After three years of trying and failing to publish this paper in a proper academic journal, despite its winning a "Top Paper" award at the ICA conference in 2004, I have decided to publish it online. Mash-ups have evolved considerably since I wrote this (my dissertation will cover much of the interim ground), but I believe this paper may still hold some interest for others interested in aesthetic resistance, remix music, configurable cultural practices, and so forth.
Please feel free to read, recirculate, cite, reference, blog, excoriate, remix, etc.
I've tried my best to get typepad to format this correctly, but it's still a little wonky, especially the table. However, it should all be legible at the least. If you would like a copy in MS Word format, please email me.
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Running Head: MASH IT UP!
Mash it up!
Hearing a new musical form as an aesthetic resistance movement
a new musical form in which vocals from one popular song are digitally
juxtaposed with the rhythm section of another song, can be understood as
aesthetic dissent in the vein of rap music, slash literature and video game modding. By mashing together songs from different genres,
artists both subvert traditional producer-consumer power dynamics and question
the music industry’s use of genre as an instrument of market segmentation and
product differentiation. This movement has emerged on the Internet in recent
years as a reaction against music industry consolidation, aesthetic
consolidation, and mounting battles over the control of intellectual property.
Hearing a new musical form as an aesthetic resistance movement
The mash-up, also known as “bootleg” or “bastard pop,” is a new musical form that has developed in the last five years from an arcane online oddity to a celebrated and infamous worldwide phenomenon. In this paper, I argue that the form represents an emergent, self-organized aesthetic resistance movement against the consolidation of the music industry and the resulting consolidation of popular music aesthetics.
The form has a few relatively well-defined rules. First, all source materials must be recycled. Vocals, accompaniment, ambient noise, and anything else that goes into the mix must be sampled from an already existing piece of recorded music. Usually, the mash-up is comprised of only two pieces – the vocal track from one song and the instrumentation from another song. However, there are many less frequent variants, incorporating samples from anywhere between three and hundreds of different source songs. Mash-up artist Osymyso, for instance, has produced a popular track called Intro Inspection that incorporates samples from 101 separate songs.
The second fundamental rule of mash-up aesthetics is cognitive dissonance. As one mash-up artist explains, “a good mash up / bootleg is a culture clash . . . styles that shouldnt work together but do” (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., 3 November). In other words, the more disparate the origins of a mash-up’s sonic components, the more successful it is considered to be.
One of the first mash-ups to gain widespread prominence, Smells Like Booty by Soulwax (also known as 2 Many DJs), is a perfect example of this rule in action. It combines the vocals of R&B group Destiny’s Child’s Bootylicious with grunge band Nirvana’s anthemic Smells Like Teen Spirit. It is difficult to describe the surprising perfection of this unlikely juxtaposition without playing the song itself. As one mash-up artist describes, the two source songs simultaneously attract and repel each other with equal force: “the impact comes with either 2 trax being so made for each other or so diametrically opposed.” (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., 6 December).
This near perfect application of practice to theory has made Smells Like Booty the ideal vehicle for bastard pop’s introduction into mainstream culture. It was cited by nearly every major media article about the phenomenon in the two years following its 2002 release (Norris, 2002; Strauss, 2002; Taylor, 2003), and was chosen as a top ten single by 18 different critics in The Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop issue (18 February, 2003: 93). Interestingly, however (considering the form’s deconstruction of authorship), the Voice misidentified the creator of the track – a different mash-up artist, Freelance Hellraiser, was credited.
Like many new musical forms, mash-ups were enabled by the development of new technologies. Western classical music aesthetics crystallized during the baroque era due in large part to the invention of the clavier (Abraham, 1979). More recently, rap music developed following technological advances that made audio mixing and copying technologies available at consumer prices (Rose, 1994). The enabling technology for mash-ups is the Internet-connected PC.
The rapid penetration of Internet access in consumers’ homes over the last decade has created a fundamentally new social infrastructure for music; for the first time in industrialized society, the majority of people have access to the means of production, distribution and consumption in a single, affordable, easy-to-use device. As a result of this development, we have already seen drastic changes in distribution (e.g. file sharing networks) and consumption (e.g. MP3 players, self-compiled CDs). Viewed in this light, mash-ups can be understood as an equivalent shift in the production part of the process.
More specifically, the sudden proliferation of mash-ups on the Internet in 2000 and 2001 can probably be attributed in large part to a single piece of software. Sonic Foundry’s Acid Music 2.0, released in October, 1999, has been cited by many mash-up artists as their first and/or favorite production tool (Mash-up artists 2003, pers. comm., October-December; Strauss, 2002; Taylor, 2003). The software, currently in version 5 release and now owned by Sony Pictures Digital, makes mash-up production far easier than it would be with standard audio editing software – users can alter and match the tempos or pitches of separate samples with a mouse click, apply audio effects like reverb and distortion, and export to a range of audio formats, including streaming audio and MP3.
However, as easy as mash-up production is with software like Acid, the technology alone does not explain the emergence of the new musical form. As many communication theorists have argued, technology’s use and development are always shaped by social forces (Bijker & Law, 1992; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1985; Williams & Edge, 1996). This interrelationship can be observed historically in musical development as well. Writing about hip-hop, Rose (1994: 71) explains: “although rap music is shaped by and articulated through advanced reproduction equipment, its stylistic properties are not merely by-products of such equipment.” Rather, she argues, musicians use technological innovation as a springboard for aesthetic innovation, expressing ideas that existed in latent, inchoate form prior to their development.
What social forces, then, shaped the development of mash-ups? I argue that the new musical form may be understood as an emergent aesthetic resistance movement positioned against a global recording industry that no longer adequately serves the needs of its audience. More specifically, mash-ups can be understood as an appropriative art form in the vein of slash (Penley, 1997, Wooley, 2002) and video game modding (Marriott, 2003). By actively juxtaposing songs that “shouldn’t work together but do,” the mash-up artist is simultaneously reversing the traditional producer-consumer dichotomy and laying bare the illusion of choice promulgated by genre-based music marketing tactics.
This movement was not born in a vacuum. Contextually, it may be understood as a reaction to three forces shaping the music industry today: increased focus on control over intellectual property, corporate consolidation, and aesthetic consolidation.
The mounting war over intellectual property
Throughout most of the twentieth
century, the music industry had a relatively simple system for exploiting the
ownership of intellectual property. For many decades, there was only one
copyright associated with recorded music in
Profiting from the control of these rights was simple because there were very few ways in which music could be exploited for revenues. The four primary distribution avenues for music were live performances, sheet music, broadcast radio, and recorded media, such as vinyl records and cassettes. A handful of organizations, such as ASCAP, BMI, and the Harry Fox Agency, policed these avenues, collecting royalties and redistributing them to rights owners. Redistribution by consumers, although frowned upon, was considered a minor threat, and in some cases, was afforded privileged status as “fair use.” If a person played a record at a dinner party, or made a free cassette copy for a friend, it was unthinkable that the music industry would actively seek to restrain these behaviors or seek compensation for them (Krasilovsky & Shemel, 1995; Vaidhyanathan, 2001).
The dominance of the CD format in the 1980s, followed by the proliferation of Internet PCs and CD-writable drives in the late 1990s, posed a serious challenge to this system. Because CDs hold music in a digital, unencrypted format, CD-writers allowed consumers to make a potentially infinite number of copies with no loss of quality. By contrast, copies made on cassettes drastically reduced sound quality with every iteration. Meanwhile, online file sharing networks and other Internet music services allowed consumers to redistribute music to an audience of millions, rather than to a limited circle of friends.
These developments changed the industry-consumer relationship in profound ways. Music listeners, exposed to the flexibility, malleability and broad availability of digital music files, began to develop new, more empowered relationships to recordings. The album format, with its brief, single-artist song list arranged in a predetermined sequence, diminished in appeal. Personalized playlists, comprised of a wide range of artists and styles, and endlessly permutable, became the norm for digital music listeners. Simultaneously, many of these consumers began to think of themselves as producers as well, either by tailoring their music playlists or by remixing or otherwise altering the sound files themselves (Rojas, 2002; Sinnreich & Romano, 2001).
The music industry, accustomed to a profit system predicated on control, became justifiably concerned. Record labels, publishers, and other rights holders were faced with the unenviable choice between fundamentally reorganizing a multibillion dollar industry with no clear blueprints to accommodate an increasingly unpredictable consumer base or retrenching and defending the traditional system through increasingly draconian measures.
The largest businesses in the music industry have focused primarily on the latter strategy. As Lessig (2001) and Vaidhyanathan (2001) have described, the recording industry has developed an increasingly antagonistic relationship with its own customers in recent years. The situation is approaching crisis levels for both businesses and consumers. Record sales slumped significantly in the first few years of the new century, as consumers shifted their spending money to music equipment (e.g. MP3 players) and other, more appealing entertainment products (e.g. DVDs, video games) (Masson, 2003). The recording industry responded by decreasing the functionality of its own product through measures like CD copy-protection technology (Sinnreich, 2002) and by spying on, and suing, digital music listeners. By the end of 2004, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had sued nearly 7,000 Americans for engaging in file sharing (McGuire, 2004).
Music industry consolidation
The battle over intellectual property is hardly the only sea change affecting the music industry today. It is both a consequence of, and a justification for, increasing corporate consolidation. Like many other commercial and industrial sectors, the music industry has lobbied for, and received, numerous regulatory concessions over the last two decades. The increasingly deregulatory environment has allowed companies within the industry to conduct mergers and acquisitions of unprecedented size and proportion, which have in turn produced an ever-diminishing oligopoly of market leaders. This trend holds for every arm of the industry, including record labels, radio stations, concert promoters, and retailers.
In 1998, the American music market was dominated by six “major” record labels, which collectively accounted for roughly 84 percent of the market (Hochman, 1998). In 2002, five major labels controlled approximately 85 percent of the market (Christman, 2003). Two of these five (BMG and Sony) recently merged operations, consolidating their record label operations into a single joint venture. Another two (Warner and EMI) planned to merge as well, but a third party ended up purchasing Warner instead (Billboard, 13 December 2003: 14). As a result of these developments, four companies now dominate a larger portion of the recording industry than six companies controlled a mere seven years ago.
The radio industry has undergone an even greater degree of consolidation than record labels in recent years. Historically, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limited the number of radio stations a single company could own, in the interest of maintaining both local and diverse programming. Over the years, this ownership cap slowly inched up, from and seven FM stations in 1953 to 20 AM and 20 FM in 1994. Throughout this period, companies were only allowed to own a single radio station on each band (i.e. AM and FM) for any given geographic market (DiCola & Thomson, 2002).
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by President Clinton, changed these rules. The national ownership cap was eliminated, and local ownership caps were raised significantly. The result was massive consolidation. The number of radio station owners nationwide dropped 33 percent between March, 1996 and March, 2002. The largest radio owner, Clear Channel, grew from 40 stations (the legal maximum) in 1996 to over 1,200 today. Much like the recording sector, radio has become dominated by a handful of players. Clear Channel and three other companies now account for approximately half of all commercial radio audience and revenues (DiCola & Thomson, 2002).
concert promotion and retail sectors have followed similar lines in recent
years. Clear Channel, the largest radio conglomerate, also owns SFX,
There is some debate among media researchers as to whether the attrition in the number of companies controlling music production and distribution has led to an attenuation in the aesthetic diversity of music available via mainstream media and retail channels. Peterson and Berger (1975) initiated the academic debate in their groundbreaking work Cycles in Symbol Production: The Case of Popular Music. In this article, they demonstrated an inverse relationship between music industry consolidation and aesthetic diversity in the music marketplace, based on analyses of Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 charts from 1948-1973.
In the 30 years since this article was published, several scholars have followed up on Peterson and Berger’s (1975) research, some supporting it (Christianen, 1995; Peterson & Berger, 1996; Rothenbuhler & Dimmick, 1982) and some refuting it (Alexander, 1996; Dowd, 2004; Lopes, 1992). As a thorough review of the arguments and measured used by these scholars could easily fill an article of its own, I will simply cite a few relevant data to illustrate what I feel is a convincing trend towards homogeneity, or, as I call it, aesthetic consolidation.
One indicator can be observed in the increasingly limited artist rosters at major record labels and in the resulting reduction in the number of major label album releases and attenuation of commercial radio playlists. Each of the major labels “has seriously slashed its artist rosters” in recent years, by as much as 20 or 30 percent (Anderman, 2003). Additionally, Willcox (2003) cites several data sources demonstrating a 20-25 percent drop in the number of albums released in the U.S. over a two year period, from 1999-2001. These trends are compounded by an aesthetic trend: an increasing portion of recording artists are solo musicians, rather than groups. This is a long-term pattern; big-band jazz was replaced by small-group jazz and rock, which in turn have been unseated by the dominance of solo and smaller-group forms like hip-hop, modern pop, and electronic music.
DiCola and Thomson (2002) chart a reduction in the number of songs played on commercial radio, as well. They demonstrate that although the diversity of radio formats nominally increased in the years following the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the growing degree of playlist overlap between radio formats led to a decrease in actual programming diversity, measured in terms of the total number of songs played. In their words, “formats with different names, that would seem to distinguish different kinds of programming, actually serve as labels for playlists with many of the same songs” (2002: 67, original emphasis). Because deregulation is touted for its putative positive impact on diversity, this distinction is quite significant.
This artificially constructed impression of aesthetic diversity in radio formats has an analog in the recording industry: despite the broad range of genres promoted by the record labels, their methods of finding, recording, and marketing artists encourages a pervasive sameness in the products they eventually produce. This can be observed in the development of new technologies for streamlining the music production and marketing processes. One popular tool in the recording industry is pitch correction technology, available with high-end mixing and editing software such as ProTools. Pitch correction allows technicians to alter the pitch of sung (or played) notes after they have been recorded, thus smoothing out the irregularities of a given performer, and in essence, making any given performance more predictable and similar to other performances. While music label executives and employees tout the cost-saving benefits of the technology, critics complain that it produces an environment in which “artists are no longer signed on the basis of vocal ability” (Taylor, 2000). Although there is no official tally of the number of new songs using pitch correction, its sonic artifacts are audible to the experienced ear in hundreds of new releases.
Another new technology that contributes to increasing song predictability and similarity is Hit Song Science (HSS), produced by Polyphonic HMI. HSS uses proprietary waveform analysis software to automatically identify dozens of musical qualities, such as melody, harmony, pitch, tempo, and rhythm, for any given song. The company then compares a new song’s acoustic profile to a database consisting of millions of songs recorded over the decades. By identifying songs that have a strong “affinity” with other recent hits, the company advises record labels which songs to release and which songs to keep to itself. Record labels seem to find this technology compelling; several major labels currently use HSS in their decision-making process (Werde, 2003; M. McCready 2003, pers. comm., October-November).
Using HSS, it is possible to measure the similarity between songs empirically. Polyphonic’s own analysis shows that the entire database of hit songs released over a recent five year period (defined as songs listed on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart from 1998-2003) comprise only 50-55 separate “clusters.” Within each of these clusters, there is little appreciable difference between songs. Moreover, at any given moment, only a subset of these clusters actively contain new popular songs; some clusters lay dormant, passed over by the prevailing aesthetic fashions for years before being “reactivated” as the fashion cycle repeats itself (M. McCready 2003, pers. comm., October-November).
There are a fair number of songs that fall outside these clusters, but Polyphonic attributes their success to:
the so-far infallible theory that some songs have become hits due to their lyrics more than their music (e.g. patriotic songs after 9/11) or because the artist was at the pinnacle of their career and could have released anything and it would have shot up the charts. (M. McCready 2003, pers. comm., 21 November).
An interesting result of HSS analysis is that genre becomes irrelevant. As an executive of the company writes: “A hit from genre X could be mathematically similar to hits from many other genres. . . [genres] cannot be distinguished by mathematical patterns.” (M. McCready 2003, pers. comm., 21 November). In order to demonstrate this fact, Polyphonic shared the generic contents of three clusters – this time, culled from a larger database of roughly 1 million songs recorded over the last 50 years.
Pop/Rock 41% 18% 1%
R&B 21% 36% 3%
Novelty 3% 5% 0%
Soundtrack 11% 6% 4%
Latin 7% 20% 0%
Blues 3% 3% 7%
Country 4% 6% 0%
Jazz 8% 3% 12%
Classical 0% 2% 73%
Other 2% 1% 0%
As the data show (see Table 1), Clusters A, B, and C each contain music from a variety of different genres. The majority of songs in Cluster A can be categorized as pop, rock, or R&B; however, it contains a considerable number of soundtrack, Latin, and jazz songs as well. Cluster B contains primarily songs from the pop, rock, R&B, and Latin genres, but it also contains a considerable number of novelty, country, and soundtrack recordings. Cluster C is the only one of the three to have a single-genre majority, classical music. However, this fact serves to emphasize the relative similarity of popular music in contradistinction.
The uses of genre
If genre has very little bearing on the fundamental similarities or differences between songs, then why does the concept exist, and how can we identify it so easily when we hear it?
Clearly there is a sonic basis for genre that exists on top of “deeper” musical qualities such as harmony and rhythm. Psychoacoustic research (Perrot & Gjerdigan, 1999) has shown that most people can accurately predict whether they will like a song or not after hearing it for as short a time as 250 milliseconds. Aucouturier and Pachet (2003: 89) argue that this means “humans can judge genre by using only an immediately accessible ‘surface.’” This fact suggests that music producers have become adept at marking musical genre using such “surface” elements, and that music listeners have become equally adept at interpreting these markers.
However, there are also generic markers that exist independently of the sonic artifact itself. Popular music today is marketed heavily through music videos, magazines, fashion, and a broad variety of other visual media. As Goodwin (1992) has observed, visual cues often contribute to and reinforce existing perceptions regarding music and genre. Generic distinctions are also reinforced through corporate structure; vital record label functions such as artist relations are organizationally segregated by genre, and are often geographically separated, as well (e.g. by being located on different floors of the corporate offices, or on different coasts of the continent).
But why do music producers and listeners tacitly conspire to support the illusion of aesthetic diversity through the artifice of genre, when such distinctions are measurably irrelevant? The answer is systemic: genre is a social delineator, not an aesthetic one. This argument is familiar to cultural theorists and genre systems theorists, and applies to a broad range of both communicative and aesthetic practices. As Yates and Orlikowski (2002: 14) argue: “The purpose of a genre is not an individual's private motive for communicating, but a purpose socially constructed and recognized by the relevant organizational community for typical situations.” Aucouturier and Pachet (2003: 84, original emphasis) apply this argument specifically to music. In their words, “music genre is an ill-defined notion, that is not founded on any intrinsic property of the music, but rather depends on cultural extrinsic habits.”
This interpretation helps explain the value of genre to both producers and consumers of music. For the music industry, genre serves as a system of market segmentation, a method of differentiating an otherwise undifferentiated product, thus creating the illusions of choice and novelty, which are vital elements of modern commercial marketing strategies (Frank, 1997). Neale (1990: 63; quoted in Abramson, 2002: 262) describes the film industry as similarly “ruled . . . by market pressures to differentiate to a limited degree in order to cater to various sectors of consumers, and to repeat commercially successful patterns.”
For many music listeners, the social messages embedded within generic conventions serve as an important signifier of in-group/out-group distinctions, much as consumption of any commercial product would (Jenkins, 1996; Lamont & Molnár, 2001). By purchasing and listening to music from one genre, rather than another, the music listener is, in effect, choosing to identify with one social group over another. This power is profound, and applies to even the broadest cultural identity distinctions. As Abramson (2002: 257, original emphasis) observes, music “can be said to function as a mediation of nationhood.”
Effects of consolidation
Although most music listeners are complicit in the system of generic categorization, this should not be taken as a sign that they benefit from, prefer, or are even aware of the aesthetic consolidation that such distinctions help to mask. Arguably, the system could not work unless it was invisible – in other words, genre has meaning because people believe it does.
Aesthetic consolidation does have a considerable, albeit largely unacknowledged, detrimental effect on music listeners. Aesthetic practices and artifacts are often interpreted as tangential or subservient to our social, psychological and political lives, even by cultural studies scholars. Hall (1998: 435), for instance, writes that he is primarily interested in the study of popular culture because it “is the arena of consent and resistance . . . otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it.” Goodwin (1992: 5), one of the few contemporary scholars to focus on music, argues that its fundamental role in human life and society is all too often ignored by researchers because “music, more than any of the arts, is commonly thought to be somehow above and beyond rational analysis.”
However, there is another, equally valid tradition of understanding aesthetics as a fundamental dimension of the human condition. Dewey (1934) was the first to elaborate this theory of aesthetics, although many communication and cultural scholars have followed his lead. As Jensen (2001: 119) explains, Dewey is “adamant that aesthetic experience is everyday experience, and that the arts are more intense, meaningful, revealing and portable versions of things that happen each day. . . they are the human practice of communication.”
According to Deweyan theory, experience without an aesthetic component is impossible, because the aesthetic process is by definition the mechanism through which the human mind translates pure sensation into meaningful experience. As Dewey (1934: 54) writes in his seminal Art As Experience, “to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience.” This argument has been supported by neurobiological research. Newberg and d’Aquili (2000), reviewing contemporary research in their field, argue that from a mechanical standpoint, the aesthetic mind is located in the same regions of the brain that are responsible for constructing a coherent understanding of reality.
If aesthetic experience is, by definition, the brain’s reality-construction mechanism at work, then we can understand aesthetic artifacts (e.g. songs) as both the product of, and a vital contributor to, the subjective reality construction process. Viewed in this light, the dangers of aesthetic consolidation become clear. As the aesthetic diversity of music available via mainstream distribution channels diminishes, so does music listeners’ choice of templates for understanding the world around them.
This problem is compounded by the ethically dubious source of those templates. Jones (2001: 24), writing about architectural review boards, laments that the diverse tastes of the public are too often “defined in singular terms and juxtaposed to the design professional in matters of aesthetic judgment.” Consequently, he feels that aesthetic decisions affecting the public at large are too often “subject to the process of hegemonic control, and the subversion of resistance or alternate points of view” (2001: 31). This same complaint could be levied against the consolidated music industry. Wedded to the bottom line and predicated on principles of predictability and control, the major labels and radio conglomerates have little incentive to provide an outlet for “alternative points of view.” Only by acting against the interests of music listeners can these organizations best protect their own interests.
Mash-ups as aesthetic resistance
Viewed against the backdrop of intellectual property wars, corporate and aesthetic consolidation, and a music generification system that perpetuates the illusion of consumer choice, the mash-up can be understood as a new resistant art form. However, in many respects, it owes much to what came before. In its formal, methodological and political aspects, the mash-up resembles a number of prior aesthetic and social movements.
Formalistically, the mash-up can be described as a subset of the remix aesthetic. The remix is predicated on the notion that an existing recorded performance can be recontextualized through the introduction of new sonic elements. The origins of this aesthetic lay in the cutting-and-splicing techniques of academic composers such as John Cage and John Oswald (Lochhead & Auner, 2002), and in the “versioning” approach to popular music embraced by dub reggae producers such as Lee Scratch Perry and Augustus Pablo (Hebdige, 1987). (In fact, the new musical form’s linguistic pedigree can probably be traced to reggae performers’ common exhortation to “mash it up!”, a phrase aptly encapsulating both the flux and violence of musical innovation).
While these twin origins both began as deconstructive aesthetics, the remix is now a common tool of the commercial recording industry, which can extend the market lifetime and broaden the audience for a given song by releasing several separate remixes (Paoletta, 2003). However, mash-ups differ from other remixes in that songs aren’t recontextualized with new sonic elements – rather, they are juxtaposed with sonic elements from other previously existing (and copyrighted) songs. This makes them a far less accessible tool for profit exploitation.
File sharing, a popular online activity in which millions of individuals use peer-to-peer software to exchange music and other files via the Internet, also informs the mash-up movement. Although file sharing is a social rather than aesthetic phenomenon, it is commonly understood as a form of politicized response to music industry consolidation and a weapon in the battle over intellectual property (Robinson & Halle, 2002; Vaidhyanathan, 2001). Like file sharing, mash-ups represent an emergent movement self-organized entirely via the Internet. Also like file sharing, a crucial element of the movement is its inherent illegality; the act of transgression serves as a potent symbol for protest.
Appropriative aesthetic movements such as slash (Penley, 1997; Wooley, 2002), a form of literature in which fans of a television show or some other popular entertainment product provide a (frequently erotic) backstory for their favorite characters, and video game modding (Marriott, 2003), in which computer-savvy fans edit and augment the appearance of commercial video games, shed light on the mash-up as well. In all three forms, people unaffiliated with the aesthetic industry take advantage of the available means of production (i.e. copy machines, editing and modding software) and distribution (i.e. the postal system, the Internet) to subvert the traditional consumer-producer dichotomy. This is usually done with an eye towards broadening the discourse in the public sphere. In Penley’s (1997: 101) words, slash authors “manipulate the products of mass-produced culture to stage a popular debate.” Exactly the same means and motive can be ascribed to mash-up artists.
Perhaps the most relevant precursor to the mash-up movement is rap music, an art form that developed from a localized, underground phenomenon in the mid-to-late 1970s to a dominant mainstream aesthetic of the 1990s and 2000s (Rose, 1994). As with mash-ups, “rap’s use of music technology [was] a crucial aspect of the development of the form” (1994: 25). Early rap musicians converted turntables, a technology explicitly built for consumption, into a species of “talking instruments,” with aesthetic similarities to traditional African and Afrodiasporic traditions such as talking drums (1994: 53). This decision was both aesthetic and social; in Rose’s words, we can understand the re-appropriation of turntable technology as “a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation” (1994: 39).
Like mash-ups, rap music sought both to undermine dominant power structures, and to rebuild them in a more egalitarian image. As Rose (1994: 65) argues:
[T]he arrangement and selections of sounds rap musicians have invented via samples, turntables, tape machines, and sound systems are at once deconstructive (in that they actually take apart recorded musical compositions) and recuperative (because they recontextualize these elements creating new meanings for cultural sounds that have been relegated to commercial wastebins.
However, rap and mash-ups differ in a subtle but important respect. Rap music’s activism may have used aesthetics as a vehicle, but its aims lay in other arenas; faced with a legacy of racial discrimination and media system that marginalized them, black and Latino artists used the hip-hop movement as an alternative medium for the dissemination of political and social dissent (Chang, 2003; Rose, 1994; Stapleton, 1998). This fact is perhaps best reflected in rapper Chuck D’s oft-quoted claim that rap was “like a CNN that black kids never had” (Gates, 1990). Mash-up artists, by contrast, use aesthetic means to protest aesthetic power structures; their motive can be interpreted as the subversion of a consolidated music industry, and the exposure of a consolidated aesthetic landscape masked by the artifice of genre. In this respect, the mash-up movement has more in common with file-sharing than with hip-hop.
Mash-ups as art
The mash-up is more than just a political tool; it is, after all, an art form, and like all art forms, it has the capacity to express a broad range of thoughts and emotions, expressed for a myriad of different reasons. On the one hand, as I have shown, the mash-up’s cognitively dissonant “culture clash” can be interpreted as a conscious deconstruction of genre. On the other hand, it may simply be an unconscious acknowledgement by music listeners that in the age of MP3s and unlimited access to online music, the power of genre as a tool for market segmentation and identity-building is diminishing.
Most likely, one motive applies to some mash-up artists at some points in time, while the other motive applies to others or at other points in time. Some mash-up artists I conversed with explicitly recognized the political dimension of their work. In the words of one artist, generic juxtaposition is a powerful aesthetic tool because “most ppl are brought up to be narrow minded when it comes to listening to music . . . u cant like punk if u like C&W etc” and a powerful political tool because “I love the idea of getting rid of the record company influence” (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., 6 December).
Other mash-up artists, however, cited other, more predictable reasons: pleasure and profit (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., October-December). Neither of these motivations is necessarily incommensurate with a political agenda. As Penley (1997: 101) observes, slash authors, if asked for their motives, “would say they are just having fun.” Similarly, Rose (1994: 22) refers to rap music practices “not only as sources of survival but as sources of pleasure.” To Hebdige (1979: 129), pleasure and politics may not only coexist in art, they require one another: “both artistic expression and aesthetic pleasure are intimately bound up with the destruction of existing codes and the formulation of new ones.”
Although the mash-up aesthetic is predicated in part on the form’s inherent illegality, several mash-up artists conceded that they expected their notoriety to ultimately aid their music careers (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., October-December). This potential for “going pro” is also reflected in the literature on slash and hip-hop. Rose (1994: 40) describes rap music’s evolution “from precommodity to commodity,” citing several underground rappers and DJs who became mainstream celebrities. Penley (1997) also describes slash as a starting-off place for literary careers, observing that a considerable portion of slash-writing amateurs eventually become professional writers.
The future of the mash-up
Although subversion may comfortably coexist with profit in the mash-up artist’s list of motives, the aesthetic form itself undergoes significant changes in its journey from precommodity to commodity. The movement, once named, becomes reified. What was once emergent and chaotic becomes quantifiable and ultimately controllable. Frank (1997: 33) describes this process as a sort of capitalist auto-immune system, calling counterculture the “official aesthetic of consumer society.” Thus, resistant aesthetic forms like the mash-up are doomed to failure at their inception. In his words:
[T]he problem with
cultural dissent in
Although the mash-up is still a relatively new aesthetic form, there are already signs from within and without that this process of reification and hegemonic appropriation is taking place. First-generation mash-up artists complain of Johnnies-come-lately who seem motivated more by the form’s flash and notoriety than by its aesthetic principles. As one self-described “old school” mash-up artist laments:
its changed a lot .. I dont consider myself part of it anymore .........I suppose I'll always be seen as part of it but most of the new bootleggers I have very little in common with ...... [. . . ] I find that most of the new ppl about are into the more electro side of things rather the fact that it should be a culture clash . . . rap vs rap ... r&b vs r&b .... whats the point (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., 6 December).
mainstream media, marketing and music industries have already taken notice of
mash-ups, as well. In the Spring of 2003, Time magazine published a how-to article explaining the ins and outs of mash-ups
to the uninitiated (
If Smells Like Booty was the mainstream’s introduction to
mash-ups, The Grey Album was the form’s first genuine mainstream hit.
Although the unlicensed project was never sold commercially, it prompted
millions of downloads, and drew
more news coverage than all previous mash-ups coverage combined. In December,
2004, the New York Times listed the “mainstream mash-up” in its annual
roundup of “The Year In Ideas” (
those looking for signs of mash-ups’ entry into commercial culture need not
stop with mainstream news media. After the popular success of the Grey
Album, the music industry has responded by releasing several officially sanctioned
mash-ups, including one mixing Jay-Z’s Black Album with music by
arguably the world’s leading commercial music media brand, debuted a show in
the Fall of 2003 called MTV Mash. The show, which is
sponsored by mobile technology giant Motorola and broadcast throughout
Another mash-up artist reports that, even though his work doesn’t appear in the mainstream media (yet), he has begun to receive promotional clips for mashing from record labels and publishers. As he explains, the music industry is beginning to “recognise the value of being mashed” as a marketing tool (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., 3 November).
This sudden rash of interest in mash-ups by the very industry the form’s pioneers sought to undermine clearly has a profound effect on the aesthetic itself. Juxtaposing songs from different genres and illegally redistributing the product on the Internet is a radically different form of expression than airing promotional materials on a popular television show. By choosing which songs may and may not be legally mashed, the music industry is, ironically, exerting the same form of aesthetic attenuation that prompted mash-ups’ appearance in the first place. Furthermore, by exclusively using the functional term “mash-up” at the expense of synonymous titles such as “bootleg” and “bastard pop,” the music industry has linguistically wrenched the form free of its illicit origins.
Yet mash-ups’ transition from precommodity to commodity may not be as smooth as proponents would hope and opponents would fear. Proactively obtaining the rights to mash promotional tracks may be a relatively simple procedure, but obtaining the permission to use songs after they’ve been mashed – a necessary process if mash-ups are to be released commercially in significant numbers – will require a whole new legal framework within the music industry.
development of such a legal framework took over a decade for rap music (Vaidhyanathan, 2001), and there seems little reason to
expect it will be accelerated this time around. In the meantime, even
commercially successful mash-up artists continue to produce illicit bastard pop
and distribute it freely via the Internet. As one artist who has appeared on
MTV Mash boasts, “only some of the stuff i do .. is ‘leagle’[.
. .] i still make and upload track that i've done outside of MTV” (Mash-up artist 2003, pers. comm., 6 December). This is a promising sign for
those who see value in the mash-up as a form of aesthetic dissent. As long as
artists continue to produce this unprofitable and illegal art form, emphasizing
the clash of cultures over the culture of cash, the reports of its death are
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 The mash-up artists I interviewed for this article would speak to me only on the condition of anonymity. All four of them are well-known and widely considered to be first-rate bootleggers.
 Mike McCready is the CEO of Polyphonic HMI.
album was downloaded over a million times in a single day –