likes of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance ("I want thine ugly, I want thy disease/ Take aught from thee shall I if it can be free".)

A lyrics screengrab of a bardcore cover by Hildegard von Blingin' of Bad Romance by Lady Gaga. PHOTO: HILDEGARD VON BLINGIN'/YOUTUBE

Variations on the trend exist. Mr Yong collaborated on a classical Latin version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit with fellow creator The Miracle Aligner, who is also responsible for the "skaldcore" cover of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, sung in Old Norse as if by Vikings.

Much of the trend's appeal lies in its juxtaposition of archaic and modern sensibilities. There are, for instance, several bardcore versions of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's sexually explicit WAP, including Mr Yong's. Vocalist Elise Roth reinterprets WAP's lyrics as a 14th-century feudal revolt by "Well-Armed Peasants" ("Get your own mop and bucket," she warns.)

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The whole thing came as a surprise to Mr Yong, whose day job is at a pharmaceutical company and who composes music for iPhone games on the side. He was also involved in I'm All Hands All Eyes, a light projection at National Gallery Singapore that was part of the Light To Night festival last month.

The instruments he uses for the bardcore covers are downloaded from virtual sound libraries - a variety of lutes and harps, as well as the crumhorn, a curved wind instrument, and the psaltery, a kind of plucked zither. "I know what a psaltery sounds like," he says over Zoom, "but I've never seen one."

Each cover takes him five to six hours to make. "The most difficult part is the introduction," he says. "I'll probably discard 20 versions before having one that finally works."

As with all trends, he has few expectations of how long the bardcore wave will last. Of late it has taken a turn into K-pop territory and he has been putting out covers of girl groups such as Blackpink and Twice.

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"It's been a wonderful journey and I think I got really lucky," he says. "If even a small number of people continue to listen, that will be good enough for me."

Singaporean engineer Stanley Yong goes by the name Stantough online. PHOTO: COURTESY OF STANLEY YONG

Same old but different: Other online trends that riff on olden-day songs and styles

#SHANTYTOK

This unlikely trend surged last December when Scottish postal worker Nathan Evans uploaded a TikTok video of himself singing Soon May The Wellerman Come, a 19th-century New Zealand sailor song about a ship, the Billy of Tea, that goes on an epic 40-day whale hunt.

His video has been viewed more than 13 million times and thousands have jumped in to mash up, remix and layer their own voices and instruments onto his. Even music greats such as Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and Queen guitarist Brian May played along.

Evans' Wellerman, turned into a dance remix by 220 Kid and Billen Ted, became the first sea shanty to top UK charts month. He has quit his postal job and signed a three-album contract with major record label Polydor.

COTTAGECORE

In sharp contrast to today's frenetic Zoom-based existence is cottagecore, a pastoral aesthetic that romanticises ye olde country life.

On TikTok, Instagram and Tumblr, people - mostly young women - post bucolic photos of doilies, home-baked bread and foraged mushrooms.

While cottagecore was around as early as 2017, it has hit its stride during the pandemic as those stuck at home long to escape into a simpler existence sans screens - though ironically it is social media that connects this community.

DARK ACADEMIA

This Generation Z nostalgia subculture also predated the pandemic but gathered steam on TikTok and Instagram during worldwide lockdowns, especially since real-life school was out of the question.

The vibe takes its cues from classic literature and old-fashioned campus life - tweed, turtlenecks and leatherbound tomes. Its foundational text is considered to be Donna Tartt's 1992 novel The Secret History, a murder mystery set at an elite New England liberal arts college. The trend has come under fire, however, for being too "whitewashed".

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