Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sometimes it's more than a guilty pleasure

I regard most mash-ups as guilty pleasures. I get to hear two or more songs at once; often at least one of them is of-the-moment commodity pop; and I enjoy remarking that whoever put it together is clever, and possibly has too much free time. Then, as with commodity pop, the buzz wears off, and I wait for the next one.

While the mash-up has existed for quite some time (remember 'Stars on 45' in 1981, which has a great quasi-mash-up moment with 'Boogie nights' and 'Funky town'), the general consensus is that it entered the modern era and the lexicon in the fall of 2001, when Freelance Hellraiser layered Christina Aguilera's a cappella vocal for 'Genie in a bottle' on top of the instrumental of Strokes' 'Hard to explain', cheekily titling it 'A stroke of genius'. It was a watershed moment, powerfully embodying the new possibilities provided by powerful home computer audio technology. I remember even National Public Radio did a segment on it.

Guilty pleasures are rarely the stuff of watershed moments, and 'Stroke of genius' has greater potency because it demonstrates that a superior mash-up effects something far more significant than a momentary diversion. While the pop song has been for almost a century one of the ultimate expressions of modernism in popular culture, the mash-up is transitively one of its ultimate disruptions of modernism. It is, in fact, postmodern.

The more successful popular music is, the more it reaffirms our modernist sensibilities. The pop song pinpoints a specific location in linear time. It confirms our concepts of order, meter, scale and symmetry. It affirms our idea of ourselves as creative, progressive beings who devise and utilize technology to enhance our lives, both practically and aesthetically.

The superior mash-up, however, deconstructs our notions of the pop song in general, and of the specific songs it contains. Much more so than a medley, rather than respecting the song as a unique whole, it breaks it apart for use as a building block, and then confuses us further by building another song. It embraces the ambiguity, contradiction and destabilization that comes from experiencing familiar things in subverted ways. It simultaneously exists as something new and something old, disrupting our experience of time. One is aware as much of what one is not hearing as what one is, and one continuously loses and regains awareness of each original song. Pop music is turned inside out - this is anti-commercial; the visceral drives an intellectual experience; and it's novel in form, rather than content.

To be sure, this is not usually the case; most mash-ups fall short of the postmodern standard. Actually, I'd say that's not uncommon with postmodernity in general, one of the most mercurial art/philosophy movements we've ever produced. Oftentimes, to over-think or force a postmodern exercise is to kill it utterly. But the successfully postmodern mash-up has surfaced on occasion since 'Stroke of genius'. Mark Vidler's Go Home Productions are responsible for an excellent mash-up of Blondie's 'Rapture' and Doors' 'Riders on the storm', succinctly named 'Rapture Riders'. Soulwax produced the fantastic New Order/Kylie Minogue confab called 'Can't get Blue Monday out of my head'. In both of those cases, the artists were impressed and open minded enough to license those mash-ups and release them commercially. Go Home Productions is also responsible for a brilliant mash-up of Queen's 'Under pressure' and Michael Jackson's 'Rock with you', entitled 'Jacko under pressure'.

And now it seems to have happened again. I only encountered it this week, but apparently a couple months ago Party Ben put out a mash-up of Police's 'Every breath you take' and Snow Patrol's 'Chasing cars' - aptly titled 'Every car you chase', which enjoyed a solid fifteen minutes of fame in the UK.

It's stunning how brilliantly they fit together. While the chord progressions of the two songs aren't the same, they're hugely mutually sympathetic, as are the lyrics (and lyrics from both songs are included, even though the instrumentation is predominantly from the Police.) The emotional resonance of both songs reemerges, which is an accomplishment since both of them experienced their share of overexposure. 'Every car you chase' doesn't exist in 1983, nor in 2006 (and not really in 2007, either) - but toggles freely back and forth, unable to settle anywhere. One hears both songs differently, and experiences them as a synergy.

Hats off, I say, to Party Ben, and to Freelance Hellraiser and Go Home Productions, who have brought us these alchemical moments, and elevated the mash-up to a postmodern art form. Hats off, also, to the entrepreneurial soul who mashed up the Police and Snow Patrol videos, so you can even watch a video mash-up for 'Every car you chase'. Whether it's a curse or not, I'd say we definitely live in interesting times.