18 February 2009

Parental/Sensitive Listener Advisory Notice ---Multiple F-Bombs Ahead

Here's an interesting article written by Steve Johnson that ran in the Chicago Tribune last week.

The article is about a “supercut” created by film director Victor Solomon of all the many, many MANY curse words included in the Sopranos television series. You can view and hear the piece itself at http://www.vimeo.com/2998698 It does have a certain rhythmic, almost musical feel after awhile. My 14 year old son said it sounded like chickens clucking, and I cannot disagree with that.

I remembered this article when reading the Jourdain piece for class this past week. I was particularly struck (and amused) by Jourdain's assertion that musicians in past centuries had no qualms about "borrowing" libretti and/or changing music for their own needs and/or audience preference. In other words, "sampling" isn't new or original, nor is reworking another’s work to please oneself and then passing it off as new.

While this Sopranos—what? Remix? Mashup?—isn’t strictly sampling, it’s certainly a form of expression by one creator based on another creator’s original. It seems like the digital age is moving us into a whole new realm of “appropriation”. Visual artists have used “appropriated imagery” for ages—Duchamp’s urinal, Warhol’s soup cans, and many others—for various reasons. Was their intent to make art less precious, to make art a commodity (which it certainly is among collectors), to expose the art market as a factory, or to democratize art for the masses? Or were they, to quote the Sopranos (and ex- Illinois Governor Blagojevich), “just f***ing around”?

Frankly, I’m not sure. Does art made from other people’s work have validity? Or is it just copyright infringement? Does its status depend upon its quality or its market value? That is, if someone’s willing to buy it, does it automatically have value, like Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde? I’m interested in this issue because we “borrow” images and words in the library world all the time. We use Google images and snippets from online book reviews, spliced-up bibliographies, etc. We’re not selling it, and of course it’s by no means “art”, but we are labeling it with our library's name and putting it out there for public consumption. “There is nothing new under the sun”, according to the Christian Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:9), so why bother to create something new?

I’d like to know what other people think about this idea of remaking/remodeling media works, whether visual, musical, print, or otherwise. And also: how far did you make it through the “supercut” before your head exploded? (Me: about 15 minutes).


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  2. A thought-provoking post, Kim. (For the record, I made it through about 15 minutes of the Sopranos clip as well.) You raise interesting questions about artists who borrow or "appropriate" from previous works. Gregg Gillis is an example of a current artist who takes the idea of the mashup a step further than most. He releases albums and performs under the name Girl Talk and his most recent efforts -- Night Ripper (2006) and Feed the Animals (2008) -- are album-long audio collages composed almost entirely of bits and pieces of popular music. The samples he incorporates cross genre and era, and the effect is almost dizzying. The tracks are mixed continuously using Adobe Audition and Audiomulch, providing a seamless listening experience. In an interview, he commented that the process sometimes takes "eight hours to make one minute of a song just to figure out different techniques to make it sound seamless." To date, he has not been legally challenged and his work has even been upheld by a member of Congress as an example of "transformative new art that expands the consumer's experience and doesn't compete with what an artist has made available on iTunes or at the CD store."

    For example, this YouTube video features the Girl Talk composition "Hold Up" from Night Ripper. The visuals were provided by a fan who stitched together video clips from the songs Gillis sampled. Some of the songs he used contain explicit language, so be warned.

    My ears find something kind of delightful about hearing familiar tunes, new and old, rap and rock, dance and easy listening alike, juxtaposed in creative ways. In my opinion, Night Ripper's most brilliant moment might just be a portion of "Smash Your Head" in which Gillis layered, among other things, The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" over Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" -- and it just works. While I'm not a fan of every song or artist he samples, I commend Gillis for playing with genre and see his albums as artistic creations in and of themselves. In a way, I think his creations encourage us to question the somewhat arbitrary divisions drawn by the genre labels we place on music -- and in turn, challenge the ways in which those genre labels can sometimes be a barrier that keep listeners out. Afterall, why shouldn't the Pixies coexist happily alongside Nas? Sophie B. Hawkins alongside Punjabi MC? Stevie Wonder alongside The Breeders? Young Jeezy alongside Genesis? 2 Live Crew alongside Pavement alongside Wings? They can and do in Gillis's world. I think that's really cool.

    Additional interviews with Gregg Gillis:

    Pitchfork Media, 07/17/08

    Washington Post, 07/29/08

  3. I lasted a whole 40 seconds :-)