ONE 9 • In Defence of Plagiarism: Mashing up Pop Culture’s Past

In a contemporary world of political and social cycles, with the same mistakes made time and time again, the one area of our lives where repetition is not only welcomed but encouraged is pop culture. Television, cinema and music have worked their way through a sweeping evolution. There is an ever-growing reserve of styles and genres from which new talent can draw inspiration to create way anew. In the same that cardigans make an assault on Western wardrobes every couple of years, certain items reach the front of our cultural closet, are worn a few times, and head to the back of the rotation with brutal efficiency and speed.
The fossils of old are no longer buried away, but are easily retrieved to enjoy as new works. If 1930’s Jazz or Hitchcock films take your fancy, all it takes is a few clicks. The ease of access to these cultural artefacts allows a greater understanding of the way in which music and film have progressed, but it also means that there will always be an alternative to what we’re currently consuming. We can watch the films our parents watched, or listen to music of our grandparents. If the mood takes us, we can go on a form of cultural holiday, and take in the whole range of media available at any point in recent history. It’s one thing to take a look back at a moment in time, but it’s quite another to pack up and move there entirely. With the proliferation of new media, we now have access to an even vaster library, but with this our desire to protect the past seems to grow as well. Driven by the democratising nature of the internet and the other inventions that have made our cultural lives richer and more fulfilled, campaigns regularly spring up in order to preserve, venerate or lavish praise upon the past.
This was evident in the online campaign that eventually saw Rage Against the Machine reach number one in UK Christmas charts. It was the righteous indignation of a group of people who remembered a better time, when being top of the Christmas charts was about good music and not bland, manufactured pop music. Whether that time had ever existed was seen as being besides the point, as were questions about the selection of a seventeen-year-old song about racist policemen that was distributed by the same record label as the X-Factor winner who was fighting for the top spot. ‘Remember when the Christmas number one was great?’ was the point, and no discussion was required. No thought of supporting a new artist in their bid for number one, or of questioning the relevance of the enterprise, but rather exactly the kind of yearning for the past that Goethe warned against.
Hip-hop producers in the 1980s who treated samples from existing songs as ‘found’ material, the cultural equivalent of bird song or the sound of the waves, sounds that we all know and can identify with. They saw the act of sampling a drum loop as equivalent to borrowing another author’s setting for a scene in a novel, or the artist’s blend of yellows used to paint the perfect sunset. It was what artists were supposed to do; take elements from history and update them. This mentality was adopted by dance musicians in the 1990s, who looked at hip-hop and saw the possibilities, tweaking and refining the form and creating new technologies and avenues for creativity along the way. By the turn of the millennium, all the pieces were in place for the mash-up to take centre stage. Technology has had a huge role to play, with digital editing programs allowing anyone with a computer and some ideas to create new music out of the old.
An entire underground movement has developed, a counter-culture to rival those that the nostalgics wish they had been a part of. Mash-up artists operate outside the law as each piece of their work, being made up solely of old recordings, represents a copyright minefield. The majority exist as outlaws, but the internet offers them a chance to distribute the work directly to their fans, who can in turn use them as influence to create new work. A common criticism of mash-up artists, and all artists who use technology to sample and borrow from past works, is that they lack creativity. Every artist in history has borrowed from the past, and this revamping of history is what drives our culture forward. Resistance to the technology is also expected but in reality the criticisms mash-up artists receive are part of what spurs their creativity just like those innovators who went before them, these artists are taking pop culture history in a whole range of different directions.
There are as many possibilities as there are fragments of culture, infinite combinations of sound, video, text and pictures. Eclectic Motion present live video mashes at club nights that border on performance art, overloading the viewer with a jamboree of familiar sights and sounds, but in unfamiliar contexts. Girl Talk rattled through samples of over 300 chart hits in creating his latest album, with the result being a coherent and inspiring album that sprints from influence to influence, barely stopping to catch its breath. And as with any cultural movement, mash-ups also have their intellectual and political side. Australian producer Wax Audio’s political mashes, which places speeches by George Bush and Tony Blair alongside sound effects, hip-hop beats and Edwin Starr samples, may represent some of the most visceral, thought-provoking. The drive, energy and polemical style of Wax’s work fits perfectly with the information culture that has made the mash-up a viable art form, a culture where visual and sonic bombardment takes place everyday.
There are an infinite number of mash-up possibilities that each offer a new interpretation of our cultural history. Nothing is destroyed. Our shared history stops becoming a burden to new talent and turns it into a treasure chest filled with ideas. Mash-up artist show us that in popular culture, everything is repetition in one form or another. With this in mind, it seems absurd to look back to the past with rose-tinted glasses.