When I think about mash-ups, I can’t help but think about Julia Kristeva and her notion of intertextuality.
The term has been used in many, many different ways since she first coined it, but, quite generally, she was using it to talk about literature and the way that it exists within not only a network of language but a network of texts. Every text, even something you wrote on a sticky note, is in dialogue with the entire linguistic system – you’ve just selected a few words from that system. Those words, of course, are weighted with meaning: they have a long history of being used by lots of other people, for lots of different purposes – both constructive and nefarious.
Now a literary text – something that’s trying to assert or achieve the status of a cultural object that deserves a reader’s consideration (something more refined than your sticky note) – is part of a network of language and also a network of previous texts. Kristeva was very interested in how it is that the meaning of a piece of literature is produced in the mind of a reader, who cannot help but situate their understanding of that text in a larger context, one that includes what they’ve read before and what the writer is both self-consciously and unconsciously referencing.
If you think about it, the process of writing anything could be described as the process of sampling.
Some authors are far more self-conscious about this process than others. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about literary modernism and so I became very familiar with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem infamous for its intertextuality. Eliot’s literary and historical references were so numerous and so intricately interwoven that he was prevailed upon to provide footnotes for later editions. Nowadays I don’t believe you can find an edition without the footnotes, which themselves have become the subject of detailed literary analysis. Even though I was a big fan of Public Enemy at the time, it didn’t occur to me that what Eliot was doing in his “high modernist” masterpiece was not all that different from what hip-hop artists were doing with recorded samples – creating multilayered, multivalent texts that engage with the past as they try to grapple with the present. (You can find out a bit more about my continuing research on The Waste Land here)
You find a similar creative dynamic in fashion. Vivienne Westwood is well-known for her overt mash-up aesthetic, where she often imposes a punk sensibility on a decidedly Victorian construction. In this design from her Spring 2010 collection, she seems to be mocking the notion of “English romanticism” by combining, or mashing-up, a florid floral textile with clownish fluorescent stockings typical of a punk rock aesthetic.
If we treat this outfit as a literary text, as Kristeva might do, we’d need to consider what the viewer brings to the image. For me, the material of this dress looks like the type used for curtains, which further besmirches the idealism of the English romanticism that the print connotes. But it also makes me think instantly of another audacious woman who confidently wore curtains: Scarlett O’Hara, of course! Suddenly, this one combination of clothing, of modular memes, becomes a much richer cultural object for me because I can start thinking about Gone With The Wind – both the book and the movie – and all the ways in which Scarlett might be considered a punk princess herself.
Is this intentional on Westwood’s part? Who knows? Part of the nature of mash-ups, or self-consciously intertextual texts, is that the reader/viewer is given even more latitude for the construction of meaning because the elements of the mash-up are already laden with connotation.
So, you might be thinking – well, hell, every type of cultural object could be understood as an example of intertextuality. And I’d have to agree with you! The instinct to combine and sample and remix is simply part of our creative DNA as humans. We can’t help but mimic others and incorporate materials from others into the work we produce ourselves. Creativity is an inherently social process and mash-ups reflect this profound urge to grapple with our enmeshment with each other and our environment.
And it’s not just designers who are mash-up artists. We all do it. Every day. Just getting dressed each morning is an exercise in mash-up aesthetics.
Now the funny thing about fashion is that it’s legal to mash-up different elements of different looks. In the music business, this is not the case. Although fashion designers and musicians have very similar creative drives and methods, designers have much more freedom to reference the work of their peers than musicians do. (You can find out a lot more about my research on this topic at the Ready to Share site and in this TED talk.)
Hip hop artists the Beastie Boys made their name by cleverly sampling from the archives of recorded music, adding their pronounced personal perspective over collages of sometimes barely recognizable songs (Just think about The Waste Land in this context).
Their iconic album Paul’s Boutique – whose cover captured the mash-up spirit of a thrift store – was initially unsuccessful but it eventually became an influential and well-respected album due to its technical virtuosity in weaving together samples from other songs. Over one hundred songs were sampled on the album, including 24 individual samples on the last track alone. They spent $250,000 licensing most of the samples (as is often the case, they had trouble finding the rights owners for some of the material) and they thought that was a great deal. But in an interview with Paul Tingen, one of their producers from the Dust Brothers, that low number would be “unthinkable” in today’s litigious music industry.” Unfortunately, in the music industry, intertextuality is a luxury.
But of course there are some digital pioneers and provocateurs out there who are pushing the limits in mash-up songs and music videos. Girl Talk has managed to make a living from his popular mash-up sets, despite not clearing the rights for the excerpts he uses, and Danger Mouse launched his career with his technically brilliant mash-up of the Beatles White Album and Jay Z’s Black Album.
Some of the most memorable mash-ups use deeply ironic juxtapositions to make us think twice about the meaning of two different messages that seem utterly incommensurable: an excellent (and appalling) example of this is “Smells Like Rockin’ Robin.”
Ironically enough, some of the best mash-ups feel like they should never have been made.
With the increased bandwidth of the Internet, music mash-ups often have a visual component as well and I am fascinated by this mash up between The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” and Blondie’s “Rapture,” not just because the melodies and the emotional vibe so easily merge together but because I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me the degree to which Jim Morrison and Deborah Harry could be long lost twins. Much of the strength of this mash-up is about the overlapping visual memes of two iconic faces that we don’t often think of as connected.
As with “intertextuality,” there is a whole burgeoning literature about mash-ups, which can be categorized in all kinds of complex taxonomies. Some classic mash-ups will take two songs that seem completely unrelated and find a formal similarity between them. In this great example, a French artist named Overdub exploited the odd 5/4 time signature of Dave Brubeck’s iconic “Take 5” and Radiohead’s “15 Steps” to make this seamless and very listenable mash-up:
This post is based on a short talk I gave at Categorically Not! – a great speaker series at Santa Monica Art Studios. DJ and pop culture scholar Eduard Minobis curated all the mash-up videos for the event. You can find out more – and check out the other speakers in the series – here.