Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Fun with Mashups

'Tis is the season of the mashup. Mashups are the combining of two or more songs into a new musical collage. The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works. The concept of mashups has been around for years; one of the earliest popular examples, a 1978 novelty song known as Stairway to Gilligan's Island, inserted the lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme song into the music of Stairway to Heaven. (Full story here).

Back in the day, such mashups had to be done acoustically; with the rise in digital media extraordinary musical collages can now be done by enthusiastic fans with computers and talent.

Unfortunately, such mashups don't sit well at all with the recording industry, which prefers to attack fans rather than encourage them. Stairway to Gilligan's Island was banned almost from the moment it first appeared (but -- thank God for the Internet! -- it's once again widely available via P2P). The most famous example occurred with last year's The Grey Album, DJ Dangermouse's excellent collage mix-up of The Beatles The White Album and JayZ's The Black Album. Despite being selected as the number one album of the year by Entertainment Weekly, The Grey Album received a "cease and desist" letter from Beatles song publisher EMI, which effectively outlawed the music. (Have no fear; it's still widely available here and via P2P, samizdat music for a revolutionary digital generation.)

EMI's heavy-handed attempt to ban the album earned them much contempt in cyberspace, and on Grey Tuesday (February 24th, 2004) hundreds of Websites carried mirrors of the complete Grey Album in protest. Far from stopping this new work of art, EMI in fact brought it worldwide exposure.

BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow summed it up nicely:

Copyright maximalists like to contrast copyright with the old system of patronage, when you could only make art if you could convince the Pope or a duke or a king that your art was worthy. Patronage really distorted creative expression, and copyright did indeed promise to decentralize authority over what kind of art was permitted.

But the EMI rep's answer to the Grey Album is patronage. "You must not make this art unless we permit it." If you work for one of a few big record companies, you can use their legal apparatus to clear the material you want to use in a mashup. Otherwise, your art is illegal and will be censored.

I think patronage is wrong -- I agree with the maximalists here. Let's end it. Let's share these mashups, make samples without permission, and continue to produce art without permission from the latter-day aristocracy of creativity.

Cut to the present. Another great mashup, this one a remix version of Green Day's phenomenally popular American Idiot called American Edit. The mashup's creators, who go by the Green Day-flipping handle "Dean Gray," release their extraordinary album and ten days later they, too, get a "cease and desist" order, this one from Warners, Green Day's label. Another "Grey Tuesday" (December 13th, 2005), roughly a quarter million downloads, more embarrassment for the recording industry, and worldwide publicity for American Edit, which is still also available all over the Net via P2P (and HIGHLY recommmended by yours truly).

Here are a couple of other mashup albums to whet your appetite:

Q-Unit: Greatest Hits combines 50 Cent and Queen. The results are fun, if less revelatory than those in American Idiot. The back cover art is a terrific visual mashup: 50 Cent reimagined as Freddy Mercury!

And, just in time for Christmas, the funky Santastic: Holiday Boots 4 Your Stockings.

Imagine if Picasso had received a "cease and desist" order from reps for the African sculptors who inspired his seminal 1907 classic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He might have painted Blue and Rose people for his entire career!


Anonymous said...

"The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works."


Surely you jest...

...and the analogy to Picasso is absurd - Picasso mastered the form. Very different from taking two paintings and digitally laying them one over the other.

PeaceLove said...

Rare indeed is the work of art which does not in some way build upon existing sources. When two or more elements are combined to create a new work which comments on and expands on the sources, the new work is an original work of art.

I used Picasso to make a point, but I acknowledge in retrospect it may not have been the best choice since he DID in fact invent Cubism. But I think you'll find if you study Picasso that he lifted many forms from African art. This is the nature of art and culture.

Perhaps Roy Lichtenstein would be a clearer example of a major artist who appropriated material from the culture and turned it into new works of art.

In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues. Imagine if some ASCAP goon had been sitting in the audience taking notes ("Let's see, 12 seconds of The Beatles Lovely Rita, twenty seconds of Miles Davis, twenty-two seconds of Sinatra's Love and Marriage..." Cage literally would have been unable to perform the work!

At any rate, I think American Edit is a superb work of art which is fundamentally different from Green Day's American Idiot. Obviously, "Dean Gray" took advantage of excellent source material, and their mashup honors Green Day while creating an original and fantastically energetic soundscape.

Remember, too, that this was a NON-COMMERCIAL work of art; no one ever attempted to make any money on this. The idea that artists can't freely make art unless they get "permission" strikes me as deeply offensive and anathema to a society that prides itself on its free exchange of ideas.

Anonymous said...

Kinda then depends on your definition of "make art".

If any hack with a computer can sling together two existing works, then where's the art?

Here, I'll play: I'll drop paint splatters on a Sex Pistols album. Boom! Jackson Bollocks! See? I've created art!

Anonymous said...

There's a huge difference between 'influenced by' and 'lifted outright.' If you don't see that then we're speaking two different languages.

Anonymous said...

"In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues."

And it famously wasn't very popular. Coincidence? You decide...

PeaceLove said...

I decided to respond in a new post.