Music Mixmasters

Imagine Joni Mitchell singing ‘Woodstock’ while the grunge metal
guitars of Soundgarden wail accompaniment. Imagine jazz pianist
Herbie Hancock jamming with the Beastie Boys or Salt-n-Pepa
collaborating with Iggy Pop. Imagine any two or more musical
compositions overlaid so artfully that something new and wonderful
is created — a total blend, not the snippets you hear in sampling.
Once the domain of an avant-garde audio underground, this sort of
remix — often called a mash-up — has become a populist art form,
thanks to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated (and readily
available) audio editing software.

Mash-ups are especially popular with tech-head fans of current
rock and rap, but the idea of altering and recombining pop music
electronically is not exactly new. Rapping over existing music
tracks has been a mainstay of hip-hop music since the late ’70s;
sampling came later, and in the late 1980s John Oswald’s recording
Plunderphonics featured Dolly Parton singing a duet with
her own slowed-down voice, James Brown shouts spliced together
provocatively, and Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ run through an audio
blender. For the latter offense, Oswald was ordered to destroy all
copies of the CD, which he did after distributing hundreds of
copies for free. Today’s mash-ups, on the other hand, are created
on such a widespread and anonymous scale that an industry-wide
clampdown is impossible. Technically illegal bootleg recordings are
burned onto CDs, posted on blogs and other Web sites, and otherwise
given away or swapped widely. The movement has grown so large that
there is now a television show in the U.K. — MTV Mash
that commissions legal remixes

Singer David Bowie, for one, has acknowledged these bootlegs,
promoting a Bowie-Bowie mash-up contest on his Web site while
stipulating rules that allow him to retain copyright. Others in the
music industry have reacted more negatively. Last year the record
label EMI served a cease and desist order on DJ Danger Mouse in
response to The Grey Album, a remix of the Beatles’
White Album (owned by EMI) with rapper Jay-Z’s The
Black Album
, but such legal challenges seem like thumbs in a
leaky dam. Since mash-ups are generally created outside of the cash
economy, for pleasure and not profit, there is every indication
that the movement and its practitioners will continue to

An audio bootlegger known as IDC says he’s excited to be part of
what he calls ‘the first music scene to be born of the Internet.’
Calling mash-ups ‘aural pop art,’ IDC notes — in an interview in
the webzine The Confidential
— that the movement has advanced beyond the simple mixing of
vocals from one song with rhythm tracks from another and has moved
into more complex blends of individual instrumental tracks. Take
‘Bootystition,’ a remix that mash-up aficionado Leslie Powell says
combines ‘Wild Cherry, Stevie Wonder, Destiny’s Child, and Peter
Gabriel into this thing that is utterly uncanny.’ Such
mash-ups are not mere remixes, Powell says, but rather are
‘designed to sound as if they’re completely legitimate songs,
crafted that way originally.’

The movement of mixing isn’t limited to music. Years ago people
listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while
watching The Wizard of Oz and discovered that the album
matched the movie scene for scene. Before that, Woody Allen
appropriated a Japanese action movie and redubbed it comically,
creating What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Since then, underground
versions of Star Wars Episode 1 and Harry Potter and
the Sorcerer’s Stone
have made the rounds, notable for their
alternative sound tracks. Also, as Jesse Walker noted last year in
Reason magazine (May 2003), the Web contains
countless satirical ‘political remixes’ in which ‘politicians’ and
newscasters’ words are recombined.’

As Powell suggests, audio and video mash-ups are the latest in a
long tradition of media appropriation and cultural poaching that
includes slash fiction — fan-written short stories that put TV and
film characters in radically new contexts (see ‘Kirk, honey. It’s
me, Spock!,’ Utne Reader, Sept./Oct. 2002). The human
spirit will always find ways to recombine what it is given and
create new metaphors outside the bounds of commerce. In a fractious
world, mash-ups are a metaphor of connection, bridging the
unbridgeable, confounding the idea of purity, and gleefully
flouting borders.

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