Something for Nothing: BNL Drop the Ball on New Videos

Mid-1990s darlings Barenaked Ladies have been riding the new media train for quite a while, but their latest work is a major label's fantasy. The new BNL album is a collection of unused tracks fr

Apr 4, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Oliver Meinerding

Mid-1990s darlings Barenaked Ladies have been riding the new media train for quite a while, but their latest work is a major label's fantasy. The new BNL album is a collection of unused tracks from their previous effort (a two-fer!), and they're riding the YouTrain!

Go to and see for yourself. The first thing you see is a Revver link to their latest video. The kind of thing you buy on iTunes for 99 cents is yours for the taking!

Unfortunately, they manage to prove another truism: You get what you pay for.

Sadly the video isn't especially creative, and it often streams poorly even from broadband connections (YMMV). Most of us are beyond tired of pseudo-viral videos foisted on us by the likes of Sony and Mountain Dew. It's not surprising that BNL's commercial operates on a similar level. But setting aside the phony virality, couldn't they come up with a better song?

The hook: the video and song "Sound of Your Voice" appears as an ode to that phoniest of all Internet phenomenon, Lonelygirl15. While she might be hip and interesting to middle-aged male advertising execs, it's pretty thin gruel for a Rock band, and the song is similarly a one-liner.

But give the Ladies some credit: They've managed to turn their hits into a cottage industry. They were among the first major label artists to "enhance" their CDs with multimedia content and use the Web to build a community of fans. On their Web site you can buy jewelry made from their broken guitar strings and fund their photographer's tour junket by purchasing tour pics for $10 a pop. There are endless links to interviews, live performances and, of course, click/buy links for their music for those too old and lame to get it free!

BNL hits every button. Usually twice!

When you troll their catalog via the Web site's music link, the band's industrious approach to record making is apparent. Almost a record a year between 1996 and 2001! They've done a good job keeping their name in the public eye and aren't shy about reissuing their work in new forms.

Contrary to the press about giving away the store, the music is locked to streams or must be bought. Yet they give away the part that actually sells most records today: the CD labels, booklets and cover art are available as printable PDF files. So while the band doesn't openly encourage stealing their music, they take care of thieves by conveniently packaging the parts not available from pirate download sites.

There's a lot more free stuff in the video section, but sadly it's uniformly ugly, uncreative and terrible sounding. Ah, the joys of YouTube!

Maybe I'm too old to get it, but crappy-sounding, jerky performances don't do anything for me. Were the Barenaked Ladies a broke kid-Punk band, pushing great fresh ideas, I'd take my YouTube videos with thanks. Were acoustic performances of bad jokes new (or any different from everything else on the Web) or some sort of ironic statement, I'd be more kind to the effort. Unfortunately, it is what it is.

Collectively, the new videos are the problem: They aren't funny or musically entertaining. Like the band's lackluster attempt at a concert DVD, the videos just don't go anywhere without the music. And like many live videos, the music is somewhat hobbled by the visual production.

By contrast, BNL's conceptual music videos produced while the band was signed to Warner Entertainment were well-received on 2002's Barenaked Ladies DVD. Treating video as a collaborative, mature art — as opposed to the disposable by-product of masturbation — pays dividends. Those videos helped sell millions of records and built the band's still-vital fan base. It's unlikely the new work will add to the mob.

On the plus side, give the Ladies points for mastering the create-once/release-many strategy. Their newest record, Barenaked Ladies Are Men, was recorded at the same time as their previous effort, Barenaked Ladies Are Me. This makes sense, considering the role of live performance and merchandise in their career.

Rather than being a collection of cast-offs and out-takes, the twin releases were assembled after the fact, like a reality TV show. The narratives emerge only after production is complete.

So while Me is a softer, sing-songier album, Men is more raucous and electric end to end. While the differences are a matter of degree, the latest record has more of an edge in presentation than the band's earlier work. Lyrically, they stay on familiar territory, keeping things uniformly light and fun. While fans of the band's older work might be more comfortable with Me, Men suggests new directions that might capture new ears.

This is good enough for people who first got laid to "The Old Apartment," but for DistroRevolutionaries it's a little weak. Considering all the press and schtick about BNL's Web and fan savvy, I'm disappointed in their current efforts to use new media. For a band known for clever, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and entertaining performances, the videos and Web site play it straight.

There's enormous potential for entertainers to parody or parrot the whole YouTube phenomenon to great effect. It's a rich vein for their kind of humor, as taking aim at Lonelygirl15 attests. Sadly, the Ladies drop the ball this time.

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.