The Mashup: Art?

December 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

In this technological era, the opportunities to create new forms of media are virtually endless. The tools of production have been democratized and with this anyone, regardless of their skill level, can create video or music and share it with the world via the Internet. These tools have spawned a new form of media, which I would hesitatingly call art, known as the mashup. The mashup combines elements from other, previously published works to form a hybrid, a synthesis of these pieces into a completely new thing. The mashup is primarily associated with music, although it can be seen in film as well, and while its origins can be debated, I would argue the most artful appropriation of elements from songs to help create something new is found in the hip-hop genre. Here artists use “samples” of other songs as a definitive element of their new song (think Kanye West and his use of outside material in the many hip-hop songs he produces).

One of the most famous mash-up artists is Pittsburgh’s Greg Gillis, who goes by the moniker Girl Talk. Gillis mashes up pop music from the past 40-50 years and often generates surprising results from conjoining 70’s pop ballads with club-bangers from the 00s. His newest album, All Day (which can be downloaded for free here), showcases Gillis’s talent for finding commonalities among many different genres of music and lyrical content. Some of these such moments are shockingly fun, such as when Simon and Garfunkel meet Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz or when I Want You Back meets with Lil Kim’s The Jump Off. Needless to say, these auditory nuggets are scattered all throughout All Day and make the album, if nothing else, an extremely entertaining listening experience.

Another well-known mashup artist is Steve Porter, the man behind the Press Hop video, or as it’s better known the video where Jim Mora and Allen Iverson verbally duel back and forth between “Playoffs?” and “Practice?”. Porter creates his own techno mix backgrounds, but overlays them with press conference sound bytes and their corresponding video segments. The results are often hilarious and quite catchy for being an amalgamation of press conference sound bytes. Once again, like Gillis, Porter’s talent lies in combining these phrases and videos into a coherent whole, smashing together different time periods and different sports to make something not entirely related to sports. I find myself returning, time and time again, to these videos when I need a laugh.

So are mashups just a form of entertainment, or can they be art? To be sure, they take talent, and I’m sure anyone who has actually attempted to make a mashup is aware of the time and skill it takes to make a good one. The creativity present in the music of Girl Talk and videos of Steve Porter is evident and manages to exude a certain sense of joy as you listen or watch their work. I think the mashup is an example of the kind of art that has begun to pervade postmodern culture. Instead of just drawing inspiration from past, artists are beginning to draw directly from the past and are using the past to create new content. This is known as pastiche, and reflects the postmodern individual’s fragmentation in this world, as there seems to be no historical referent from which to base his historical position. Therefore, as we don’t feel at home in history, music from the 70s can be seamlessly combined with music from the 90s without it seeming out of place.

The mashup reflects our current cultural state. Often it is played for humor, and it accomplishes this well by conflating the past and the present in an ahistorical manner that lends itself to parody and humor. In that sense, the mashup could be considered a postmodern form of art, one that comes from a new way of thinking and that is gaining steam. These artists are taking our meaningless bits and pieces of pop culture (pop songs and sports) and recreating them into things that live and breathe with an energy that wasn’t there in their original state. Whether you consider the mashup to be art or not, it’s something worth paying attention to as we consider the cultural climate we live in.

Press Hop 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffJvDgBrwMI

List of samples on All Day:  http://www.fastcompany.com/1707948/girl-talk-all-day-infographic

The National: Exposing a Need

September 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day over lunch. We talked about normal things for us: music, film, school and life. In the middle of all of this talk, however, we started talking about the role of art in faith and evangelism. While this is a topic I’ve touched on at times on this blog and will do so in the future, what stuck out to me was something my friend said. He said, “I think art’s purpose is to reveal a need,” and from there we went on to talk more in depth about that. However, I want to focus on just that statement, which verbalized something that I’ve thought about but never said in quite that way.

In this same conversation I brought up The National’s newest album, High Violet, and how adept The National is at evoking emotion not just through their music, but through occasionally obtuse and nonsensical lyrics. I think these two things are related.

If art shows us a need inside of us that we can’t ignore or sometimes even explain, I think it has done its job. I think this need is probably different inside of each of us, but it comes down to the fact that we are scarred and broken in this world looking for answers and often not finding them. Sometimes we want to give up looking for the answers but good art forces us to confront these issues time and time again; it gives us the strength to keep pressing on, because we know that someone out there is feeling the same thing as us. I think The National excels at evoking this because there is something emotional and worn about their music that is immediately identifiable.

On Alligator, their third album, the chorus of opener Secret Meeting says this, “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/it went the dull and wicked ordinary way.” Immediately I’m hooked, feeling the same way I do after spending hours in thought, never coming to any concrete conclusions. The National’s lyrics bring to mind images and then these mental images seem to project emotion. Alligator’s closer, Mr. November, is much the same. Lines like “I wish that I believed in fate/I wish I didn’t sleep so late/I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” are juxtaposed with the chorus, lyrically and musically, of “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November” to create a very visceral feeling of disappointment and longing for days before failure.

This metaphorical, almost poetic language is very apparent on High Violet as well. In one of my favorites from the album, Conversation 16, the chorus goes like this, “Now we’ll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city to all the silver girls/everything means everything.” Using colors like silver and black place an image in the mind and invests this image with the emotions usually associated with silver and black. So, even though these lyrics are straightforward, they are charged with an extra emotional intensity due to their poetic nature and Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery.

One of the overwhelming senses I get while listening to The National is that there is something just out of reach. It feels like the words are trying to tap into something bigger, reveal something deeper. I often feel a profound sense of longing when I listen, a longing to be known in this fragmented world. There is a deep sense of alienation in many of The National’s lyrics, reflecting the way many people feel as they try to understand and live in this world. They do a great job of showing this, revealing this need.

The National is making artistic music, revealing the need for true love and intimacy, in a world where it is very difficult to be known by others. Sometimes this can be depressing, because they offer no solutions to these problems. They tell us stories of looking for meaning through drugs, sex and success that have all come up short.  But The National is here to expose the need, performing an important service by not handing us happy stories of true love around every street corner. They leave us with a question: how will you meet this need? Where will you go, what will you do to truly be known?

The Hold Steady: Almost Killed Me

July 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Also, I think if people would listen to The Hold Steady’s lyrics, although there tends to be a lot of talk of drugs and sex and things like that, it tends not to be a glorification. I tend to think we present the downside. I think the people who are really paying attention realize that…I’ve known people who have had drug and alcohol problems and I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s something to be glorified. It’s just a story I’m telling.-Craig Finn (http://www.aversion.com/bands/interviews.cfm?interview=232)

“It’s just a story that I’m telling,” says Finn and earlier in the interview he says, “I really want it to be honest.” And honest they are, for as much as they revel in the apparent glories of alcohol or drug induced stupor, there is always a firm awareness of their consequences. Sometimes it might only be one or two lines in a song, or even on the whole album, so as Finn says, close attention is needed to notice the advice he is imparting. While this advice is more obvious on later releases Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever, The Hold Steady’s inaugural album Almost Killed Me tells its stories with this same mentality.

Almost Killed Me doesn’t quite have as much religious imagery as the following albums, but it does contain plenty of witty one-liners hidden behind the dirty, haphazard music. The album opener, Positive Jam, seems to be the band’s mission statement as Finn recounts the decades of the 1900s and then says, “We’ve got to start it with a positive jam.” It’s a new century and a new generation. These songs seem to be tales of us, the kids, teenagers, twenty-somethings who are growing up in this new century.

There are songs like The Swish, Knuckles and Hostile, Mass. which triumphantly speak of run-ins with the police and late night parties replete with obscure highs and plenty of alcohol. These are the kids looking for something to do to jolt them out of their “boring” lives, searching for thrills in any way they can obtain them. A constant in these stories is the occasional wry observation that Finn always seems to make which, if you catch it, forces a moment of reflection. In Knuckles as Finn plays the part of a witty drug dealer he tosses out this line in the final verse, “It’s hard to stay in bed when half your friends are dead.” Or for instance in Hostile, Mass. he says this, “In the park drinking dark Bacardi, thinking things are funny when they really aren’t that funny…the color of their eyes match the color of our blood.” Consequences, to be certain.

Barfruit Blues is one of those songs that Finn specializes in, seemingly a story of a bar filled with all kinds of fun shenanigans, until we arrive later on in the song. Barfruit Blues begins talking about Holly (see Separation Sunday) and the party and then Finn adds this about her, “Holly can’t speak. She doesn’t feel that sweet, about the places she sometimes has to go to get some sleep.” Also, take note of the Springsteen reference (from Born to Run) in the song’s finale, “Baby, we were born to choose… we were born to bruise.” Is the time for running over or is there nowhere to run to? In this new century, have we realized that there is nowhere that we can run to get away from ourselves?

The band Titus Andronicus takes this a step further in their song A More Perfect Union on their newest album Monitor. Paying homage to Springsteen and possibly The Hold Steady lead singer Patrick Stickles sings this, “Because baby, tramps like us, we were born to die.” Is this the legitimate end of the postmodern worldview?  With no nowhere left to run, nothing to choose from and no one, not even ourselves, left to bruise do we just exist to die? I think Finn’s answer is slightly more optimistic, because if he thought this I doubt he would be talking about the consequences of actions. And he definitely wouldn’t have written Separation Sunday.

So why do we exist, according to Finn? That’s not really an answer I know, but I do know that while there several of The Hold Steady’s songs point to having fun and living it up, this is never seen as the sole purpose of living. There is always the understanding that eventually we have to grow up and take responsibility for our lives and for others who may depend on us. We exist to be in community with others, Finn seems to be saying. Take Sweet Payne for instance as the guitars, bass and drums build up to a euphoric declaration of, “I always dream about a unified scene.” There is the guitar squealing in the background, with Finn belting out and it’s one of the most exuberant pieces of music on the album. A unified scene, a place where kids don’t get into fights about stupid things, where they’ve learned to grow up.

There is meaning for us–children of this generation, boys and girls in America–in community, whether that be in an unified scene, in church (Separation Sunday), or with friends. There is also meaning in growing up and taking responsibility for our actions, like Holly eventually does in the Separation Sunday story or as Finn talks about in Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever. Sometimes it’s hard to find this meaning and often we would rather take the easy way of false community through alcohol or sex, but as The Hold Steady often shows, this eventually leads to unfortunate consequences. But there is always hope and there is always grace.


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