When my friend Annalee asked me whether I had any thoughts on mash-up, I did my usual overzealous research, downloading and listening to as many as I could lay my virtual hands on. Most of them were not particularly compelling. But some moved me, either with the ingeniousness of the combination or the sense that they were transgressing boundaries that might otherwise never be breached. In the end, though, I found that I liked thinking about the genre more than listening to it:
I like to think about mash-ups in relation to covers. We use the word “cover” so reflexively that we don’t give it much thought. But what does it really mean? If a cover of a song completely “covers” the original song, then it isn’t really a cover. Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” comes awfully close to doing this, for example. There’s a moment during the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 when Redding introduces “Respect” by saying that Aretha sort of took it away from him. When he launches into his original version of the song, part of you feels like even the title no longer belongs to him. When we speak of a “great cover,” though, we have this sort of robbery in mind. The original has to be there in the background, giving depth to the interpretation. But the robbery is so righteous that it feels silly to complain.Full disclosure requires me to confess that I made a few changes to this fragment, though I usually post them without any changes. In rereading what I'd come up with, I had the sense that it probably wasn't the final version that I'd sent Annalee. There were a few places where it seemed like something had been accidentally deleted. And two paragraphs ended too abruptly for my taste. The only major addition, though, is the line about the gray market. I couldn't resist. Why didn't I think of that formulation back in 2004?
When you’re talking about popular music, though, you have to confront the question of the “original” too. What is the original? Is it the song as transcribed in sheet music? Or is it the first recording of the song. Nobody would argue that the first recording of a Puccini opera from the 1920s constitutes the original music. But when you’re talking about, say, the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the way the record sounds matters a lot more than any notes printed on the page every could.
You could say that the quality of a cover version depends on its admixture of opacity and distortion. If it’s too opaque, the original song will be obscured. If it’s too neutrally transparent, it loses its raison d’être. The best covers tell the truth of the original, but tell it slant. They make you want to seek out the original without making themselves expendable.
Although mash-ups aren’t “covers” in a conventional sense, they also function according to this logic of the overlay. When the components of the mash-up are easily perceived, the ideal outcome is a track that interests you both in those components and in the way they are fused together. It matters a great deal, of course, what kind of components are used. The mash-up aesthetic derives in part from the way DJs function in rave culture. In that context it was – and is – common to overlay multiple repetitive, electronic tracks, often with the same number of beats per minute, in order to produce an integrated stream of sound in which the components matter considerably less individually than they do as a whole. At the opposite extreme are “pure” mash-ups that do little more than overlay two well-known songs without doing much of anything to alter them or even impose a more pronounced beat.
Even within this latter category, however, there are vast differences in feel between mash-ups that use components that seem to go together -- because of their lyrical content, their instrumentation, or a similar place in history – and those that strive for deliberately counter-intuitive combinations for aesthetic reasons. The mash-up that fuses the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” and the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” doesn’t do much to alter our perception of either song and principally inspires a desire to listen to the originals separately. By contrast, the one that brings the sweet flow of Missy Elliott to bear on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” reshapes our sense of her opening salvo of “Hit me!” and makes the line “twenty years ago” resonate very differently indeed, reminding us of a time when punk and hip-hop didn’t have to be fused together because they were already in steady dialogue with each other.
It’s no accident that, as in the case I just mentioned, the most successful mash-ups often involve overlaying hip-hop words with music that isn’t typically associated with the genre. The best hip-hop has always pushed the envelope in terms of making listeners question what does and doesn’t belong together, implicitly advocating an intellectual miscegenation to match the more literal sort that has regularly come up in its lyrical content, from Public Enemy to Eminem.
Of course, when Public Enemy chopped up all-manner of “white” sources to construct the Byzantine mosaic of sounds that comprise its musical beds, they were still haunted by the 1% rule: a drop of black sound must make the whole song “black.” The title of their superb Fear of a Black Planet makes the point explicitly. Perhaps we should be heartened, then by the fact that one of today’s best-known and best-loved “mash-up” records, DJ Danger Mouse’s fusion of the Beatles and Jay-Z, is called The Gray Album. If the racial purity of music were still being as rigidly reinforced as it was during the second half of the 1980s, he might have felt the need to call it DJ Danger Mouse’s Black Album.
Jay-Z’s decision to release a vocals-only version of his Black Album and encourage DJs to remix it creatively marks a convergence of hip-hop, remix, and mash-up culture that bodes well for the future of musical innovation, even as it underscores the legal problems of using copyrighted material to make something “new.” Our sense of what does and doesn’t belong together isn’t simply the product of cultural conditioning. The legal system vigorously patrols the border between different commodities.
The mash-up aesthetic presents in an easily understood form the broader dilemma facing contemporary artists overrun with an unprecedented quantity of cultural artifacts that call out to us to inhabit particular identities even as they threaten to dissolve whatever sense of ourselves might exist outside the ever-expanding territory of the marketplace. We conceive of ourselves as an aggregation of parts that derive in large measure from consumer culture. Whether we have legitimately purchased these parts and can therefore claim to “own” them is secondary to our perception that self-possession depends on our ability to impose our own order on them. Until we achieve this, the parts that comprise our identity will own us.
I think the proliferation of file-sharing, which both makes homebrewed mash-up culture an affordable alternative to traditional music-making and serves as the principal means of distributing illegal productions like The Gray Album, is symptomatic of this search for an order that we have ordered ourselves. If you can put the songs that define you on your iPod, grouped in playlists of your own creation, then you have made yourself a portable self.
For this reason, I believe that the radical potential in mash-up culture inheres in its resistance to traditional consumerism. So long as you can’t buy The Gray Album in stores, it retains an aura of inaccessibility. You can get it easily enough, with the right connections. You can even pay someone to download it for you and burn it to a disc. But all of this has to take place outside the normal channels of consumer capitalism. At best, it’s a gray market commodity.
The pleasure of listening to mash-ups is not in thinking, “Wow, I never would have thought of that. I can’t do that myself,” but the exact opposite: “I can do that too!” This is where mash-up culture most resembles punk. When punk musicians on stage would “front” by playing worse than they were capable of playing – the story of the Sex Pistols, aside from Sid Vicious, is exemplary in this regard – they were making an implicit appeal to their audience: “Join us.” The appeal of the performance thus lay not in the prowess it demonstrated but the suggestion that technical knowledge is not the essence of art making, but a supplement to it. The desired outcome for people attending a punk show was the sense, to borrow the title of Michael Azerrad’s book on alternative rock in America, that this band could be your life.
It’s worth noting, to come full circle, that cover songs have been a big part of punk culture. When Hüsker Dü turns the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” or the theme song from the Mary Tyler Moore show into a wall of shimmering noise, it feels like a glorious shattering of the superficially impenetrable façade of the commodity. The best mash-ups do something analogous and, in the process, redeem songs that have been played to death. Although very slick by the standards of do-it-yourself mash-ups, the one that overlays Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” U2’s “With Or Without You,” and the well-oiled throb of a rave rhythm section does precisely that.