29 June 2006

Stevie's sad smile revealed

The "mash-up"1 genre was destined to be played out almost from the moment it became codified. The technique was pre-existent; DJs call them "blends". They're the reason club 12-inches always come with instrumental and a capella versions, and even those were hardly without precedent. But the Internet made them an artform, and for a brief moment after the discovery of "A Stroke of Genie-us," music writers were discussing the apex (or nadir) of the art of sampling, the final frontier of postmodernism in music, the moment that pop at last completely ate itself. Songs were being created not only with no original recording and no attempt to disguise their sources, but in a way that foregrounded and in the best cases commented on those sources. The songs were about the songs they sampled, and nothing else.

The prevailing cliche at the dawn of punk rock was that anyone could do it, but what went unspoken was that it wasn't easy. To play three chords in the basement in front of a few dozen friends was one thing; to achieve distribution, exposure, publicity; quite another. But the advent of affordable digital music software (most importantly Sonic Foundry's Acid) and the availability of an instant audience via the web (not to mention instant viral distribution; remember, this was also the heyday of Napster), at last fulfilled the promise of true egalitarianism in ways in which the hardcore 7-inch and the Xeroxed zine could never have approached. Not only could anyone do it, it seemed for a while as though everyone did.

Before long, the glut of half-assed cut-n-paste hack jobs, combined with the inherent disposability of even the finest examples of the genre, rendered the daunting task sifting through the mounds of chaff for a few stray grains of wheat seem hardly wothwhile. Hence the near-instant obsolescence of the mash-up. Had Warhol2 lived to see it, he may have remarked that this must be the future, where every genre is relevant for fifteen minutes.

The biggest shortcoming of most of the mash-ups out there isn't the careless editing3, it's the lack of any sort of context other than, "Doesn't this sound cool?" Which, don't get me wrong, is a perfectly legitimate reason to make a mash-up; it's your spare time, after all, spend it as you please4. It's just not a good enough reason to listen to many of them more than once (if that). Slightly more high-concept but equally disposable are mash-ups that slyly refer to events, rumours, etc. involving the artists being appropriated, q.v. any number of examples of Eminem rapping over one Britney Spears track or another. Still others appear to be based solely on finding an excuse to pun on the song titles or artists' names, most notoriously DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album.

These are all well and good, and a few are quite entertaining. But rare is the mash-up that a evinces heretofore undiscovered meaning from its sources, that refracts a fresh understanding through the prism of unfamiliar context.

I recently came across the work of producer Mark Vidler, who creates mash-ups under the name Go Home Productions, and was excitied to find some of the best mash-ups I'd heard in... I'll say at least a year. His website includes not only an exhaustive discography of his mash-up work, but makes available mp3 downloads of his best ones. The technical quality is near-uniformly excellent (I have no idea how he comes up with such clean a capellas for some of these), which helps to make even the pointless ones downright listenable. Check out especially the Destiny's Child/The Orb one, as well as the entire Rapture Riders EP.

Having listened to all of the available tracks, I noticed one that leapt out at me and made me do what none but the best mash-ups ever do: reconsider my understanding of the source. Scroll down to the Stevie Wonder/Rod Stewart one and give it a listen. If you're familiar with the original version of Wonder's "Uptight" (excerpt here), you know it as a rousing soul number with blaring horns and a relentless rhythm section. Had you asked me to recite the lyrics before listening to Vidler's mash-up, I would have gotten no further than "Baby, everything is alright/Uptight, clear outta sight". Had you asked me what the lyrics were about, I would have guessed it was a party anthem, with vague references to dancing, pretty girls, going out on Friday night5, etc. The effect of pairing Wonder's vocals with the opening (12-string acoustic guitar?) riff of Stewart's "Maggie May" (excerpt here) is twofold. First, and more obviously, the spare arrangement allows the listener to focus on the content of the lyrics, whereas in the original they get lost in the overall sound of the track.

The second and more subtle effect is to refocus the tone of the lyrics, drawing out the pathos underlying the narrator's momentary exuberance. Wonder's character is celebrating his luck at having landed himself "a pearl of a girl," noting that "I'm the envy of ev'ry single guy/Since I'm the apple of my girl's eye." But he also explains that he feels so lucky because she's a rich girl, "born and raised/In a great big old house, full of butlers and maids," whereas, he's "a poorman's son, from across the railroad tracks." Throughout the songs's verses Wonder reiterates the economic disparity between the couple, later noting, "Can't give her the things that money can buy," etc. When heard in tandem with the buoyancy of the music in the original, the words take a backseat to the music. The band6 keeps the party moving with the simplest progression possible, hopping from C-major to D-major and back throughout the song, never even hitting the root, keeping those feet stomping and those hands in the air.

The riff from "Maggie May" (and Vidner uses only the first four bars or so, before the bass even comes in) is also based on a major-key progression, but the second bar throws an E (the sixth/relative-minor note) in the middle a simple G chord to give it a minor feel without uglying it up with a flat third. It's this second chord that gives the whole progression a slightly melancholic undertone, which serves to direct attention to lines like, "My money's low and my suit's out of style," without drowning out the joys of "we go out stepping on the town for a while." Vidner also leaves off the opening lines (the original begins with a chorus), instead starting the vocals from the beginning of the first verse with the aforequoted "I'm a poorman's son, from across the railroad tracks."

Vidner brings in his own booming funk beat when Wonder gets to the chorus, but by then the bittersweet mood has been established. Wonder's narrator is thrilled at the privilege of courting the town princess, but the music, rather than just celebrating the accomplishment of scoring way out of his league, won't let us forget why it can't possibly last.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. Or "bootleg," or "bastard pop," etc. [Return]
  2. Clearly one of the genre's foremost non-musical progenitors, by the way, second perhaps only to Duchamp. [Return]
  3. Though Lord knows that's bad enough; there's nothing so unlistenable as a sloppy mash-up. [Return]
  4. Plus you could get into a whole thing here about how it's better to be making mash-ups than just listening to music, better as in healthier, as it involves an active participation in the arta itself, interaction as opposed to passive consumption, the listener taking control of the work as presented and making it his/her own. As in like, hey, maybe I really dig loud guitars and R&B harmonies, and why can't I hear them together? And if I prefer Nirvana over Survivor, and wish that Destiny's Child had sampled the former instead of the latter, why can't I make that happen? To paraphrase Zappa quoting Edgard Varese, "the present-day consumer refuses to die." [Return]
    1. You may elect to put "art" in ironic quotes here at your own discretion depending on your opinion of the specific sources of any given mash-up and, in a broader sense, of mass-produced popular entertainment in general; it really doesn't affect the main point.
  5. This supposition has an unusual source: in 1994, English retread renegades Oasis released a single called "Don't Look Back in Anger". The b-side was a song called "Step Out", which had apparently been intended for inclusion on "Don't Look"'s parent album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory, but was pulled at the last minute due to fears of legal action by Wonder, to whose "Uptight" the song was deemed to bear a more-than-passing resemblance. "Step Out"'s hook consists of "Uptight"'s main melody line applied note-for-note to the lyric "You might/Think you're gonna cry/But it's alright/Step out tonight". As a result, I now think of "Uptight"'s lyrics as having something to do with going out on Fridaya night, which it sort of does, but that's not why I make that association, I just confuse it with the ripped off version, and the two become merged in my memory, which is the subject of a whole other post, possibly several. [Return]
    1. Or Saturday.
  6. As it were; I think Wonder plays most of the instruments himself. At least he does on his later albums, but this one might be the Funk Brothers, I'm not really sure. [Return]

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