Mash-ups: a Derridean delight

Pomo thinkers said ours is an era of endless cultural cannibalism. The rise of the internet mash-up has proved them right.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Most people in the music industry consider internet users to be parasites. They are thought of as teenagers or no-gooders who download songs for nothing. They are thought of much in the ambivalent way news corporations regard readers – as people who see it as their right to get something for nothing and complain about evil ‘firewalls’ when they don’t. Yes, I am talking about that behemoth Rupert Murdoch, who has become a convenient, modern-day ersatz Bond-villain bogeyman.

The music industry’s quarrel with internet users downloading songs illegally was first manifested back in 2000 when the heavy metal band Metallica began quarrelling with Napster about copyright infringement. The band made the rather sensible point that if people work to make something, then others should pay for it in return. But no, the usual retards on the internet intimated that Metallica were being ‘greedy’ and ‘corporationist’. Well, how would they like working for no pay? That’s, er, called slavery. The presenter of BBC1’s Hole in The Wall, Anton du Beke, likes to announce ‘bring on the wall!’. Hell, I would like to announce ‘bring on the firewall!’.

All that aside, the argument about whether the internet is good or bad for music does ignore some nuances. Yes, it is easy to access your favourite tunes from YouTube and not pay for them, and most of us have done this. But YouTube also allows you to access homemade works of genius in the genre of the so-called ‘mash-up’. (And, no, I’m not talking about that whole Downfall meme, or last summer’s viral hit ‘Newport Ymerodreath State of Mind’, which aren’t strictly mash-ups, but parodies.)

For those not in the know, a ‘mash-up’ is a video in which two pieces of music, often of contrasting genres, are combined. A brilliant example is a track that combines ‘Independent Women Part 1’ by Destiny’s Child with ‘Waiting Room’ by the post-punk band Fugazi. Then there’s the one with Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra performing death metal. But my favourite by far is a three-way mash-up of ‘That’s Not My Name’, by the shouty and annoying Ting Tings, ‘My Sharona’ by The Knack, and ‘Mickey’ by Toni Basil. Not only does it meld three songs, but it also includes samples the B52s and the Beach Boys at the beginning and end. As Jeremy Clarkson might say, it is simply the best YouTube video… in the world.

It seems to me that the internet is both parasitic and creative. It is creative because it is parasitic. Users take from sources and make of it what they will, with often astonishing results. Since the late 1990s and the deaths of Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard most people have been afraid to use the word ‘postmodern’, considering it an anachronistic fad, the leisurely pastime of disillusioned Marxists and Romantic relativists. But I do think mash-ups represent the postmodern zeitgeist we are living in. It’s still all about questioning the author, interrogating the concept of the author, and, literally, mashing up his or her work.

The morally relativist postmodern gurus of the 1970s and 1980s, notably Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, who invariably framed the word ‘truth’ with those infernal inverted commas, also said we were living in an era of pastiche and endless cultural cannibalism. I think the phenomenon of the internet mash-up has proved them right.

The relativist, postmodern ethic may have had a malign effect on politics and social policy, especially with the widely accepted notion that ‘no culture is better than another’. And in journalism, Hunter S Thompson’s brand of first-person subjective ‘gonzo’ writing spawned a whole generation of bleating, self-obsessed charlatans. Still, I do feel it has had a positive influence on popular culture, in encouraging people to question boundaries.

I find it great fun to discover these gems, which make you realise that the internet is neither inherently good nor bad, but a source of plagiarism and great eminence. As the great author Derrida observed, there is no such thing as the author. The boundary between what is authentic and what is not is artificial is concrete. I’m sure even Johann Hari or some News of The World hacks would agree with that.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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