Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Copy-and-Persist: The Logic of Mash-Up Culture”

"Copy-and-Persist: The Logic of Mash-Up Culture" from the journal Critical Studies in Media Communication in June 2007.

This article discusses a type of rhetoric that most of encounter in our daily studies of media: the rhetoric of piracy, illegality, and copyright issues surrounding our entertainment media. For those of you unfamiliar with mash-up culture, the article explains it as thus: “Using MP3s and audio-editing software, ‘bedroom disc jockeys’ spliced together two or more pop songs to create unlikely combinations, which they distributed through peer-to-peer file-sharing services or posted on websites”. Examples of well-known artists from mash-up culture include Girl Talk (Feed the Animals is his most recent), and Danger Mouse, who famously spliced together Jay-Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles’ The White Album to produce The Grey Album.

There is a club in Los Angeles (I believe there is one in San Francisco and probably here in New York, too) that does a mash-up night once a month, combining Nirvana songs with 80s pop hits or other ridiculously unexpected examples. I have experienced what this means in a live venue; people getting extremely excited to hear old favorites produced in a new way, or maybe dancing to a song the lyrics of which one never thought one would hear in a dance club setting. The other side of the “mash-up culture” token comes in the form of listening in one’s bedroom, a private experience in which the cleverness and nuances of the mash-up can be appreciated.

On to the analysis of rhetoric present in the article: the author looks at the way that the music industry discusses illegality of file-sharing and copyright infringements that go along with using at-home editing software to isolate vocal tracks, remove them from their original setting into a new song, and speed up or slow down either track to produce an entirely new product. In the example of Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, EMI released “cease-and-desist” orders to record stores, websites like eBay, and Danger Mouse himself, stating that these tracks were an encroachment of their copyright on The White Album. The author of this article is arguing that a different rhetoric is represented among those responsible for mash-up culture: one representative from the group Downhill Battle spoke up, saying “Artists are being forced to break the law to innovate”.

In the postmodern age in which we live, isn’t appropriation quite common in visual art? Why is it that artists like Sherrie Levine (who I do not appreciate, if I must insert my personal opinion) can get away with blatant, barely re-contextualized appropriation but music artists who are trying to create a collage of sorts are met with so much resistance? This article argues that the popular corporate and copyright rhetoric is what holds these artists back from moving their work into the mainstream. Or, independent of restrictive rhetoric, does it make it kind of cool that these artists are doing something subversive, and maybe once popular rhetoric changes the mash-up culture will be no more?

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