Exploring Bardcore: YouTube’s obsession with medieval covers of Lady Gaga
“I want thy love and all thy lover’s revenge. Thee and me could write a bad romance.”
Medieval references have had a special place in pop culture for a while now. The aesthetics of the Middle Ages -- which spanned from the 5th to the 15th century -- have worked their way into different corners of the content we consume, from mainstream television to meme pages. Something about a time cursed by plague, where paintings largely consisted of ugly babies, vacant stares and brutal violence, has resonated with young millennials and Gen Z. And now it’s taking over our playlists.
YouTube has long been known for birthing niche nostalgic musical subgenres -- from Simpsonwave to remixes based on super specific listening locations like Toto’s “Africa” (playing in an empty shopping centre) -- and Bardcore is the latest trend. Taking modern classics, the creators rework songs using lutes, fiddles and harps; re-writing lyrics in an almost comical olde worlde style. Suddenly you’re transported to a royal banquet, listening to medieval Radiohead perform “Creep”, and the concept of time becomes even more warped than it already feels right now.
While medieval covers of sometime chart-topping songs don’t immediately sound like something capable of amassing a significant following, Bardcore videos are attracting millions of viewers who seem to bask in both the absurdity of the idea, and its inherent whimsicality. Bardcore fan Kevin Nguyen said it best, articulating his feelings under a video titled “Bad Romance (Medieval Style Cover)”: “Gonna be honest, I totally didn’t see the resurgence of 'medieval bops that slap' on my 2020 bingo card.... but I’m here for it.” Another comment under a “Teenage Dream” Bardcore cover says: “I doth loveth how Bardcore cameth from a terrible year, fil'd with none but a plague and civil unrest. Truly, we are living in thine 1520s, not 2020s.” Another user under the same video remarks: “Lo-fi and now this. 2020 is winning in music.”
While a handful of years-old medieval covers can be found in the murky depths of YouTube, the trend has truly blown up in the past month. In the last seven days alone, nearly 100 medieval covers of modern pop songs have been uploaded to YouTube. There’s a Bardcore cover for every occasion: The Weekend’s “Blinding Lights” for the after-banquet, Sia’s “Chandelier” for when thine eyes doth begin to weep, Linkin Park's "Numb" for when the mood continues to spiral, and a cover of “I’m Blue (da ba dee)” by Eiffel 65 for those yearning for a simpler time. There’s even a Bardcore sub-reddit with over 600 members.
Cornelius Link is one of the main accounts posting Bardcore covers, with over 172k subscribers. The 27-year-old German web developer says that the decision to create his YouTube channel stemmed from the coffin-dance meme. “One day a friend sent a medieval take on the image to a group chat, and someone said it’d be funny if it was set to medieval music,” he tells i-D. “Since I've written a lot of music for indie films and smaller games before, and have always been enthusiastic about medieval music, I thought this could be a fun idea.”
After recording a short loop for the group, Cornelius discovered that his friends had already uploaded it to platforms like Reddit and Discord. Before long, people were asking for a longer version, which then found its way onto 9gag and SoundCloud. That’s when Cornelius decided to start his own YouTube channel. Although his channel is fairly young, he’s already racked up over 3.7m views on his most popular video, “Pumped Up Kicks (Medieval Style)”, a cover of Foster The People, and has begun to inspire other creators.
Hildegard von Blingin’ -- responsible for the afore-mentioned Lady Gaga cover -- is another key player in the Bardcore movement, whose videos have a complete commitment to old English -- from the song lyrics to the video description. ("Verily, I am flabbergasted by the response these days of late. Over one hundred thousand souls? Thank ye, from the bottom of my heart.”) While Cornelius Link’s videos are what inspired her to start creating covers, Hildegard’s own account has now overtaken his with more than 445k subscribers and over a million views on nearly every video posted.
Hildegard chalks the popularity of the trend up to the universal need to escape “our own ennui”. The YouTuber creates her covers in a small bedroom studio, using “a Celtic harp, a handful of recorders and whistles” and a pack of digital medieval instrument samples. “Many of us lost our jobs at the start of this pandemic and have a lot of time on our hands,” she says. “For one thing, that means more of us are making music and pursuing hobbies we wouldn't otherwise have time for, and more people are looking to YouTube and other social media for connection and distraction.”
Sam Ord, 27, who is from Wales and has been producing his own music since he was a teenager, also credits Cornelius’ videos for inspiring him to join the Bardcore community with his own renditions of The Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus (there really is something for everyone!). “I would define Bardcore as being ridiculous yet beautiful,” Sam says. “In times like these, I think people are looking for a good laugh, and for some reason the twist of modern songs in a medieval style has the ability to make people smile, even if it is just for three minutes. I think it’s a good pick me up for people, and we all need that right now.”
And perhaps that’s where the trend’s popularity lies; in the escapism to a time racked with its own problems that are not too dissimilar to our own? As one YouTube comment under Sam’s video "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) [Medieval Version]” asks: “Is Bardcore going to be a thing because it feels like we are going into another Dark Age?”
Musicologist Dr. Lisa Colton says that nostalgia is certainly one element of it. “We can feel a bit nostalgic for an old culture,” she tells i-D. “It's a form of mythology really, whether that's [tied to stories of] Robin Hood and Maid Marian, or whether we just imagine a time that was more peaceful and when nature was all around us -- a pre-industrial age. And I think, as people who are in the modern world and surrounded by technology and industry, it's nice to have that sort of space.”
She goes on to suggest that the charm of Bardcore lies in the fact that its creators don’t take themselves too seriously: “They’re not trying to do some authentic recreation of what a medieval song sounded like,” she says. “What they've done uses musical skills, as well as technological skills, and it's -- dare I say it -- better than when, 14 years ago, Sting released a big album of his covers of [English Renaissance musician] John Dowland's 17th century lute songs and it was just… fairly unbearable. When a modern artist does it too seriously and too earnestly it sort of grates, but when it's done by somebody in a fun and interesting way, then you’re focusing on the creativity of it.”
Cornelius agrees that accuracy does not a Bardcore cover make. He explains that he “explicitly doesn’t want to make authentic medieval covers”, adding that, “I'm totally inspired by that kind of music, but there are different reasons why I don't imitate it. First of all, I'm not an expert in that field and there are many, many rules authentic medieval music follows -- the tone sequence and harmonics, for example. I want to experiment with and combine different styles like folk, pagan, fantasy and soundtrack to create the sound I want, so I don't exclusively commit to medieval music only.”
Another creator of such covers is Modern Music of the Dark Ages, a 16-year-old student from Germany who currently has 35k subscribers, and has found success with covers of hits like Toto’s “Africa”, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” and even the “Mii channel theme”. He believes that the key to a successful medieval cover is finding a song that is recognisable enough to intrigue when listening to it remixed through the lens of time. “The decisive factor in choosing a song is its popularity,” he says. “The first thing I do is listen to the original version a few times, and then I search for its piano sheet music. When I find one that looks interesting, I choose my basic set of medieval Instruments (Oud, Lute, Harp and Viola da Gamba) and start to make my own version. I often change parts or add instruments to make it sound better.”
There has always been a place in music for covers -- it’s refreshing and interesting to listen to songs we know and love through the stylings of others. But Bardcore is different. It carries with it the weight of years of memes made about the medieval era, and the bleak darkness of that time period that appeals to Gen Z’s existential humour.
There’s something absurdly comforting about a version of a song you know and love, re-imagined in a time more harrowing, disease-ridden and calamitous than our own. It’s a reminder that humanity has been there, done that, and lived through worse. And who doesn’t love a lute?