The gangster chic of remix culture

Giles Bowkett ponders remix culture, and writes:

There’s an interesting and somewhat alarming correlation between culture based on recycling other culture and organized crime.

I don’t think there’s any particular mystery about why this is the case. It’s down to the unfortunate fact that corporations have decided to try and make artistic collage and appropriation into a form of illegal art. If you make music via extensive sampling, sooner or later you’re going to get sued, or at least seriously threatened with a lawsuit. Examples range from the pop/punk of Culturcide, Chumbawamba and KLF/Jamms, through the eclectic satires of Negativland, to the academic experimentalism of John Oswald. Even referring to a product or famous person by name can get you sued, as Momus found out (twice). More recent artists like Girl Talk seem to be avoiding lawsuits mostly because the music industry is too busy suing file sharers.

None of those artists’ work had any particular connection to crime–until they were sued. But after a decade or so of high profile copyright and trademark lawsuits, the connection between crime and sample culture was established in the minds of artists. While hip-hop started out sample-based out of necessity–the early proponents couldn’t afford any expensive studios or instruments, and relied on tape manipulation–before long even the most successful and wealthy hip-hop and rap acts realized that the illegality of sampling was a perfect complement to their subject matter. Similarly, as raves were driven underground, the music became more sample-heavy.

Kids today may not realize that back in the 1970s and early 80s, giving the finger to the establishment was easy. All you had to do was dress outrageously, make a virtue of your alleged lack of musicianship, dismiss previous artists as irrelevant, and swear a lot (ideally on live TV). But by the mid 90s, offending the establishment was getting harder and harder. You could fire a machine gun at the audience and dump a dead sheep outside the venue and barely get any outrage. By 2001, The Onion pointed out the ridiculousness of artists who still hope to shock through mere appearance.

No, there’s only one way to really piss off the establishment these days, and that’s to disrespect their intellectual property without paying proper monetary tribute.

But moving from John Oswald to Patton Oswalt, I think Oswalt’s rant is really about his dissatisfaction that his long-nurtured position of cool knowledgability in the underground geek culture is now something anyone can obtain easily. I have some sympathy with that. I remember taking day trips to London to visit half a dozen major record stores, and searching bargain bins and used racks in the hope of finding some obscure unwanted copy of an album I’d been seeking for years. Now the challenge has gone.

It took me four years before I tracked down a copy of synthpop band New Musik’s second album “Anywhere”; when I eventually found a vinyl copy in the £2 bin in a record shop in Beaconsfield, it was like Christmas had come. You, on the other hand, can buy a copy right now on Amazon, albeit for a bit more than I paid. Looking for Landscape’s classic “From the Tea-rooms of Mars… to the hell-holes of Uranus”? You won’t have to travel to the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore in the hope of finding it, as I did. It wouldn’t help to try, in fact, because the megastore is gone; nobody’s going to travel half way across the country in the hope of collecting the TELEX back-catalog when they can order it all with a few clicks. It’s just too easy.

Another subtext I see in Oswalt’s rant is the familiar and tiresome claim that they don’t make any good art any more. The music I listened to in college was awesome, man, these modern artists just can’t compare, right?

Wrong. Sure, the 80s gave us punk, synth and new wave, but it also gave us Black Lace, Olivia Newton-John, Captain and Tennille, Styx, Kenny Rogers, The Tweets, and of course Rick Astley. The 80s launched the career of Céline Dion, and the charts were perpetually infested with Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions. The 90s were no better; they may have made electronica resurgent, but they also brought us Backstreet Boys, Vanilla Ice, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Britney Spears. Take off the rose-tinted blinkers and you can find incredible new music made in the last decade, from Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” and Röyksopp’s Melody A.M., to Jackson and his Computer Band and Whitey.

There probably isn’t going to be a pop culture “Year Zero”; at least, not for music. While the 70s and 80s both saw technology completely change the boundaries of what was possible, at this point technology is cheap enough and sophisticated enough that pretty much anyone with a day job can put together a mini recording studio and make music that sounds like absolutely anything they can imagine. A couple of grand will get you 16 channels of digital stereo multitrack recording and a rack of virtual synthesizers that would have made Rick Wakeman weep for joy in 1974.

Sure, lots of people are using the technology for mashups and YouTube joke videos, but I suspect that’s just a temporary phenomenon. People are learning to use the tools at their disposal, and remixes are a great way to do that. It’s like the early days of desktop publishing, when the world exploded with bad fonts. Give it a while, and things will settle down, and we’ll see more Jonathan Coultons, Weebls and Liam Lynches, and fewer reaction videos and nut-shot compilations.