Crazy for “Crazy”

Everyone is covering Gnarls Barkley’s big hit.

Cee-Lo of Gnarls Barkley

By now there can be little doubt that the song of 2006 is Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Actually, this uncannily catchy single has been kicking around since late 2005, when it first leaked on the Internet and was picked up by radio stations in the United Kingdom, which put the record in heavy rotation months before its official release in March of this year. In Britain, “Crazy” made history. It was the first song to top the charts on the strength of online download sales alone, and it remained at No. 1 for nine weeks—the biggest U.K. hit in more than a dozen years. Finally, Gnarls Barkley—the rapper/singer Cee-Lo Green and the producer/DJ Danger Mouse—decided to pull the single from the U.K. market, fearing it had become so overplayed that it would not be remembered fondly. Meanwhile, “Crazy” made the Top 10 in more than 15 other countries and held the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven consecutive weeks.

The numbers are impressive, but chart success is just the beginning of the story. “Crazy” is not just the pop audience’s choice—it’s the choice of pop musicians. Almost immediately after the record’s release, the first cover versions appeared, and now the “Crazy” cover phenomenon has become an epidemic. There have been rocked-up renditions by Jack White’s new band the Raconteurs, emo rockers The Academy Is …, L.A. singer-songwriter Butch Walker, and the Twilight Singers, the group led by former Afghan Whig frontman Greg Dulli. Indie favorites Of Montreal and Mates of State have sung it, as has the top-selling Scottish band Texas, British neosoul star Terri Walker, and Brit-poppers the Kooks, in a cute skiffle version. Singer-songwriter Ray La Montagne and certified pop star Nelly Furtado have both performed it acoustically (and plaintively). And in the gruff-and-husky-aging-’80s-hit-makers-do-“Crazy” category, we find versions by Bryan Adams, and, in a particularly grave offense against music, Billy Idol, caterwauling the song a capella.

And this is just the beginning, if you throw in the dozens of DJ deconstructions, rap remixes, and cheeky mash-ups, to say nothing of all the renditions by amateur musicians that are kicking around on YouTube. There have been other viral pop hits in recent years— Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time,” Outkast’s “Hey Ya!,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”—but “Crazy” has reached levels of ubiquity rarely seen in a niche-driven pop landscape. When one song links the gruff Jersey City rapper Joe Budden, the Scottish indie-rock pretty boy Paolo Nutini, the Broadway cabaret drag act Kiki & Herb, the University of California, San Diego, student band the Snapsons, and Paris Hilton, something unusual is going on. Even Gnarls Barkley themselves have gotten into the act, performing heavily reworked ballad versions of “Crazy” on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Top of the Pops.

On musical grounds, the song’s popularity makes perfect sense. “Crazy” is elegant, old-fashioned songwriting—a taut, melancholy melody that unfolds with impeccable logic over some basic chord changes and erupts into a heart-grabbing singalong chorus. Its transparency and simplicity, and the grandeur of that rising and tumbling chorus, gives the song a timeless feel. Like many of the best pop tunes, “Crazy” seems like it has always existed—like it wasn’t written so much as yanked out of the ether.

It was written, though, and not just by Gnarls Barkley. “Crazy” is itself a cover, of sorts: The song’s bass line is a sample from “Nel Cimitero di Tucson,” a soundtrack tune from the 1968 spaghetti Western Preparati la Bara! Gnarls Barkley replaced the original’s lead trumpet solo with a new main melody line and came up with a precisely calibrated arrangement that straddles the border between modern dance-pop and ‘70s disco-soul. There is a sleek dance beat with a prominent disco-ish high-hat; a background chorale lifted virtually wholesale from “Nel Cimitero di Tucson”; and strings that swoop and shudder over the chorus. At the center of it all is a sound that retains some of the original’s sulfurous Old West atmosphere: that chugging stream train bass line and the eerie, whistle-whine high tenor of Cee-Lo, who gives a terrific, weird performance filled with long pauses and gospel-style stutters and exclamations.

“Crazy” is not really gospel, that “Ha ha ha, bless your soul” line notwithstanding. Nor is it disco (despite the undeniable groove), or hip-hop (despite the presence of a rapper and a DJ), or a pure pop song (despite the monumentally catchy chorus). In fact, “Crazy” seems to float outside genre altogether, which helps explain its wide appeal—most every musical constituency feels comfortable claiming it. “Crazy” has landed on the pop, R&B/hip-hop, adult contemporary, and modern-rock charts. No other hit in recent memory has crashed as many radio formats.

Of course, weirdly unclassifiable dance-pop is the height of fashion (cf Gorrillaz, whose smash 2005 album Demon Days was also produced by Danger Mouse). And Gnarls Barkley are nothing if not fashion-conscious. Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse insist on performing and being photographed in wacky movie-inspired costumes, which makes Gnarls Barkley seem less like a regular old band than a kind of Dadaist stunt. It’s an enviably hip shtick—little wonder that musicians have raced to cover “Crazy.”

When rockers and indie types take cracks at a big pop or R&B hit, the lines between heartfelt tribute, ironic sendup, and none-too-subtle condescension can be perilously thin. As the critic and blogger Carl Wilson has pointed out, these performances are often snobby efforts to “reclaim” a song—to prove that there’s “real music” in there, beneath the production sheen and the drum machines. But Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is already heavily overlaid with irony and an emotionally distancing aura of hyper-cool. After watching Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse perform “Crazy” dressed as Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi—with a Stormtrooper on bass and Chewbacca bashing away at the drums—the cover versions nearly all seem sweetly, awkwardly earnest.

What we’re witnessing is canon-making in action. Once upon a time, dozens of vocalists would rush to record the latest hit from a new Broadway musical, and many of those tunes have stayed with us, lodged in the American Songbook. Current popular music is aggressively post-Tin Pan Alley: Rhythm has replaced melody as pop’s driving force, and in an age in which many of the best songwriters are rappers, the songs that can be reinterpreted by anyone other than remixers are getting scarcer. (There’s just no way to do a serious cover of, say, Jay-Z’s “Izzo.”) What all the covers of “Crazy” are telling us is that it’s destined to be a modern standard.

They’re also telling us something, I think, about the ingenious ambiguity of the song’s lyrics. In interviews, Cee-Lo has said that “Crazy” is about the idea that artists are insane, but the verses are inscrutable. The song’s real triumph is its three choruses, which move from confession (“Does that make me crazy?/ Possibly”), to accusation (“I think you’re crazy”), to a kind of transcendent global-communal pronouncement ("Maybe we’re crazy/ Probably”). In fact, these words are like the Rorschach blots in the “Crazy” video, so open-ended as to permit endless interpretations. Is “Crazy” speaking to tortured artists, to angst-addled teens, to wounded lovers? Resonating with millions of self-identified “crazies” in an age of pop therapy and rampant psychopharmacology? Voicing widespread world’s-gone-mad sentiments in a time of global crisis? As Cee-Lo would say, “Possibly.” One thing’s for sure: When the song came on the stereo of a Lower Manhattan cafe several days ago, I watched half a dozen strangers, each sitting alone, bob their heads and silently mouth the words—”I think you’re craaaazy/ Just like me.”