Soon after being quarantined, 39-year-old Dustin Ballard found a way to make swing music again. In a normal summer, the creative director would be touring all over Texas, playing fiddle for the Dallas-based western swing band Shoot Low Sheriff on weekends. But thanks to the coronavirus, that was all put on hold. For the first time in Ballard’s life, his musical energy had no outlet.
When beautiful things get trapped, they turn ugly. Ballard craved chaos. “In an act of musical boredom one day, I was curious if I could take a song and change everything about it — genre, melody, instrumentation — but keep the words in the same place so that the music video would still sync up,” Ballard explains.
“Western swing opens the door into swing, blues, early jazz and country,” he tells me. “Like any honest musician, there are vast holes in my musical knowledge. If I needed to recreate an authentic death metal song, for example, I would be way out of my comfort zone. Not that that’s stopped me before.”
So when he sat down to test his experiment out, he knew “Shallow,” the song from A Star Is Born memorably performed by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga at the 2019 Oscars, could transform in the most blursed way: as a polka song.
“It’s all about finding matching extremes,” Ballard explains. “To me, the opposite of a love duet is energetic polka. The opposite of grunge rock is elegant swing. Metallica? A children’s song. Bonus points if it’s a song that people love that I ruin for them.”
Ruining people’s favorite songs is simple, he claims. First, he completely recreates the song “almost entirely with MIDI instruments through the computer. Then I lay down a beat for tempo, record myself speaking the words along with the original song just to get the positioning and rhythm down, and then I just play around and see where the song takes me.” Then, after ruining the cherished melody of a cultural touchstone, he edits the music video with footage to match.
Unlike Weird Al song parodies or bad covers of great songs, there’s something about Ballard’s renditions that really, well, strikes a chord. According to Graeme Boone, professor of musicology at Ohio State University, the reason Ballard’s remixes are so maddening is because they wallop our core emotional connections to the music he ruins. “We connect music to ourselves through our experiences, and through the fact that music has such an emotional impact on us,” he explains. “People have soundtracks in their minds all the time, hearing or ‘playing’ songs to themselves for reasons of emotional and psychological stability, connection, happiness, etc. There is a hidden vulnerability in that mental functionality.”
Whether you realize it or not, music tends to be deeply woven into your emotions and moods. “Music can seem to seep right through our defenses, or through a sad or happy mood, and touch us intimately, and that is a feeling that can remain for our whole lives,” Boone says. “When we listen to old songs, we often feel almost as if we’re listening to our old selves, our old experiences. Memory Lane is lined with music.” The music inside us, he adds, “is of course vulnerable to psychological or emotional manipulation.”
It’s like getting a song stuck in your head, he says. “The idea of ‘ruining’ a song is related to that feeling of music ‘going bad’ in some way,” he explains. “When [Ballard] recasts a song, it can get inside you, affecting your memory of the song: the intimate connection between the melody, harmony, rhythm, words, sounds and personality of the song, which touched you in a certain way.”
The professor compares it to getting food poisoning from a meal you associate with home and comfort, and then not being able to eat it again. “Just as an unexpected or ‘unpleasant’ experience can seem indelible, so can a sound,” he says.
Oddly enough, this happened to Ballard when his daughter, who’s 4 and might not have any emotional ties to Nirvana (yet), overheard her dad’s voice twisted into a way she wasn’t exactly fond of. “[She] was very confused, and asked, ‘Is that your voice? Why is that your voice?’” Ballard says.
Ballard says some people actually liked the polka version of “Shallow” over the original, so he plans to give the people what they want. “Three weeks in, this is still a learning process. I have no idea what I’m going to do next, but as long as people are into the idea, it motivates me to keep pushing the humor to new, musically offensive places,” he tells me.
Ballard won’t rest until he’s seen enough people “struggle with the moral issue of whether to give the video a thumbs up or thumbs down.” But more than anything, he’s just doing his part to inject some silliness into 2020. “I think there’s still a place for nonsense in the world. Especially in this particular year. There’s no statement or underlying message here … [just] a throwback to the early days of the internet when people would just try stupid, funny stuff because they could.”
If anything, Ballard will stop scrambling our musical memories when the coronavirus has passed. “Internet ‘success,’ with its anonymity, is fun and (I suppose) validating, but it feels totally different,” he concludes. When the pandemic is over, he knows where his restless musical energy will lead him: back on stage, playing live. “Performing music for our fans and the swing dance crowd in Dallas is one of my favorite things.”