Remix Culture: Hoisted by my Own Hipster Petard

3 05 2010

So someone in my facebook feed linked to the new “United States of Pop” mashup by DJ earworm. The slave drivers here at the University are clearly working me too hard, because I’ve been looking forward to USoP 2009 since the last one came out. I haven’t checked the mashup forums in ages *wistful sigh*. The bad news is, the quality of these things has been declining every year. I don’t think it’s because pop music’s getting worse, because pop music has always sucked. I don’t think it’s DJ earworm, because the quality of his production has always been pretty topflight. Maybe the novelty of hearing Billboard’s Top 25 songs lumped together is wearing thin. I hope I don’t ever have to start enjoying things sincerely.

Still, you have to admit, DJ earworm manages to build some pretty impressive tunes (especially considering quality of the 25 limp noodles he has for construction material). Anyway, check out the USoP 2007-2009, and lemme know which year you think was the biggest travesty in pop music.

For a real taste of what DJ earworm can do, check out his mash “No More Gas.” It’s a great illustration of how you can mash lots of songs together in a small space and still come out with a clear, substantive final track. Earworm slyly takes some vapid pop music tracks and points out the undertones of consumerism, addiction, desperation, and unhealthy materialism running through them. Which is really cool, in my book.


Art via Re-Appropriation: Wendy Carlos, Bach, and the Moog Synth

13 02 2010

Our society seems to be more comfortable with art re-appropriation when the art in question was created a long time ago. People don’t seem to mind when Baz Luhrmann updates Romeo and Juliet, but throws some firearms in for good measure. It’s fine for authors to water down and sissify Greek mythology. We find it more than acceptable for musical virtuosos to perform and even re-interpret the works of classical composers like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Nobody refuses to sing the Star Spangled Banner just because we stole the tune from an old drinking song. But if you wanted to re-imagine the work of a more contemporary artists, (just picking two names out of the air) say The Beatles or Jay-Z, people will start accusing you of making ironic hipster music without a trace of originality.

Wendy Carlos is perhaps best known for composing the iconic score for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, noteworthy for it’s use of Moog synthesizers. Carlos is an icon and a pioneer in the world of electronic music, helping to cement the synthesizer’s status as a legitimate musical instrument. Carlos first demanded that the synthesizer be treated with respect following her 1968 album Switched on Bach, released under the name Walter Carlos (She underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972). The album won the Grammy for Classical Album of the Year, Best Classical Solo Performance, and Best Engineered Classical Album. You’ll never hear Bach the same way again, and it’s a fun listen to boot.

Carlos went on to release multiple albums of classical music performed on synthesizer. Carlos’s work not only stands as a testament to the legitimacy of electronic music, but also serves as a great example of the fantastic art that can result when talented people take artistic license with another’s work. I never knew the woman personally, but I doubt Bach would be offended.

Unhip Manifestos: Blog Mission Statement

10 02 2010

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that this blog was designed for a class. Specifically, it was designed for a University of Iowa class colloquially known as “Online Journalism,” course code 019:138:001. And because this blog is an endeavor that I am being evaluated on both academically and professionally, there are certain arbitrary criterion that I must fulfill.

Two of these criterion are as follows: my blog’s content has to have a semi-consistent theme, and I have to write 50 blog posts by semester’s end. Frankly, I found this revelation worrisome in the beginning. I don’t think I have fifty interesting things to say about any one topic.

Ultimately, I chose the concepts of “media democracy” and “cultural re-appropriation” as the topics I would cover. The savvier among you will realize that those are simply buzzwords, and mostly meaningless to anyone with a healthy social life.In this post, I hope to demystify some of the obtuse language I intend on using here at Unhipster. Hopefully, I’ll also clarify the overall mission statement of my blog, so I don’t feel the need to justify why a particular topic discussed on Unhipster is relevant to my overall body of work.

With no further ado, let’s take a look at some of the phrases I enjoy using. I’ve made many of them up myself, and I distort the standard definitions of others. English is a dynamic language. Deal with it.

  • Media Democracy–  Media democracy is a term that describes the way that ordinary people are able to create news, media, and art. It means taking away a certain portion of the control that huge media corporations have over what type of content is produced, and handing it over to an untrained Joe Sixpack. Technology is a huge factor in considering media democracy. Technological developments give regular people an increased level of creative control. YouTube, for instance, features a wide variety of media that was clearly created by some idiot 12-year old and his laptop’s on-board camera. This example proves that media democracy is not an unmitigated good.
  • Crowdsourcing– Crowdsourcing is a process where (often commercial) goals are achieved through the use of an anonymous crowd. In one hilarious example the State of Texas has placed live, streaming feed of the Mexican border on the internet, allowing people with an internet hookup to play Junior Border Patrol, minus the pay. In a way, it can be seen as a subversion of media democracy. Crowdsourcing uses a person’s individual ability to further an institutional goal.
  • Guerrilla Creativity– Guerrilla creativity, as I define it, is a creativity in the face of social hurdles. Guerrilla creativity is usually illegal, immoral, and really fun. It often takes the form of thumbing your nose at copyright law, breaking social rules, vandalization, and pranksterism. Interesting examples include the GYBO musical mashup forums, and the fantastic Billboard Liberation Front.
  • Interactivity- Interactivity is a the ability of a media product (i.e. this blog) to respond to the feedback of the media consumer (i.e. you). Interactivity allows the you to manipulate the medium, but it also allows the medium to manipulate you. If you want a look at technology, society, and interactivity that will scare the pants off you, I suggest none other than Mark Andrejevic’s iSpy. Professor Andrejevic is welcome in my underground paranoia bunker any day.
  • Cultural Recycling- Cultural recycling is an umbrella term for using reusing old ideas. The homage, the remake, the trope, the cliché, the re-imagining, and the rip-off all fall under this category. There’s a whole lot of diversity here, ranging from terrible Turkish remakes of Star Trek, to George A. Romero using the resonant cultural image of the zombie to make artistic statements on consumerism.
  • Art via Re-appropriation– Art via Re-appropriation is a particularly noteworthy form of cultural recycling, where one person’s work of art gets used as a tool by another artist. Often, it serves to subvert or comment on the original objet d’art. Take the famous painting of Mona Lisa with a mustache by Dadaist artist/weirdo Marcel Duchamp. Some mashups on GYBO are also good examples.

I hope that cleared stuff up. I also hope it was entertaining. But I have my doubts on both fronts.

Remix Culture: Aesop Rock

28 01 2010

Throughout the course of my blogging, there’s one idea that I hope to hammer home as often as possible. That idea: being able to fiddle with other people’s art is fun. I support it. Furthermore, I support artists who present their material in such a way that encourages average joes to fiddle with it.

So, today we celebrate New York rap emcee Aesop Rock and his 2004 release Build Your Own Bazooka Tooth. Following the production of his fourth album, Bazooka Tooth, Aesop rock released BYOBT. BYOBT is a double album featuring one disc with the acapellas from Bazooka Tooth, and one disc with the instrumentals from the same album. BYOBT was released as part of a Aesop Rock remix competition, where bedroom artists were encouraged to create mash-ups of Aesop Rock songs.

There are three distinct reasons why releasing an album of acapellas is an awesome idea. First of all, you have to respect Aesop Rock’s dedication to the creativity of the average person. It’s fantastic that an artist of Aesop Rock’s caliber would open up his artistic creations to be freely altered by the masses. It also shows a lot of confidence in his medium. I would imagine that relinquishing creative control the way Aesop Rock has is an incredibly vulnerable feeling.

Secondly, releasing an album intended for remix seems like a great marketing ploy. Mash-up artists love few things more than a clean, studio-made acapella track. Any clean acapella track released on the internet will be remixed endlessly. It drastically increases the change of a casual web surfer running across an Aesop Rock track, albeit in a new and intriguing guise.  There are currently 2 billion mash-ups of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” on the internet. This isn’t solely because the internet loves Jay-Z (although they clearly do), but also because he had the foresight to release an acapella remix album. Because of that, I’m still running into new versions of a six-year-old Jay-Z track. Also, remixing creates a bond between the music and the DJ. Your relationship with a song changes after you spend a couple of days tweaking it in Adobe Audition.

Finally, Aesop Rock’s Build Your Own Bazooka Tooth is an awesome idea because it is an awesome album in-and-of itself. I personally prefer the acapella versions of many of Aesop Rock’s tracks. When stripped of his beat, Aesop Rock becomes more of a spoken-word poet, and does an infinitely better job of capturing the raw power of the genre.  Aesop Rock’s rhyme schemes and flow are so fluid and unpredictable that the beat seems to be holding him back during most songs, like the instrumentals are struggling to catch up. Aesop Rock is great in any context, but he’s at his best when he’s letting his acid rap stylings and lucid-dream lyrics wash over you unfettered by instrumental tracks.

I was unable to find any videos featuring actual BYOBT album cuts, but I found this fantastic live acappella performance of “Mars Attacks,” one of my favorite Aesop Rock tracks. While Aesop Rock’s delivery isn’t as dead-on as I’ve come to expect, he more than makes up for it by feeding off the attentive crowd. As you should come to expect from this blog, vaguely NSFW.

Bottom Line: I would trade Aesop Rock everything I own for him to come to my home and shout at me for an hour.