Pop's Bastards Are Mash-ups a Clever Culture Jam or Mere Cynical Sarcasm?
Published Apr 01, 2003The riff is unmistakable, that plangent three-chord lament leavened by Kurt Cobain's innate melodic verve, but something about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is giving off a funny odour. After 15 seconds, the three-dimensional diva attack known as Destiny's Child croons to the fore, Beyonce and co. replacing Kurt's angstful shrieks with a spoonful of syrup. Where before it gave off a vaguely deodorant air, grunge's anthem now smells like booty. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has called this unauthorised remix "a fucking mess," and he couldn't be more right. Welcome to the land of the mash-up, where sounding wrong is just the point.
Led by obscure artists like Belgium's 2 Many DJs, a band of internet pirates forged last year's sole groundbreaking form: bastard pop. This music, known more widely as mash-up, is created when the a cappella from one (usually rap or R&B) track is laid over the instrumental from another (usually rock) song. The most famous of these illegal remixes is Freelance Hellraiser's "A Stroke of Genius," in which Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" vocal rides nimbly over the Strokes' "Hard to Explain."
Aristotle defined the good metaphor as "an intuitive perception of the similarities in dissimilar objects," an observation borne out by the addictive appeal of so many mash-up songs. Bastard pop works best when two seeming opposites are fused together, as when Salt n' Pepa's "Push It" is turned into a righteous riot grrrl anthem with the help of the Stooges' garage-rock classic, "No Fun." Then there's "God Only Knows Billie Jean," which finds Brian Wilson and Michael Jackson collaborating in a virtual state of eternal pre-pubescence.
As it turns out, making these remixes is a relatively simple process, within the grasp of any net surfer with a decent processor and plenty of free time. The internet is rife with file-sharing services (like Get Your Bootleg On) from which budding pirates can download a cappella tracks and instrumentals. From there, all the home producer has to do is use mixing software (e.g. Pro Tools) to tweak the tracks for length, pitch and tempo.
The mother of all mash-up sites is Boom Selection (www.base58.com/bsx), run by Daniel Sheldon, a 16-year old Briton who has collected a staggering 34 hours worth of bootleg MP3s onto a three-disc set titled Boom Selection_Issue 01. If mash-ups are addictive, this box provides the overdose.
Given the form's very structure, bastard pop isn't a particularly "new" art form at all, but it does raise interesting questions about copyright, creativity and consumerism in the digital age. Read in a positive light, these remixes represent a flattening of the creative hierarchy, whereby pop tunes are reclaimed from the corporate vault and used as creative fodder by formerly passive consumers. Says Bobby Carlton, who runs a mash-up club night in Los Angeles: "This is culture jamming in its purest form. Major artists and labels will have a problem with it, but kids with computers are doing revolutionary things with music."
One man's subversion is another man's theft, and while the reaction from corporate interests has been predictably enraged, the bootleggers are revelling in the sheer illegality of their endeavours. Take the case of The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever, a compilation created by profiteers who simply downloaded mash-up songs from the web and burned them onto a CD. "It is a case of bootleggers bootlegging bootlegs," chuckles 2 Many DJs' David Dewaele, one of the many artists whose illegal remixes were included on the disc, without permission.
While major labels have shut down some mash-up pages and restricted the distribution of compilations, they've been quick to appropriate the form, forking over the rights fees for legal remakes of familiar tunes. Kylie Minogue, a pop cipher if ever there was one, recently released a new version "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" over the instrumental from New Order's "Blue Monday." So say the majors: the mash-up is a legitimate form, so long as you've got the cash to prove it.
Legal questions aside, critics are quick to deride bastard pop's inherently caustic edge. "It's cynical music made by cynical, tired people with no ideas," says Slam, a Scottish techno producer. It's hard to disagree with him. Every time I listen to bastard pop, I'm left with a distinctly hollow feeling, like I've overdosed on sarcasm.
The mash-up is given a decidedly more intriguing twist on two recent releases, both of which place recognisable vocals over intricate (and entirely original) beatscapes. Too Hot for Solid Steel by DJs on Strike, and Kid 606's The Action-Packed Mentallist Brings You the Fucking Jams are invigorating albums, one-upping both pirates and prefab pop stars with the sheer inventiveness of their compositions. Remixers in the classic sense of the term, these artists elevate the mash-up from parody to art, infusing their music with an element all too uncommon in our disposable age: passion.