In our 2015 end-of-year recap, I declared myself a “freakazoid obsessive of YouTube covers,” which is a bit of an imprecise description. What usually happens is I’ll stumble on a performance I really connect with, then spend the next few weeks listening to every cover by that singer or group. My favorite individual songs will go on loop.
It’s happened at least a dozen times: Molly Lewis, Kurt Hugo Schneider and Sam Tsui, David Choi, Kina Grannis, Tiffany Alvord, Cimorelli, Chrissy Costanza/ATC, Alex Goot, Walk off the Earth, Julia Nunes, and — my current favorite — Postmodern Jukebox are just a few that come to mind.
But the first YouTube cover obsession I can remember having was Christina Grimmie, aka zeldaxlove64. At age 15, Grimmie started uploading videos of her singing pop songs, accompanying herself on piano.
It only took her three videos to go viral — her raw version of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” racked up millions of views. It’s not hard to see why she was an immediate sensation: Her unique style, shy introductions, and video game paraphernalia radiate personality and likability. Her voice has a memorable timbre and maturity for a teenager. Her choice to limit her instrumentation to her voice and her own piano — no karaoke tracks or production tricks — lends her videos both intimacy and musical credibility.
That’s not to say everything she posted was perfect: her high notes frequently fell off key, and she sometimes leaned to heavily on melisma. But that’s actually a big portion of the charm; the flaws remind us that she’s a real person, not a packaged commodity.
I didn’t always like her song selection; she too often reverted to tuneless pop songs by forgettable artists. I would have loved to hear her take on more entries of the great pop canon rather than whatever trash was topping the charts at the time. (Then again, she was a high school sophomore; can you really blame her?)
At her best, Grimmie leaned into expressive ballads like “Hallelujah” and “My Heart Will Go On.” But her knack for drama meant she could redeem a middling effort with one signature moment; almost every one of her covers is worth listening to.
As her online fame grew, she seemed to become more comfortable with attention. From adorable clips of her dancing to Skrillex to a tutorial on how to replicate her trademark hairstyle, Grimmie didn’t hold back from being a YouTube celebrity as much as she was a musician.
In 2011, after I’d been watching for nearly two years, I learned that she’d be singing at an all-YouTube singers concert near my hometown, along with a bunch of other performers I’d discovered through the years. The concert was absolutely fantastic — all of the charm from her videos translates even better live, where vocal flaws are less important than verve and expressiveness. After the show, I had a conversation with Grimmie in a warm and personal meet-and-greet — a powerful and chilling memory for fairly obvious reasons.
Inevitably — as with nearly every YouTube cover artist of note — she attempted to launch her own career as a pop artist. I bought her debut EP, “Find Me” when she released it to iTunes. It’s far from a disaster, but the low-budget production didn’t really do her favors, and her songwriting is unrefined. That said, it features one knockout: self-penned “Liar Liar.” If she had figured out how to consistently write dramatic ballads that take advantage of her distinct voice, I would have been all in.
As she focused her efforts on launching a career as a pop star, I began paying less attention, though I still checked in every now and then. She got better at her craft and more refined in her production; just compare her take on Adele’s “Hello” to her early work, and the immense maturation is obvious. She constantly seemed on the verge of a big break, but it never quite happened, even when signed on as Selena Gomez’s opening act.
Of course the majority of people who know Grimmie know her from her stint on The Voice, where she placed third under the tutelage of Adam Levine. Her audition clip of Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” is probably her most iconic individual moment, a strutting, charismatic take that plays up her flair for dramatic vocal moments. I never watched the show, but I followed the results, rooting for her to win it all.
In 2014, around the time of her Voice fame, she went all in hyping a single. When she finally released it during the summer of that year, I was disappointed. “Must Be Love” is the kind of song she covered too often, absent of the nuance and curvature and theatrics that her voice was capable of.
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you know how the story ends: At a meet and greet after a concert in Orlando, FL, a crazed fan pulled out a gun, shooting and killing her. It’s astonishing to me that she was only 22; I’d been a fan for seven years. As much as she already felt like an “old favorite,” she was the age of someone who had just graduated college.
It sucks for all of us — especially her family and friends and biggest fans — that we lost her, but there’s no doubt that she filled her too-few years with creativity and passion and positivity.
When I think of Christina Grimmie, I’ll think not just of her talent and tragedy, but of the way she introduced me to the democratization and intimacy of making music and art and things in the 21st century. Just as Grimmie earned her fans by being her own lovely, raw, original self — no barrier between her and her listeners except a cheap webcam — so she inspires me to create and seek out modes of expression just as personal and unfiltered as she was.