25 July 2010

a tear in RIP (reaction/review) . . . .

Posted by at 7:29 PM Read our previous post

Different musics serve different functions. This is an insight to keep in mind when practicing music. Although not mutually exclusive by necessity, the nuanced harmonic invention of a Thelonious Monk tune will likely be lost on the short attention span of a pop audience. Likewise, the visceral propulsion of a Trent Reznor tune would be an anomaly in a chamber music setting. This is obvious, of course, but I must remind myself of this truth from time to time, like a mantra, when the peculiarities of DJ culture start to annoy me beyond a certain threshold, as sometimes is the case in my dealings with it. DJ culture is unavoidable these days for a working musician, it's part of the infrastructure of nightclub entertainment. For better or for worse (I vote for worse), it's a real phenomenon that can't be simply ignored away.

I had a chance to watch Rip: A Remix Manifesto, a rather reactionary documentary which seeks to defend the post-hip-pop practice of freely using samples from older records and other sources in both the creation and the performance of music against those others who decry the practice as a form of glorified theft. It is an apologetic for the mashup. The filmmaker (Brett Gaylor) divides the documentary (and his general philosophy) into four general sections
  1. Culture always builds on the past.
  2. .
  3. The past always tries to control the future.
  4. .
  5. Our future is becoming less free.
  6. .
  7. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past.
So far so good. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but I can kinda see where he's coming from. I mean . . . What kind of manifesto would it be if there wasn't some good dramatic tension there to exploit. A manifesto is a defense by definition, after all, and depends on this kind of dichotomy. Film needs tension; few would watch a documentary film about copyright issues that didn't involve at least some accusations of oppression—a little cloak and dagger keeps the interest. Bravado is particularly suited to the form too, so it's no surprise that an antagonistic posture is taken.

Before continuing, lest I be seen as anti-remix, let me say that I think that he is essentially right about the legitimacy of the remix as an artistic expression. It is just as valid a medium as collage, its closest visual analogue. I totally understand Gaylor's frustration with the stodgy old school paradigm that insists that the catalog of recorded history is an inviolable forbidden zone. The representatives of the labels and organizations that represent the interests have at their disposal armies of legal teams to continually make sure that intellectual property (copyright and trademark) is off limits to the remixer. It's a 'Look but don't touch' policy. This is a real philosophical problem. Art needs symbols for its practice, and these symbols are not the intellectual property of any individual or conglomerate body. They are our inheritance, a part of our cultural fiber. Once symbols cross over into the collective parlance, they should not be (nor could be) hoarded and/or controlled as though they were private property. It still happens, though, sometimes in funny ways. Famed pop celebrity Gene Simmons (Kiss), for instance, realized while watching the notorious murder trial that no one at the time owned the trademark rights to the expression "O.J." —so he promptly purchased them, so that he could get 25¢ or whatever every time that someone uses those initials in a film or a television program or what have you. It turns out that it's not that hard to do, actually— that is to say, it's not hard if you are a business-savvy greed-ridden westerner of means. All Simmons had to do was pay some magistrate somewhere to first concoct a piece of "property" called 'rights to the phrase OJ' and then sell it to him for some undisclosed amount. Voila! He owns the rights to that phrase now. He can thus force any member of the unsuspecting public to either not say it, or to pay him when you do use it.

This documentary features the story of Dan O'Neil, the underground cartoonist who in the sixties was responsible for his own series of subversive comics featuring the likeness of the famed mouse icon. He got sued by Disney and there was even a landmark Supreme Court decision (almost unanimous) that that ruled against him. Drawing the Mickey Mouse character for your own use is against the law. I am on on his side in that fight against the Disney corporation. I mean . . . The idea that one conglomerate can by legal mandate preclude another party from drawing two huge ears and a pointy nose on his own creations is absurd, provided the creation is an original work It would be different if O'Neill was just cutting and pasting images of Mickey Mouse cartoons onto his work, but O'Neill draws all his own boards .

This distinction is very important. In my opinion the Achilles heel in Gaylor's argument is that he fails to grasp this crucial distinction. He's right that artists have always plundered and salvaged ideas from that which came before, and in this film, Gaylor tries to illustrate point #1 of the manifesto by comparing the practice of remixing with that of the "ripping off" of blues tunes by successful classic rock acts. He sees a continuity there, but I think it is merely a superficial one, This is the one major flaw in an otherwise fascinating glimpse into the fascinating topic of remixing and mashups. In fact, this flaw doesn't invalidate the thesis of his argument much, but the error still must be underscored, I think. It's simply a really bad analogy to imply that a dejay's use of Led Zeppelin's iconic "Whole Lotta Love" riff is comparable to Jimmy Page's own use of Muddy Waters' tune "You Need Love" as the basis of his own creation of the tune in question. That argument completely overlooks the difference between the copyright of a composition and the copyright of a performance of the same composition.

¿    →     ?

Here's another example offered as evidence:

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As I listen to these synoptically like this, I find that I much prefer the older versions of both of these. They are more aesthetically pleasing in general, hands down. A short list of critical less-than-flattering observations about the later interpretations: First, they are clearly derivative. Second, the rock performances both have a certain frantic , awkward quality to them, they lack that laid-back nuanced vibe the the earlier ones had. It is as if they have been over-simplified, reduced to strident stick-figure renditions of the originals. Don't get me wrong; I love Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones; I grew up on classic rock music: it was a pervasive part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. But as I A–B between these differing versions, the originals make the rock derivates seem like flashy shiny substitutes for nuance, like so much smoke and mirrors, the bombastic bravado of a mighty Oz behind a curtain somewhere. The primary figures of classic rock era cultivated this exaggerated sense of grandiosity, the larger-than-life mythos . It was part and parcel of the game they were playing. But at least Jimmy Page had to first learn how to play guitar, had to learn how to navigate a fingerboard. It is his guitar making the sounds. Moreover, if you listen closely to what the two different men are playing, Page is not even replicating Waters' playing in any real way. The song remains the same, but the riffs he's using are all his own. But then, that's what the blues are! His riff is but an impression of Muddy's effect on him. So, in this sense, Gaylor is right that the past is ripe for our use, but he's absolutely wrong in calling this parallel in his defense of sampling.

If Page, as a working musician, charges to play on other people's recording sessions, why shouldn't he charge those who would lift his playing from an existing recording to use it in their own commercial products. Some questions for DJ Whoever (DJW): Why can't he just take the time and make the effort to learn how to play the guitar? He'd be surprised at how little time will elapse before he can brave doing these kind of simplistic metal riffs. Or ... if that task is too daunting ... if he doesn't have the time for that .... Why doesn't he just then simply hire a guitar player if he wants a rock guitar lick on his "creation"? If the answer to this question turns out to be upon reflection that that particular Jimmy Page lick is iconic and instantly recognizable and that therefore no mere imitation would do, then that reasoning only would lessen DJW's "creativity" (I think) and instead reinforces the argument that Page's playing IS in fact something that is culturally valuable as its own entity. No? It is an indirect admission of the fact. Otherwise, anyone playing that two chord riff would have sufficed. Right? Why does it have to be Jimmy Page?

Girl Talk "performing"
That's where the difference lies. The mash-up artist that the film focuses on is a man who goes by the name of Girl Talk. Girl Talk basically creates extended dance loops using samples spanning the history of modern pop music. It's not an uninteresting work, in that there are so many ways to manipulate the samples, to "flip them." He is a bold and talented young man in that respect. But, ultimately, I find in his finished product that same frantic, manic feeling that I described in the those derivative classic rock recordings mentioned above. It is a loop based music, and as such, is subject to the strictures that such a repetitive form require. There is no thematic development to speak of, no real rhythmic or harmonic variation. Eight bars of something go by . . . and they go by again . . . and again . . . each time accompanied slightly different, but still the same bars we heard previously. I can imagine it being very useful in bringing a crowds of post-hip-hop kids to a frenzied trance—this is useful—but, as music, it is just not very interesting to me beyond its technical novelty. The way he gets all into it adds to the annoyance. I mean ... the guy is looping rhythms and samples on a laptop. he acts like he's exerting a lot of energy. The illusion of dynamism goes a long way, I guess. I can certainly relate to the tribal feelings that arise from such chaotic propulsive music, I am no stranger to the dance-trance. This music does have a function. But there is so much more to music than irreverence, aplomb, and digital savvy.

All in all, RIP is an interesting look into a world that for the most part annoys the hell out of me, I'm curious to see what changes will come to accommodate the changing media of music production and distribution. This scene is bound to have an effect on the way music is proliferated forever.



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