Could Pop Radio’s Next Hit Be A Cover Of A... 1930s Appalachian Folk Song?!

Anna Kendrick, performing a short rendition of "Cups" on "Late Night with David Letterman"

Although it’s spent 11 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold almost half a million (498,000) downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, Anna Kendrick’s quirky single "Cups" (UME/Republic) is just now adding a new element to its success: radio airplay.
And, much like the vocal group (the Barden Bellas) that Kendrick’s character helps reinvent, leading to glee club glory in the film, "Cups" is likewise winning new fans thanks to a radical change in sound.
As "Pitch Perfect" protagonist Beca Mitchell, Kendrick sings "Cups" as her audition song for the ensemble, performing it only with the accompaniment of a yellow plastic cup (and the stage floor upon which she’s sitting) as percussion. British act Lulu and the Lampshades unveiled their version of the composition and unique performance style in 2009 as reworking of the 1937 recording "Miss Me When I’m Gone," by J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers. Anna Burden’s performance subsequently garnered attention on YouTube (3.3 million views to date), which led to front-page placement on Reddit, and myriad other online covers followed.
"Because I’m a huge loser, I thought the best way to spend an entire afternoon would be watching [Burden’s] video 50 times and teaching myself how to do it," Kendrick told David Letterman in October. When the film’s creative powers "found out I could, they wanted me to [perform] it in the movie."

Despite the song’s sales, the movie’s $110 million-plus take in worldwide box office receipts and a No. 3 peak on the Billboard 200 for the "Pitch Perfect" soundtrack (which has sold 554,000 copies in the United States), a brief (1:16-long) vocal-and-drinkware-only reworking of a 75-plus-year-old Appalachian folk song isn’t exactly typical top 40 fare.
Republic Records, however, seeking to capitalize on the song’s wide pop culture reach, teamed with Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing Mike Knobloch for a new version featuring instrumentation (and which runs 2:09). Following its release to radio, "Cups" is now approaching Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart. KZHT Salt Lake City led all stations with 55 plays for it in the March 11-17 Nielsen BDS tracking week, followed by WZPL Indianapolis (33) and WFBC Greenville, S.C. (27).
Republic senior VP of radio and video promotion David Nathan says that in its new form, "Cups" is, well, pitch perfect for radio, given its built-in familiarity. "Anyone that has a preteen will know about this song. ‘Pitch Perfect’ is a cultural phenomenon, and we’re very happy to be a part of it."
Nathan points out that "Cups" likely stands out as fresher to audiences than the soundtrack’s other songs, including covers of hits by Kelly Clarkson ("Since U Been Gone"), Miley Cyrus ("Party in the U.S.A.") and Flo Rida ("Right Round"), a selling point as the label begins its promotional efforts. "We’re putting the full plan in motion. The song’s video shoot is scheduled for this week and stars Kendrick. ‘Pitch Perfect’ director Jason Moore is directing the clip, as well.
"We’ve also been setting up contests on-air and online that challenge listeners to make their own unique version of the song. The initial response has been amazing."
While only Kendrick’s original version of "Cups" is currently available for purchase, Nathan says the music bed-backed remix will be up on iTunes "very soon."
Radio programmers first to give listeners a taste of "Cups" are likewise enthusiastic. WZPL PD JR Ammons says that despite initial apathy, he believes in the track’s potential as a radio hit. "I saw the movie when it came out and, honestly, the song didn’t stick out to me as something that I would be playing months later. At this point, I’m not sure that the movie is even fully driving this. I think we’re seeing the power of social media, and, maybe even more so, just the power of really good song hook."
Ammons relied on some in-house research (literally) to reinforce his instincts. "Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought about that song again after the movie ... until my daughter learned the cup thing off YouTube and was singing the song over and over and over in the house. Then, I come to work and see the single sales climb week after week in Indianapolis with zero radio airplay ...
"Yes, it seems to be a young-end pop record, but where a record starts and where it ends up isn’t always the same place. Once you get away from the source of the song, it being from a movie about college freshmen, there’s nothing really that youthful-exclusive about it," Ammons says.
"No matter how I try to fight it, the hook is in my head every time it comes on our station."