Back in 1966, Glenn Gould predicted that recorded music would become an interactive conversation between musician and listener. He described dial twiddling as “an interpretive act.” He was wrong about the dials, but right about the main point, that technology would make listening to music more like making music. Anybody with iTunes instantly becomes a DJ. It doesn’t take much more software than that to produce your own electronica. Some copyright holders and their lawyers are feeling a lot of anguish about this development. For the rest of us, I think it’s an exciting new opportunity, a chance to restore music to its rightful and natural state as shared property, a dynamic conversation anyone can be part of.
Glenn Gould wasn’t necessarily being prophetic. He was just paying attention to the long history of music before the relative eyeblink of the twentieth century. The always perspicacious Wayne Marshall says:
Only in the relatively recent past — within the last century — have songs, in the “fixed” media form of audio recordings, been so strongly regulated as pieces of property whose use by others might be strictly limited. An examination at the level of cultural practice — that is, how songs as audio recordings have been used by people — demonstrates that even in such “fixed” form, songs have continued to serve as a commonplace site of sharing and creative interaction (also known as remixing). This becomes particularly evident in the use of playback technologies such as turntables as creative instruments in their own right (aiding the emergence of hip-hop and disco in the 1970s), an approach powerfully extended by the tools of the digital age.
I’m a child of the cassette era. I loved making mix tapes in high school, for myself and whoever among my friends would listen. It was a pain, but still worth it. I still remember burning my first CD, sequencing the tracks with Toast before the half-hour long burn session during which the computer couldn’t do anything else. I’ve said farewell to albums with little sadness. It’s nice to listen to Graceland or Abbey Road in their original sequence, but for the most part, I do a better job of sequencing tracks for my own needs than anyone else can.
What’s true at the multiple-song level is even more true within a single song. Writing a song is really sequencing together a “mixtape” of licks, scale fragments, chord progressions and beats. When I learned how to play the guitar, I became free to string together whatever song fragments I could get under my fingers. It was fun being able to freely collage songs together, constructing segues and suites. All “new” compositions are really mashups you make in your head. Any creative undertaking is less like conjuring out of thin air and more like making a salad. As a sampler and remixer, my freedom of musical choice is total. Making mashups is a delightful blend of writing songs and putting together mixtapes, except that the pieces of music are shorter and layered simultaneously.
Mashup and remix culture isn’t new. Club DJs have been mashing up songs on the fly for decades, intermixing hot dance tracks with hooks and breaks from other well-known dance tracks. Girl Talk has nothing on “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel” or Double Dee and Steinski’s “Lesson” mixes. Creating popular music is a ruthless evolutionary process. You sort through idea after idea, looking for the hooks. The best mashups take the Darwinian process to the next level, mating the hooks together into ultrahooks. My favorite mashups of the moment are the United State Of Pop mixes by DJ Earworm. He takes the top twenty-five singles from a given year and boils them down into single, devastating tracks.
There are plenty of other high-concept mashups like these, and some of them work as music, but a lot of them are gimmicky and annoying. In order to work, there has to be some musical resonance between the source tracks. The more unexpected the affinity, the better. My favorite Earworm mashup combines Django Reinhardt’s performance of “Brazil” with Paul Simon’s “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.”
Who would have guessed that the bouncy rhythms of South African pop as filtered through the mind of a Jewish folksinger from Queens would mesh so well with the bouncy rhythms of samba as filtered through the mind of a Belgian gypsy jazz guitarist? This kind of discovery is only possible via a lot of trial and error. The growing ease and plummeting price of audio editing makes trial and error a lot less onerous than it used to be.
One of the great pleasures of sample-based music is encountering something familiar in a strange context. Sometimes the recontextualization can be jokey, like Ludacris’ ironically grandiose “Coming 2 America” which combines quotes from the Eddie Murphy movie with themes from both Mozartâ’s Requiem and the last movement of Dvorak’s New World symphony. Sometimes it’s playful without being jokey. Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria from his opera The Magic Flute shows up in “Like You” by Kelis, and it makes me wonder why every R&B song doesn’t include coloratura soprano.
The mixtape-mashup analogy isn’t perfect. Mixtapes are linear, with each song usually appearing once. If you make a mashup in this linear way, with each sample appearing only once, it will probably be annoying. Within the parameters of a song, repetition is crucial to enjoyment. This is why Girl Talk gets on my nerves. He runs a sample four or eight times and then forgets about it. His tracks are too much like watching someone else flip channels on TV for my tastes.
I’m especially interested in musicians who use samples of themselves as the basis of new works. The first Nas song I heard was his biggest hit, “Nas Is Like.” The chorus is based on samples of his earlier song “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.” When I heard the original, it sounded like it’s full of samples of “Nas Is Like.” This confusion of time sequence is one of the central pleasures of sample-based music for me. The meta-recursive hip-hop prize probably belongs to the Fugees, whose song “The Score” includes samples of every other song on the album of the same name.
The mashup doesn’t belong exclusively to music. The video mashup is coming excitingly into its own. I would have expected that combining two songs in 5/4 time might be too clever, but in this case it works:
The video mashup’s answer to DJ Earworm is Kutiman, who stitches together multiple Youtube videos. Check out “The Mother Of All Funk Chords”:
Jonathan Lethem’s essay on literary mashup culture, “The Ecstasy Of Influence,” is itself an amazing literary mashup. There are visual mashups too, I have a collection of them on Flickr. An intriguing random visual mashup maker is the Ad Generator. Its makers explain: “Words and semantic structures from real corporate slogans are remixed and randomized to generate invented slogans. These slogans are then paired with related images from Flickr, thereby generating fake advertisements on the fly.” It works uncannily well.
The fan-made advertising mashup shows the potential to become an entire new artistic style unto itself. Dig this trailer for an as-yet nonexistent Green Lantern movie made entirely out of pieces of other movie trailers:
Sasha Frere-Jones says in his essay 1 + 1 + 1 = 1:
See mashups as piracy if you insist, but it is more useful, viewing them through the lens of the market, to see them as an expression of consumer dissatisfaction. Armed with free time and the right software, people are rifling through the lesser songs of pop music and, in frustration, choosing to make some of them as good as the great ones.
This very blog post is a mashup of Glenn Gould and Wayne Marshall and DJ Earworm and Grandmaster Flash and Kutiman and uncountable others. I know there are plenty of copyright holders out there that regard any kind of derivative work as stealing. I think it’s a misplaced form of anxiety. I think mashups are natural, healthy, and the best vector to get your ideas circulating through the memepool long after you’re gone. As I was writing this post, I discovered someone did a version of my Michael Jackson sample map with Michael Jackson on it, and I couldn’t be more flattered.
Long live DJ culture, across whatever media!