Examining Mash-up Culture
Back in 2006, at the 48th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, a pop legend and a rap legend shared the stage for five minutes of star-crossed, genre-blending musical hybridization. At this very moment, however, in dorm rooms and apartments worldwide, they likely share the earbuds of thousands.
Indeed, Paul McCartney and Jay-Z are icons of separate eras and styles--think mop-top versus hip-hop--but in today's culture this need not segregate their art to different albums or even songs. 2004's The Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton) is audio proof that such boundaries are no reason to keep vinyl and MP3 at arm's length from each other. Burton's mix of Hova's The Black Album and The Beatles' self-titled 1968 double album (known as "The White Album")--aside from becoming a clandestine fascination--was downloaded over 100,000 times in one day alone as part of a conscious effort to stick it to the record industry. A sign of the new wave? As it stands now, there certainly isn't a lack of evidence.
To your parents, for instance, Girl Talk means a chick-flick movie or Sex and the City reruns. But to the college generation, Girl Talk is delicious musical ADD in the form of a "mash-up," that is, a sampling of rock, pop, rap, jazz, flamenca, etc. all thrown into one. In a 2008 interview, Girl Talk (a.k.a Gregg Gilles) explained: "I want to take a song that some people hate, some people love, some people feel indifferent about and make it something new." He's not alone. Search "mash-ups" on Google and you're likely to find the stitched-and-woven hooks of Milkman, Super Mash Bros. or even the Jay-Z-Radiohead blend album Jaydiohead. Where else can you hear Eminem's "Toy Soldiers" overlaid on "Let it Be?" That'd be track 08, "Heart to Heart," on Milkman's Circle of Fifths.
Interestingly, though, the mash-up is no longer contained to music. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the parody novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, and yes, Jane Austen, blends the classic novel with zombie fiction. Literary purists may cry heresy and bemoan such an amalgamation, but P&P&Z--which reached number three on the New York Times bestseller list in April--is not alone on the hybrid bookshelf. Fancy The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts, and Zombies? Or how about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim? (Orson Wells may be rolling over in his grave, but I have a feeling Twain's laughing along with us here.)
Of course, the difference between these text mash-ups and their audio counterparts is that while the musical version deals with existing canon--in a sense raiding the top 40 for its ingredients--the literary version requires the creativity of an additional writer working with a long-dead novelist. Thus, we will sadly never hear the (ghostwritten) prose of Ian Fleming mixed with Harper Lee's penmanship in License to Kill a Mockingbird. Alas, the limits of mash-up books.
Still, these works do prompt interesting questions. Are we witnessing the future of creative media? To what degree are these artists and writers actually artists and writers? And where exactly is the line of originality that cuts between the creative and the plagiaristic?
Regardless of the answers (to the second I think we can say that Girl Talk is an artist but not a musician), there does seem to be a sad trend these days towards less originality in creative culture and more toward what simply sells. Take the modern superhero movie, for example. Or recent revivals of Star Trek, G.I. Joe, Terminator and yet another Fast and Furious sequel. In fact, of the current top 25 box office films of the year, only 12 are not sequels or not based on a book. Of those, the highest on the list is Up, made by the folks at Pixar, who consistently produce at least one of the best original films every year. Of course, Pixar toys sell as well (that's what Disney marketing will do) and Toy Story 3 is due out next year, but that doesn't change the fact that talking dogs with helium voices are hilarious. Squirrel!
But where does that leave us now? In 50 years, will radios be all mash-up all the time? Will we be going to the theater for the film adaptation of The Old Brave Man and the New Sea World? Have we seriously run out of good ideas? Or, as Girl Talk would put it, are we actually finding a new way to novelty itself?