Monday, July 31, 2006

The Art of Mash-Ups: Is the sum greater than its parts?

Mash-ups*, for those of you not familiar with the terms are a certain kind of remix which basically combines the elements of 2 or more songs(or videos) together to form a chimerical new product. While sampling has been around since the days of tape decks and turntables, mash-ups are fast becoming a new phenomenon. Sometimes, the creation is interesting, sometimes it should never have been made(the horror, the horror), and in a few rare occasions, it can rival the original songs or videos it is composed of. At first, I found the idea both intriguing as someone who loves music and fusion, and at the same time, a little galling as someone who works in the creative fields, but I soon grew to enjoy them for what they were.... experiments in sound and context. A good mash-up should look and sound like it fits together, even if the component parts are so divergent that you wouldn't imagine talking about those things in the same conversation, let alone hearing/seeing elements of them at the same time.

I've heard the ridiculous (Limp Bizket vs. "Popcorn"- "Hot Buttered Bizkits"), the odd (The Strokes vs. Christina Aguilera-"A Stroke of Genie-us") and the sublime(Madonna vs. Apollo 440 vs. Steppenwolf vs. Ike and Tina Turner - "Wild Rock Music"), and the thing is... it is sometimes hard to predict what will be a good implementation of the source material and what won't. I mean, if you told me that taking the music from "Love with Tear Us Apart" and overlaying the lyrics from Missy Elliott's "Get your Freak On" would result in something that makes the former shine and the latter version seem almost forgettable, I would have thought you were crazy. And then I heard "Love Will Freak Ya," and I was notably impressed by it. And on the video side, the proliferation of Brokeback Mountain parodies and Youtube has led to greater public consumption for mashed-up cultural icons. I expect Snakes on a Plane to really contribute to this trend as well. By the same token, upon hearing that there was a song that combined the Beastie Boys and RUN DMC... well, the prospects of the experiment did not live up to the execution, and a lot of those Brokeback combos were sort of pointless as well.

And that is the problem most of the time... sometimes, no matter how much you want to things to go together, they just don't mesh right. But when they do, its is sometimes jaw dropping. I remember a song called "Shannon Stone", which blended the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" with "Let the Music play" and it worked in a huge way. Or "Eve's Phat Gangsta" which mixed an Eve/Alicia Keys duet with Sum 41's "Fat Lip," two songs which I didn't like individually, but combined... well, it rocks. I just wish I could hear two groups I like getting the mash-up treatment, like say, Stereolab vs. Pulp or St. Etienne vs. Sloan or Broadcast vs. The White Stripes or some weird thing I can't even imagine. But I think as the software to make mash-ups becomes more and more popular, some of these odd combos may soon be a reality. Then again, some artists are doing a little fusion themselves by collaborating with people who will really change their sound (like Loretta Lynn working with Jack White on Van Lear Rose), so these mixed up sounds may be the wave of the future from an artistic standpoint as well.

*I was going to post a dictionary definition of Mash-Up, but instead I found this excellent article from Salon that explains a lot more than I could at this moment about the subject.

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