The Seattle Symphony commissioned the piece that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music, Become Ocean, by John Luther Adams. But it is a late-20th-century work that is bringing the orchestra broader fame this week: its performance with Sir Mix-a-Lot of his bawdy song Baby Got Back, which has been seen more than 1.5 million times on YouTube.
A seven-minute video of the song, opening with the lyric “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, has gone viral, stirring both admiration and dismay among other classical musicians, who have argued online about whether it was an inspired bit of fun or a tawdry gimmick.
The video even created a new star: “the lady in the black dress”, as she became known on the Web. The woman was a member of the audience who joined several dozen other women on the stage with Sir Mix-a-Lot and whose enthusiastic dancing created an online sensation.
The lady in the black dress, or Shawn Bounds, as she is known in real life, said in an interview that she had “the time of her life” at the concert, and had not realised at the time that the performance would be preserved on video. “All I remember is me, Sir Mix-a-Lot, and the Seattle Symphony — as far as I was concerned, no one else was there,” she said.
Bounds, who moved to Seattle from Texas and works in sales at a hotel, said that she had never been to the symphony before, and that she had been drawn by the chance to see Sir Mix-a-Lot, a Seattle legend, perform.
Asked about her performance, she laughed. “I’ve had 20 years of practice — I’ve been dancing to that song for 20 years,” said the 38-year-old.
The concert was viewed with envy by some for the way it brought the symphony to a broad audience on the Web, and derided by others as a cringe-worthy gimmick.
For years, many orchestras have tried to lure audiences with non-traditional repertory, from pop concerts to film scores to video game music to orchestrated versions of music by the Beatles or Led Zeppelin.
But in this case, the aspirations were a bit higher, said Ludovic Morlot, the orchestra’s music director. He noted in an interview that the concert was part of the orchestra’s Sonic Evolution project, now in its third year, in which the orchestra commissions serious composers to write new works inspired by musicians with roots in Seattle.
Past commissions have been inspired by the works of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Alice in Chains.
In this case, the orchestra commissioned Gabriel Prokofiev — a grandson of the composer Sergei Prokofiev — to write Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot. It was after its performance of that piece that Sir Mix-A-Lot took to the stage, backed by the orchestra, to perform.
“We wanted to share with new audience members the power of live symphonic experience,” Morlot said.
While the young Sir Mix-a-Lot fans are not likely to become regular subscribers or even necessarily to return to the concert hall any time soon, he said, he hopes to lure them back later in life, when they have more time and money. “Maybe they’ll be less intimidated about making that journey,” he said.
Some musicians worried that the choice of the song, which once had trouble getting air play because of its risqué lyrics, was questionable. Others wondered how the concert would ultimately help the symphony or the cause of classical music.
Tito Muñoz, the new music director of the Phoenix Symphony, noted that most news coverage of the event barely mentioned the symphony or the new composers whose premieres it was presenting. And he noted that it can be hard to build classical audiences with non-classical music.
“We’ve learned that that doesn’t really work,” he said. “Pop concerts create an audience for pop concerts, not an audience for classical symphonic concerts.”
Some critics voiced doubts. James R Oestreich wrote in his review of the concert for The New York Times: “I won’t presume to review things so far outside my ken as Sir Mix-a-Lot. But I am left to wonder what a symphony orchestra can meaningfully add to this kind of repertory, notwithstanding Gabriel Prokofiev’s rudimentary orchestrations here.”
But Bounds, the lady in the black dress, said she was thinking of returning. “I got the schedule,” she said.
Morlot, the conductor, said he was looking ahead to his next concerts. “In two weeks, we do the three Stravinsky ballets,” he said. “So maybe I’ll invite a few ladies onstage to dance.”