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The Re Generation
April 15, 2008 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Riffing on the 1970s as the "Me Generation," Esquire Magazine once referred to the 1980s as the "Re Generation," making the case that all of our popular music, fashion, etc was being recycled from previous decades. They had no idea. Since then, the flood of entertainment has deposited many more sedimentary layers of pop culture. Today, musicians and music videos mine these condensed strata of modern media as raw materials, producing works of hyper-compressed cultural references. Case in point: The Scissor Sisters' "Comfortably Numb", Justice's "DVNO", and The Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love."

In "Comfortably Numb," the music is really where all the references appear; in "DVNO," it's in the video (and the Wikipedia article attempts to catalog them). "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" stuffs a bewildering number of winks and references into both the music and visuals.
posted by adamrice (99 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think this is a textbook case of GYOB.
posted by dobbs at 8:11 AM on April 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


Interesting post. I'm familiar with the above songs and have blown a few people's minds with that Floyd cover.

I would have liked a link to the Esquire article. Is hyper-compressed a term you coined or is it an established term?
posted by Telf at 8:15 AM on April 15, 2008


Great subject. I can't wait for someone to do an FPP on it now.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:15 AM on April 15, 2008


Fascinating issue, not a strong post. That said, I just saw Shaker sweaters and The Gap. Which I knew was inevitable, but I thought we had a few more years.
posted by everichon at 8:15 AM on April 15, 2008


at, goddamn it. At the Gap.
posted by everichon at 8:16 AM on April 15, 2008


It's not recycling, it's self-referentiality. It's the hallmark of a mature culture. Or was Goethe "recycling" Marlowe?
posted by felix betachat at 8:18 AM on April 15, 2008


Hmmm, so what you're saying is Pop Will Eat Itself?
posted by lekvar at 8:19 AM on April 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


Here's my favorite Darkness track.
posted by porn in the woods at 8:21 AM on April 15, 2008


Let's not leave out Girl Talk (AKA Gregg Gillis) who's work consists purely of existing pop culture sounds.

New album soon! *excited*
posted by patr1ck at 8:28 AM on April 15, 2008


I thought the 80s was the "Me Generation".

I would like to see not just an absolute count of remakes and covers, but to also see those numbers expressed as percentages of all media produced. Both with and without YouTube included.
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on April 15, 2008


And the Strokes' 12:51.
posted by grubi at 8:30 AM on April 15, 2008


It's the hallmark of a mature culture

Agreed, nothing new going on here. Art is iterative.
posted by Miko at 8:30 AM on April 15, 2008


First four comments are critiques of the original post, which is about culture commenting on itself. This is pushing my daily meta allowance far past safe limits.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:31 AM on April 15, 2008 [4 favorites]


The "Me" thing was proposed not as a generation. Tom Wolfe proposed the phrase "Me Decade" in a 1976 essay called "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening [PDF]." If there is a "me generation," it's the baby boomers, who Wolfe is explicitly critiquing in his essay.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on April 15, 2008


posted by stupidsexyFlanders

ERROR ERROR ERROR STACK OVERFLOW
posted by DU at 8:36 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


> Esquire Magazine once referred to the 1980s as the "Re Generation,"

One of the most popular TV shows of the 1970s: 'Happy Days'.
posted by ardgedee at 8:38 AM on April 15, 2008


Don't forget that a lot of the "original" stuff in the 70s was actually references to things now forgotten.

(And also don't forget that MASH was based in Korea, the war from the 50s.)
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on April 15, 2008


Oh, yeah. And the acoustic sound of 70s rock? Heavily influenced by old-timey and bluegrass and blues of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Television variety shows (Donnie and Marie, Sonny and Cher, the Muppet Show) heavily influenced by Vaudeville. Laverne and Shirley (late 50s). Little House on the Prairie (1880s). And furthermore. 60s: Cowboy shows revisited the American West of the turn of the centuyr. The Flintstones spoofed The Honeymooners. Bugs Bunny spoofed the movies and radio soaps. Hogan's Heroes was a WWII story. The prog-rock and art-rock bands listened to classical greats and Victorian marches and recycled them into their work.

I mean...the most evergreen thing about human beings is our tendency to navel-gazingly believe we're always doing something radically new and different. But we're not.
posted by Miko at 8:47 AM on April 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


There's a difference between being influenced by something, and building on it, vs. trading on the references themselves. Vaudeville --> Laugh-In isn't the same as the cast of Friends namechecking Urkel for a cheap laugh. It's not always a clear distinction but it's worth making.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:52 AM on April 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


Musically, I would very much rather hear a cover like the Scissor Sisters' "Comfortably Numb" than a cover that sounds too much like the original. There are tons of great examples of unexpected-but-wonderful covers from the past few decades: Bryan Ferry covering Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," the English Beat covering Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," and Joan Osborne covering Edwin Starr's "War" are some personal favorites.

Isn't there a difference between re-imagining a song and simply reusing it without altering it much?
posted by homelystar at 8:54 AM on April 15, 2008


Miko—you're right. Me Decade and Re Decade. My mistake.

Telf—As far as I can tell, the Esquire article is not online, but I found it mentioned as a bibliographic reference here.

Dobbs—I have my own blog, but you don't read it. If I had posted this there, I would have been deprived of your trenchant insights.
posted by adamrice at 8:55 AM on April 15, 2008


Vaudeville --> Laugh-In isn't the same as the cast of Friends namechecking Urkel

Yeah, but they did name-check stuff that people would have known from times before. I can't do the research right now to find stuff for you, but pop song and pop theatre (including TV) have always included references to pop phenomena of times before.
posted by Miko at 9:08 AM on April 15, 2008


I think Dobbs called this right in the first comment.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 9:25 AM on April 15, 2008


Hey, grubi, thanks for that link - I'm a total sucker for 12:51. That Scissor Sisters thing, however, makes me want to strangle puppies just to block out the spaceship sounds from the synth.

Also, if this is a fundamentally different thing from the Beatles doing a medley of "Kansas City" and "Hey Hey Hey Hey" (or, for that matter, Zeppelin slowly stewing Delta blues and a mishmash of folk influences into a hippie-dip Hobbit homage), I can't see how. And normally I hate reflexive "fax machine is just a waffle iron with a phone attached" deconstructionism.
posted by gompa at 9:27 AM on April 15, 2008


I found it mentioned as a bibliographic reference here.

That citation is wrong. The article is from March 1986 not 1985. Seeing if I can scare it up someplace, but it looks like Esquire didn't have full-text available before 1996. Here's a small excerpt.
posted by jessamyn at 9:27 AM on April 15, 2008


I'm reminded of the Mad Magazine parody of "Scream 2" in which a character says, "But wait, they're just spewing mindless pop culture asides." to which another responds with something like, "well, they couldn't pull off funny, clever or relevant so they had to settle for referential."

Every generation recycles and sanitizes, taking the idealized bits of pop detritus and the cultural high points and leaving most of it in the dust. Look at Reagan-era worship of the '50s nuclear family that only really existed for a small portion or the white middle class.

It does seem that the cycle between creation and recycling is much shorter. But perhaps that is just the view of my lawn from here.
posted by Gucky at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2008


"Eventually within the next quarter of a century, the nostalgia cycles will be so close together that people will not be able to take a step without being nostalgic for the one they just took. At that point, everything stops. Death by Nostalgia."

-Frank Zappa
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2008 [9 favorites]


I'm reminded of the Mad Magazine parody of "Scream 2" in which a character says, "But wait, they're just spewing mindless pop culture asides." to which another responds with something like, "well, they couldn't pull off funny, clever or relevant so they had to settle for referential."

You mean Family Guy?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:37 AM on April 15, 2008 [5 favorites]


Perfect - check out the Laugh-In Wikipedia page, which someone has painstakingly detailed with running gags, and you can clearly see some cultural references not dissimilar to referencing Urkel on Friends.
posted by Miko at 9:48 AM on April 15, 2008


Also, Mika with his Freddie references.
posted by smackfu at 9:53 AM on April 15, 2008


So the other day my friend and I were sitting, in the appropriate mood to listen to some Creedence Clearwater Revival. My other friend's computer which we were using, sadly lacking in music, had no Creedence so we started hitting up Youtube. After watching several videos of the band playing, she put on Bad Moon Rising and we were subjected to a Dragonball Z Bad Moon Rising music video. So I'm with Zappa, more or less:

It's not recycling, it's self-referentiality. It's the hallmark of a mature culture.

It can perhaps be the hallmark of a culture so mature it's becoming old and decrepit.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:59 AM on April 15, 2008


Let's not leave out Girl Talk (AKA Gregg Gillis) who's work consists purely of existing pop culture sounds.

Actually, that's just the Night Ripper album and a couple loose tracks. All of his other stuff is damn-near-unlistenable glitchy electronic stuff.
posted by rxrfrx at 10:10 AM on April 15, 2008


None of the acts referenced above are as musch "hyper-compressed cultural references" as your average Beastie Boys track, so I don't see how this is news.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:16 AM on April 15, 2008


I like Dar Williams and Ani DiFranco's version of "Comfortably Numb" very much and over all the other versions.
posted by onepapertiger at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2008


So that's gonna make the Naughties the RerererereGeneration, right? I mean, what with the Speed Racer remakes and all.
posted by DenOfSizer at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2008


"It's the hallmark of a mature culture

Agreed, nothing new going on here. Art is iterative.
"

I think that there is a difference—primarily one shaped by the ease of reproduction and storage. I was thinking about this a lot when the MIA album came out last year, particularly because I had just picked up the Flirts album, in which Bobby Orlando does a lot of transformative references to '50s source material. There's a real difference in how brazen MIA is, where her samples are often fairly untouched (like "Jimmy") or presented not as another interpretation per se, but rather as part of a background context for her original work. Goethe, or Shakespeare, used public domain works as a jumping-off point, with less explicit recreation and more re-imagination. MIA uses her clips as a "this exists behind me" statement, an existential referencing.

Further, while I generally am suspicious of claims of cultural novelty, I think it also behooves us to be skeptical regarding dismissals of current culture as the same as historical culture. To allude sloppily, history rhymes not repeats.

I'd also say that I think the fin-de-siecle milieu encourages both a looking-back and a lack of definition for the current decade (see the ongoing, and now mostly moot, discussions of what we're to call the '00s).
posted by klangklangston at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


So the other day my friend and I were sitting, in the appropriate mood to listen to some Creedence Clearwater Revival. My other friend's computer which we were using, sadly lacking in music, had no Creedence so we started hitting up Youtube.

It is in the spirit of the epoch (and this very thread) that I will now make the appropriate Big Lebowski quote, to be referenced in this space: _____________________________________________________________________
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:51 AM on April 15, 2008


Or, as The Onion put it back in 1997: "U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past'".
posted by mosk at 10:54 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Eventually within the next quarter of a century, the nostalgia cycles will be so close together that people will not be able to take a step without being nostalgic for the one they just took. At that point, everything stops. Death by Nostalgia."

And from this vision of what's to be sprang "Best Week Ever", the show which I was reasonably sure started out as a sardonic joke about the increasingly more recent subject matter of the VH-1 retro nostalgia specials.
posted by Spatch at 11:05 AM on April 15, 2008


I think that there is a difference—primarily one shaped by the ease of reproduction and storage.

This is a good point, but ultimately irrelevant, I think. Technology just makes it easier to allude. The heaviness or lightness of the allusion is up to the artist, the demands of the work and the taste of the moment. Coppola's allusions to Conrad, for example, are fairly light, as was Vanilla Ice's allusion to Bowie. At the same time, Shakespeare's allusions to Plutarch were heavy, just like M.Ward's cover of Bowie's "Let's Dance" were heavy.

You'd be much better off talking about traditions and contexts which favor light vs. heavy allusion instead of focusing on technology or historical periods. Artists have a crazy way of being both smarter and more flexible than those who try to interpret them.

I'd also say that I think the fin-de-siecle milieu encourages both a looking-back and a lack of definition for the current decade (see the ongoing, and now mostly moot, discussions of what we're to call the '00s).

Funny, I was thinking about this on my way in to work this morning. Listening to the fantastic new Cut Copy album, which is such a gorgeous reworking of '80's pop via turn of the millennium French house music. I think it's less about the fin de siècle (which is pretty much over, in any case) than it is about a generation that faces a dark and uncertain future rolling over and reaching for its blankie.
posted by felix betachat at 11:06 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Go ahead and mine the past, but do something substantial with it instead of just treating it like a fashion. I'm really sick of all this winking retro 80s crap. Maybe I'm just listening to all the wrong records. (FWIW I think the M83 album that came out today approaches the 80s in a refreshingly sincere way.)
posted by naju at 11:08 AM on April 15, 2008


I think that there is a difference—primarily one shaped by the ease of reproduction and storage

I agree with you, but I think it's a difference of degree rather than of kind.
posted by Miko at 11:21 AM on April 15, 2008


culture is a perpetual trope on culture, there is no "other way" about it
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 11:22 AM on April 15, 2008


"Eventually within the next quarter of a century, the nostalgia cycles will be so close together that people will not be able to take a step without being nostalgic for the one they just took. At that point, everything stops. Death by Nostalgia."

-Frank Zappa

"All Your Base Is Belong To Us"

- CATS, Circa 2001.
posted by BrianBoyko at 11:41 AM on April 15, 2008


It certainly wasn't my intention to suggest that being retro-obsessive is a new thing, or that making winking references to past cultural works is a new thing.

I do think that there is something different going on these days, especially with works like the ones I pointed to in the FPP. First, those works were made in the expectation that audiences have a good familiarity with a huge volume of pop culture. And that's not an unreasonable expectation. A great number of people do have a familiarity with a huge volume of musical/visual/textual media in a way that would have been impossible 50 years ago, or 100, or 400. This is perhaps a quantitative difference, not qualitative, but sometimes quantity has a quality all its own. The second, and related point is that these pieces are almost nothing but references. I don't mean covers—I mean a guitar riff, a momentary image, or a visual effect, piled on top of each other so quickly it's hard to keep track. Is this a new thing? Maybe. I don't know. It seems new to me.
posted by adamrice at 11:42 AM on April 15, 2008


I think that there is a difference—primarily one shaped by the ease of reproduction and storage.

This is a good point though... We are at a unique place in history where Bach, Benjamin Britton and Brittney Spears are found in the same isle, and exist simultaniously. Oddly, music scholars (of the academic flavor) are still just picking up on this...

I find this to be a FREAKIN GREAT thing. I did a thesis on a similar subject in conservatory... The technology aspect that klangston mentions breaks down the class barrier, and allows "normal people" to have a say in the discourse of The Great Western Musical Canon like never before. Unlike in the 1800s, where a symphony was required to convey musical thought, some kid in his basement can throw on his 808, put it through digital performer and create a legitimate masterpiece, all while stuffy music academic types keep regurgitating the same old same old. As a result, the "dialogue" which is music-as-art is sped-up considerably, and takes novel and beautiful directions.

This progression can be seen by the economic/financial requirements of popular art music through "western history":

Choral ("sacred") -> Symphony (secular) -> Chamber music (eliminates need for conductor) -> Soloist (still requires high technique) -> Jazz (eliminates "composer" element, collaborative composition) -> Blues/Rock (eliminates need for "technique", when compared to classical/jazz) -> Hip-Hop (eliminates need for band!)


This progression can also be charted along with the rise of the intellectual middle-class, as the system of hierarchy collapses (and, as the power of the institutions that fund music, ie. the catholic church, the king, the upper-class, etc.), the power of the individual to influence popular music increases at every step.

Going back to what Klagster says, with the cheap price of music production and replication, a 1 to 1 ratio of producer/consumer is possible, and a truely democratized "socialization" of music art culture!

SWEET
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 11:48 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


"This is a good point, but ultimately irrelevant, I think. Technology just makes it easier to allude. The heaviness or lightness of the allusion is up to the artist, the demands of the work and the taste of the moment."

I disagree—without the easy and flawless reproduction, allusions must be recreated rather than simply retrieved. For example, Vanilla Ice has famously claimed that he didn't sample the Bowie/Queen bassline, but rather had his studio band play something that simply sounds incredibly similar (I find the idea that it was actually replayed more convincing than the argument that he had no idea that it came from Bowie/Queen).

"I agree with you, but I think it's a difference of degree rather than of kind."

I think that degree is significant, though. And I do believe that the technology of reference has influenced both the degree and the uses of reference.
posted by klangklangston at 11:50 AM on April 15, 2008


"Going back to what Klagster says, with the cheap price of music production and replication, a 1 to 1 ratio of producer/consumer is possible, and a truely democratized "socialization" of music art culture!"

Oh, man, I wish I could remember the guy who I cited on this when I wrote a term paper about samples as oral culture. It was a book from the early 2000s that had atrocious layouts and typography, and was all about this point. Maybe I'll have to call my dad into this thread, as this was all part of his masters thesis.
posted by klangklangston at 11:53 AM on April 15, 2008


This is a good point though... We are at a unique place in history where Bach, Benjamin Britton and Brittney Spears are found in the same isle, and exist simultaniously. Oddly, music scholars (of the academic flavor) are still just picking up on this...


Alex? Is that you?
posted by felix betachat at 11:56 AM on April 15, 2008


^ That kid is badass
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 12:10 PM on April 15, 2008


'twas probably part of my master's studies, not my master's thesis (which was on a different matter entirely). You are either thinking of Bolter & Grusin's Remediation or Pierre Levy's Cyberculture, both of which deal with Wienerian cycles of mediated innovations and affordances. But likely it was Levy, who insisted that once we all had the ability to create our own music digitally at our own keyboards, the "music industry" would simply become all of us sharing our brilliant compositions with each other in a state of equality, liberty, and fraternity. Or something.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:12 PM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, man, I wish I could remember the guy who I cited on this when I wrote a term paper about samples as oral culture. It was a book from the early 2000s that had atrocious layouts and typography, and was all about this point. Maybe I'll have to call my dad into this thread, as this was all part of his masters thesis.
posted by klangklangston at 11:53 AM on April 15 [+] [!]


Obviously, this is all within the collective psyche, let me find my thesis on Jung for you all...


Ahhh, Metafilter. Brings me back to my college days, when I thought my ideas were novel :)
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 12:14 PM on April 15, 2008


or, as is known to happen...

Metafilter: all of us sharing our brilliant compositions with each other in a state of equality, liberty, and fraternity. Or something.
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 12:16 PM on April 15, 2008


> (I find the idea that it was actually replayed more convincing than the argument that he had no idea that it came from Bowie/Queen).

Hiring some session musicians to lay down an eight-bar 4/4 rhythm is a one-time cash outlay. Sampling Queen and David Bowie means royalties payments in perpetuum. A savvy producer knows where to put his money.
posted by ardgedee at 12:19 PM on April 15, 2008


First, those works were made in the expectation that audiences have a good familiarity with a huge volume of pop culture. And that's not an unreasonable expectation. A great number of people do have a familiarity with a huge volume of musical/visual/textual media in a way that would have been impossible 50 years ago, or 100, or 400.

I disagree; I think if you look into the history of pop culture and entertainment, you'd find that this sort of mixing was not impossible at all. Again, difference of degree.

Some of the contention coming from an academic standpoint - that progression, for instance - completely ignores the entire unofficial body of folk or popular music that was not disseminated through church or other institutional channels. At the street level, all of the influences of both high art and low art were always available for mixing, as were ethnic influences on tonality and instrumentation. The study of world folk musics demonstrates that the type of adaptation and reinvention found in, say, hip-hop is not new or unusual in musical history, though you have to be looking at sources other than formal, institutionalized music to find it.

Sea music, for instance (chanteys especially) provides an incredibly good example. By the time it first appears in written and recorded form in the early 1800s, it has already been around long enough to result in a significant body of songs, and the body of song continues to evolve for another hundred years in an interative and self-referential manner - but continually absorbing and being shaped by new cultural influences. The songs include multicultural musical influences that can be directly traced to the development of new ports of call - so in lyrics and music you see gradually arising Caribbean influences, African-American influences, Scots-Irish influences, South American influences, Pacific influences, and Northwest Coast influences. They reference one another and also legendary or popular figures (Admiral Nelson, Sally Brown, John Paul Jones, Jack, General Taylor). They often feature similar topics and themes rehashed into new melodies or adapted to new forms of work (as when a new pumping or sail-handling method was introduced). Often, lyrics lifted from one song show up in another song. Refrains become verses and vice versa. Verses get misremembered and turn up as close soundalikes. Songs address other songs. Characters from Biblical stories appear alongside legendary and fantastical figures, famous whores and captains, pirates and military heroes.

A great book to look into for examples is Stan Hugill's sprawling but seminal collection Songs of the Seven Seas. What makes his book particularly interesting to the student of folk music is that he groups the songs by type and similarity rather than, say, chronologically or alphabetically. So he has the "Hilo" set, about a dozen songs that are interrelated, and which build and elaborate on earlier versions. There are many such groupings, and it's very enlightening to see how sailors' work songs were an iterative and self-referential conversation in much the same way pop music of today was.

As to finding influences from different music side-by-side, accounts of downtime aboard American whaleships in the mid to late 1800s include mentions of sessions in which crews of diverse background might sing and play, in one sitting, a French-Canadian dance tune, an Irish ballad, a Southern American banjo tune, a lullaby, a South Pacific ritual song, a music hall pop song, a minstrel-show song, a Mississippi River raftsman's song, an English broadside ballad, a military song, and then wrap it all up with a Congregational hymn right out of the hymnal.

The deeper I've looked into musical history outside of official channels of written record transmission of musics, the more I've found that today's musical work is different only in speed and scale, not variety or innovation. Those things have remained consistent in human music making, while technologies and 'sounds' change in incremental and traceable ways.
posted by Miko at 1:02 PM on April 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, I meant to add that sea chanteys are a great case study because they are such a good microcosm of musical development within a single genre before modern technology. The evolution of the genre is fairly well documented from a narrative point of view, and though there are of course no sound recordings until the last century, some melodies were occasionally written down using musical notation.
posted by Miko at 1:06 PM on April 15, 2008


DU writes "I thought the 80s was the 'Me Generation'."

I thought the '70s was the "Me Generation," although I heard that shift sometime in the mid-80s. Sometimes I hear that of the Boomers. Others say that anyone born from 1970-2000. I always think of the '80s as the generation of Reagan, overuse of FM synthesizers in music, the prominence and cheapness of cocaine, the birth of rap as its own genre, Wall Street shenanigans, Jheri curl and mousse, and high school (well, that last bit applies to me). Also bad hair and clothes, but that's true of every generation. And really bad sitcoms, notable for their horrendous theme songs written on early sequencers.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:12 PM on April 15, 2008


"But likely it was Levy, who insisted that once we all had the ability to create our own music digitally at our own keyboards, the "music industry" would simply become all of us sharing our brilliant compositions with each other in a state of equality, liberty, and fraternity. Or something."

Yeah, that was him. He had an almost pernicious blind spot regarding the relationship of asymmetry and specialization to capitalism.

"The deeper I've looked into musical history outside of official channels of written record transmission of musics, the more I've found that today's musical work is different only in speed and scale, not variety or innovation."

I do think that being able to sample literally, rather than having to replay, does cause a difference in how source material is treated and what kind of "sampling" is given cultural value. To abuse by simplification, your description is of analogue reproductions, whereas the references now are digital and atomic.
posted by klangklangston at 1:16 PM on April 15, 2008


Nothing's more culturally referential than my personal favorite genre, mashups. This is Osymyso's Intro-Inspection, which is half as interesting if you don't know anything it includes.
posted by flatluigi at 1:26 PM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


I just love it when Miko decides not to take any shit. Makes my day, every single time.
posted by clockwork at 1:31 PM on April 15, 2008


> This is Osymyso's Intro-Inspection...

404 Not Found, unfortch.

Incidentally, I am really enjoying this conversation. I hate 'it's all been done before' in discussions of the arts because that's unprovable. (And even if it has, there continue to be undiscovered ways of doing it.)
posted by ardgedee at 1:46 PM on April 15, 2008


the references now are digital and atomic.

Okay, but I'm not sure exactly what difference is made by hearing it directly sampled as opposed to, say, hearing a vocal hitch and saying "Damn! That's exactly how Trinidad John did it on the Sarah Parker!' besides the facts that more people are able to hear and recognize it at once, and it undergoes fewer variations as it passes through the new interpreters. Those seem like differences of degree to me, but maybe having a direct quote from recorded sound does make some sort of material difference. I'm just not sure what, really. Nothing that's been pointed to so far seems like a material difference. Ease of replication, perhaps, in that you don't have to learn instrument skills to replicate sound. You can use a single tool, a keyboard, to recreate sound of all types.

I just love it when Miko decides not to take any shit

Hee hee. This is just one of my hobbyhorses.
posted by Miko at 1:49 PM on April 15, 2008


ardegee: I don't think it's all been done before, because there are infinite possibilities within musical expression - the variety is inexhaustible, and humans love to balance novelty and tradition and almost always do in any musical form. I just think there are really no new ways of thinking musically.
posted by Miko at 1:52 PM on April 15, 2008


"Premature nostalgification." Been there. Done that. When I feel particularly obnoxious, I like to tell people I posed for the illustration.
posted by wendell at 1:54 PM on April 15, 2008


Premature nostalgification

I just did a presentation on museums and the web, and got a ton of "Awww!" nostalgic reactions when I used the Wayback machine to show people their museums' websites circa 1996-8.

The Big Chill came out in 1983. Most of the characters were supposed to have graduated from college only about 10 or 12 years before the movie was set. The characters were around 35.
posted by Miko at 2:04 PM on April 15, 2008


"Okay, but I'm not sure exactly what difference is made by hearing it directly sampled as opposed to, say, hearing a vocal hitch and saying "Damn! That's exactly how Trinidad John did it on the Sarah Parker!' besides the facts that more people are able to hear and recognize it at once, and it undergoes fewer variations as it passes through the new interpreters."

I think that one of the shifts would be recognizable as an individual moment. That vocal hitch has to exist in the context of the song to make sense as being a reference. For a sample to make sense, it has to exist outside the context of the original song, like dropping in that vocal hitch to make a new hook purely out of that vocal hitch. That seems aesthetically different to me, like the difference between covering The Guns of Navarone in a way that references the Skatalites interpretation and making a dub track that explicitly borrows the Skatalites. Or, to try to express what I think is arguably a subjective aesthetic sense, I think there's a difference between the Luncheon on the Grass referencing prior paintings and Cindy Sherman's After Walker Evans—I think the blunt literal sample has a different feel than the reworking.
posted by klangklangston at 2:34 PM on April 15, 2008


I guess that's a better way of summing up how I feel—I feel like the current wave of sampling in music is more like photography (or collages made of photos, maybe) than painting, which I feel has more in common with the folk music tradition.

And of course, there's a lot of overlap.
posted by klangklangston at 2:37 PM on April 15, 2008


ardgedee: 404 Not Found, unfortch.

Oops. Here's a mirror, and here's a list of the samples (in order).
posted by flatluigi at 2:53 PM on April 15, 2008


it has to exist outside the context of the original song, like dropping in that vocal hitch to make a new hook purely out of that vocal hitch.

What about a sea song like John Kanaka, where the "kanaka" comes from Yankee sailors mimicking and mispronouncing the name native Hawaiian islanders gave themselves? Richard Henry Dana mentions the word in "Two Years Before the Mast:"
The long name of Sandwich Islanders is dropped, and they are called by the whites, all over the Pacific ocean, "Kanákas," from a word in their own language which they apply to themselves, and to all South Sea Islanders, in distinction from whites, whom they call "Haole." This name, "Kanaka," they answer to, both collectively and individually.
They took the "kanaka" phrase out of context, without any understanding of it, and turned it into a repeated hook:
I thought I heard the old man say
John Kanaka-naka, tulai-ay
There's work tomorrow but no work today
John Kanaka-nak, tulai-ay
So it's not the decontextualization that makes today's musical experimentation different. It's not the use of a shortened, nonsensical sound repeated as a musical hook. It's not that the sampled peice is surrounded by new material.

So if there is a difference, it's in the "realness" or directness of the actual sound sample, or actual photograph. It could be argued that a recorded sound sample or photograph is closer to the original condition or performance than a mimicked version - though of course a recording is not the same as a performance, and a photograph is not the same as a living scene. Because these are diffferences about degree of closeness to the original, this is why I say that modern musical sampling or cultural quoting are differences of degree, not of kind. There has been technological change that opens up possibilities, but not hugely different from past technological changes.

The printing press changed the way writing was shared and made it much more accessible and easier to quote (and plagiarize), but did not change the fundamental human purposes for writing or even directly affect the possibilities for what could be done with writing. It just made dissemination easier and reading more common. Recorded sound didn't change the fundamental reasons for making music or the possibilities for what could be done musically, given the fact that music is just perceptible sound arranged over passing time to create an aesthetic-emotional impression. And I don't think digital replication changes music even as much as recording did, so, in my mind, it doesn't change it very much.
posted by Miko at 3:59 PM on April 15, 2008


These videos remind me how much I miss Beavis and Butthead.
posted by Tube at 4:04 PM on April 15, 2008


"The printing press changed the way writing was shared and made it much more accessible and easier to quote (and plagiarize), but did not change the fundamental human purposes for writing or even directly affect the possibilities for what could be done with writing. It just made dissemination easier and reading more common.

I'm sorry, but if you can't understand how writing shifted, or acknowledge that there was a shift in values and possibilities before and after the printing press, or to take an area where I'm a bit more able to easily command evidence, the shift in values for visual art upon the easy reproduction of etchings and cuts, I'm not sure where I can go with this. There was a shift post-press of composition of small paintings to make them easier to reproduce. The poetry of e.e. cummings would be significantly different if it was hand printed, rather than mass-produced. Even the adoption of the rotogravure significantly shifted the tone of articles around the photographs, coinciding with the broader adoption of Ochs "objective" prose.

"Recorded sound didn't change the fundamental reasons for making music or the possibilities for what could be done musically, given the fact that music is just perceptible sound arranged over passing time to create an aesthetic-emotional impression."

Arguing that recorded sound didn't change the fundamental reasons for making music rests on assumptions about the fundamental reasons for making music that are tautological and over-broad; recorded sound did fundamentally change the choices that people made in making music, just as any shift in tools modifies the medium in which they work. Yes, people make music for the same reasons before and after electric guitars too, but the choices they make (conscious or unconscious) about how their going to make that music are both significant and undeniable. Further, despite the fairly unassailable definition of music you give, you're wrong about the possibilities of music being immutable, and that's not supported by that definition. Recorded sound made over-dubbing possible. Without over-dubbing, there are all sorts of sounds that are impossible to create. And again, while you accede the possibility of technological change, every technological change is unique, though not necessarily sui generis. The cell phone and the telegraph are related, and both changed society, but that doesn't mean that the cell phone is just a difference of degree from the telegraph. Otherwise, we're simply degrees away from reductio ad absurdum.

"So it's not the decontextualization that makes today's musical experimentation different. It's not the use of a shortened, nonsensical sound repeated as a musical hook. It's not that the sampled peice is surrounded by new material."

Right. It's all of those things, along with the fact that your example wasn't a sample, it was a new performance each time. And, perhaps this is where we differ, I see more than a degree of difference between a performance and a recording. It's also worth noting that the use of samples necessitates a recalling of a concrete moment in a way that your example doesn't—there's not necessarily any individual author of the Kanaka fragment, and even if there was, performers are not necessarily tied to that author. At the risk of opening myself up further with more confusing analogies, the use of sampling is like composing an article out of only quotes, whereas the prior aesthetic included paraphrases and narrative. And I don't believe that we're entirely in one paradigm or another now, but I do believe that they are fundamentally different contexts in which to evaluate a work.
posted by klangklangston at 4:56 PM on April 15, 2008


And your Kanaka example, especially with the indeterminable origin, still points to an evolution to me, of bits and pieces that mutate over time, rather than irreducible chunks being dropped in.
posted by klangklangston at 4:58 PM on April 15, 2008


I thought you were arguing that there was a fundamental difference in the kinds of musical ideas that sampling gave rise to. I don't see a fundamental difference. I see iterations and elaborations of existing ideas. I'm not sure we're going to resolve that with what has come down to an aesthetic argument. I don't think "composing an article of entirely quotes" is a new idea; it's a medley. You see what I mean?

Of course I understand that writing and recorded sound shifted and changed and influenced. I just don't think they are paradigm shifts at all. I see people applying learned musical ideas to newly possible sound combinations. I don't see new musical ideas. I see changes in what's popular and what gets establishment or scholarly attention. I don't see changes in human musical creativity.
posted by Miko at 5:38 PM on April 15, 2008


example wasn't a sample, it was a new performance each time.

Yeah, but the bass line mentioned above was a reference, not an exact quote. It was another performance. If I play back a sample slower, producing another pitch, it's a new performance. When I mix it with the other inputs, it's a new performance, because a different sound quality is being produced. When I commit the acts that stop and start the clipping of each sample, I am performing.
posted by Miko at 5:40 PM on April 15, 2008


"Yeah, but the bass line mentioned above was a reference, not an exact quote."

Right, which was why I differentiated it—songwriting versus performance rights, if that makes sense.

"It was another performance. If I play back a sample slower, producing another pitch, it's a new performance. When I mix it with the other inputs, it's a new performance, because a different sound quality is being produced. When I commit the acts that stop and start the clipping of each sample, I am performing."

No, that's a manipulation of a sample, not a new performance, and that's where I see the difference. But yes, there is a gradated boundary regarding the transformative use of samples, but what I was trying to get at was the aesthetic of not manipulating those samples aside from their context. But with the line you're taking there, you'd have to also argue that every reproduction from an analogue source is a different performance (which I could agree with in some contexts, I suppose). And that's still different from when there were no recordings possible.
posted by klangklangston at 5:57 PM on April 15, 2008


"I don't think "composing an article of entirely quotes" is a new idea; it's a medley. You see what I mean?"

I think that doing it in the context of a newspaper would be novel. Because I think that the context and medium matter.
posted by klangklangston at 5:59 PM on April 15, 2008


I don't see new musical ideas. I see changes in what's popular and what gets establishment or scholarly attention. I don't see changes in human musical creativity.

(Sorry for delmoi'ing).

I see this as too much a "no new ideas" stance, which I don't think is supportable, unless there's something special about music, or writing, or art, that makes it different from science or philosophy per se.
posted by klangklangston at 6:02 PM on April 15, 2008


The Sister's neo-funkylicious interpretation of "Comfortably Numb" made my brain hurt. It was so perfectly wrong.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:55 PM on April 15, 2008


So basically collage is the predominant artform of our age. My argument is that it's not necessarily the raw materials that make the art good or bad, it's what the artist does with them. And these days technology has enabled us to use almost anything that can be recorded/captured/remembered as an input for art. Including ideas. As Miko pointed out earlier, this may be an age old phenomenon but the speed of recursion and sheer volume of mediocre work using this technique sometimes hides the truly mind blowing pieces of art that have been produced this way.
posted by tighttrousers at 7:58 PM on April 15, 2008


Also, the Gray Album would have been a worthy addition to this post.
posted by tighttrousers at 8:03 PM on April 15, 2008


I've been talking about how important the degrees of difference are. I don't view them as that important, in musical history. Sure, word salad in the newspaper would be novel. But you could certainly do it, especially in the context of the poetry column. Similarly, if you sat down in a concert hall to hear a program of Brahms, you would be surprised to hear a mix of recorded electronic-music samples.

I'm not actually sure we disagree. I just think the presentism of thinking that the musical ideas of this generation are really truly without precedent is evergreen. Musicians have always thought that. And historians have always been able to reconstruct the influences, technological and cultural, that gave rise to the innovations.
posted by Miko at 8:27 PM on April 15, 2008


that's a manipulation of a sample, not a new performance,

Okay, ther ei totally disagree, because the manipulation IS the performance, and if you don't accept that you can't accept what I'm saying. Just as my manipulation of a guitar to make a unique sound is a performance, or my vocalizing a particular note with a particular intonation is a performance, or my bowing of a theramin is a performance, the moment at which a composer sits down at a set of controls and begins to manipulate sound into an artistic piece is a performance. Recorded musics are recordings of a particular performance, the remixed recordings of samples no less so.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on April 15, 2008


Then you're going to have to argue that every time you listen to a vinyl album or a cassette, that it's a different performance iterated out of the same source. Which I still think is different from your sea chanteys example, where the source is materially unconnected with the performance.
posted by klangklangston at 8:43 PM on April 15, 2008


Good post.
posted by sklero at 10:40 PM on April 15, 2008


I have to agree with the philosopher poets Kupferberg and Sanders who opined that all life, art, experience is the "beatific vision of the universal joke." Or the infinite variations on the universal cosmic tone. Yes, it has all been done before. Nothing is new. Yet the novel recombinance attracts us and offers us new interpretations. Ain't life grand.
posted by beelzbubba at 5:13 AM on April 16, 2008


1970s: Happy Days
1980s: The Wonder Years
1990s: That 70's Show
2000s: That 80's Show

Guess which one tanked.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:08 AM on April 16, 2008


"I'm not actually sure we disagree. I just think the presentism of thinking that the musical ideas of this generation are really truly without precedent is evergreen. Musicians have always thought that. And historians have always been able to reconstruct the influences, technological and cultural, that gave rise to the innovations."

I'm not saying that they're without precedent, I'm saying that the way that our culture is reacting, and the works that are being created, are significantly different from what was valued or possible before.

"I have to agree with the philosopher poets Kupferberg and Sanders who opined that all life, art, experience is the "beatific vision of the universal joke." Or the infinite variations on the universal cosmic tone. Yes, it has all been done before. Nothing is new. Yet the novel recombinance attracts us and offers us new interpretations. Ain't life grand."

Bah. I see your Zeno and counter with Heraclitus.
posted by klangklangston at 12:50 PM on April 16, 2008


*"I don't think "composing an article of entirely quotes" is a new idea; it's a medley. You see what I mean?"

I think that doing it in the context of a newspaper would be novel. Because I think that the context and medium matter.

Then again, many articles are little more than quotes with interspersed fluff.
posted by ersatz at 4:56 PM on April 16, 2008


Please check your facts. The 80s were the Al Franken Decade:

People are going to stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about me, Al Franken. That's right. I believe we're entering the Al Franken decade. Oh, for me, Al Franken, the eighties will be pretty much the same as the seventies. But for you, when you see a news report you'll be thinking "I wonder what Al Franken thinks about this?" "I wonder how this inflation thing is hurting Al Franken?" And you women will be thinking "What can I wear that will please Al Franken?" or "What can I not wear?" A lot of you are probally thinking "Why Al Franken?" Well, because I thought of it, and I'm on TV.

posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:40 PM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Then you're going to have to argue that every time you listen to a vinyl album or a cassette, that it's a different performance iterated out of the same source.

Mmm, sure. You could make that argument - but it's my performance. (A record is a record of a performance that already took place, usually in a studio - not a new performance in itself each time). There's no doubt about the fact that a DJ in a club spinning records is giving a performance, even if s/he isn't doing any scratching or mixing or anything. Just selecting records, planning segues, and keeping people on the dance floor is giving a performance. And I certainly felt in my younger days that when people came over and I played selected tracks from selected records for them as an audience, it was a performance. And cover bands give performances when they play other people's songs. The use of whole songs in their entirety to create a musical experience is a musical performance. It can be done well or poorly, and there is musical thinking going on.

But just playing tracks in their entirety is an outside and somewhat extreme example of the kinds of performance recorded music makes possible, and what artists mixing samples into new tracks are doing is much more creative and much more closely connected to analogues in music history than that.

The difference is that when using sampling, the artist is not just dropping the needle and playing a track that has a predetermined start and end point and unity as defined by the recording technology. Instead, the artist is:

-Selecting some source audio from the vast available pool
-Listening critically to the source material
-Selecting single elements s/he wants to pull from the source material
-Recording the isolated elements by choosing start and stop points from which to craft the sample
-Manipulating (often but not always) the sample to create a new effect
-Marrying the sample to other material to blend it into a working track
-Mixing the new work as a new track, further changing/manipulating the recording of the original source material, balancing the sample, changing its presence within the sound field, deciding whether it will appear in one or both channels, forward or in the rear, whether to apply the large possible array of easily used effects on it
-Mastering the completed new work

It's more like a conductor/composer directing the appearance and quality of sounds from a variety of sources. At every stage, there is not just a simple replication of sound but decision-making about how to select, use, change, and present sound. I don't view those decisions as essentially different from those made by vocalists and instrumentalists, who have always knowingly aimed to replicate sounds, but could not do it with the same degree of closeness to the original as is possible with modern-day recording technology. But they certainly did lift entire sections, beats, riffs, or vocalizations and remix them.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Mmm, sure. You could make that argument - but it's my performance. (A record is a record of a performance that already took place, usually in a studio - not a new performance in itself each time)."

I can't tell whether this is intentional or not, but the point that I was making was that the act of physically playing analogue media changes the music, and changes it each time. That's how I see the "sampling" you're talking about with recombinant songwriting, or what I was trying to get across with the painting analogy. I believe that the sampling and manipulation of audio samples has much more to do with editing than mimesis. And while there are certainly quite a few overlaps with both earlier technological advances and creative techniques, the chunky aesthetic of dropping samples (most explicitly unmediated samples) is something that I hear a lot of lately that is different from other musical eras, notably in its prevalence as an aesthetic.

While sea chanteys and musique concrete both utilize sampling, they do so in different ways for different ends. I think the current use of sampling, especially the brazen and blunt style that characterizes a lot of hip hop, has more to do with musique concrete, though I definitely do agree that when viewed as an allusive technique, it has a much longer history.
posted by klangklangston at 9:34 PM on April 17, 2008


the act of physically playing analogue media changes the music

It does, but part of my argument about composition and mixing above is to point out that sampling also inevitably changes the music. It's, in fact, physically impossible to create a copy of any audio - even a digital copy - without some (uninentional) change due to sample rate. And usually there's a lot of intentional change made as well.
posted by Miko at 8:54 AM on April 18, 2008


That's simply not true. The sample rate degradation takes place during the initial sampling, not during subsequent copies made of the digital sample. The ones-and-zeros remain the same.
posted by klangklangston at 11:58 AM on April 18, 2008


The sample rate degradation takes place during the initial sampling

Okay, not sure that matters - the degradation doesn't take place without the sampling. But that's minor compared to what happens to the sound in the mixing process.
posted by Miko at 1:52 PM on April 18, 2008


Right, but when you drop in a digital sample, especially (again) unmediated, it's still the exact same thing as before, with only the context changed. Recording methods are a bit of a red herring here, but I do think there's some connection between the editing mindset and the creating mindset. See the earlier comment about musique concrete.
posted by klangklangston at 2:35 PM on April 18, 2008


I'll continue to insist that the selection and manipulation of a sample creates change. But that's really hairsplitting and not at the center of my discussion here, so I'm going to set it aside.

The point I really wish to make is this: "hyper-compressed cultural references" presented using sampling don't constitute a musical revolution, just an extension of musical/lyrical strategies that have long existed. There is not an enormous difference, in the grand scheme, between making cultural references through direct quoting and making the same references using other sound technologies. "We Didn't Start the Fire" is nothing if not "hyper-compressed cultural reference," but it's not revolutionary. Nor is "Those Were the Days," or any other song that references other songs or other pop culture phenomena, of which there has not been a dearth any time over the last two centuries at the very least. Would it have somehow been more revolutionary if every name-check in the song was lifted from historic audio actualities and spliced together rather than sung? I don't see how. The musical ideas are not widely diferent. And in fact, if we note that pop culture cross-references were growing thicker all the time even prior to the ease of digital replication ("Saturday Night Live," "Happy Days," "The Little Rascals,"), it's clear that it's not digitization itself that gave rise to the degree of cross-reference in pop culture, it's simply the proliferation of media content itself - a proliferation which is the gradual fruiting of much earlier developments of the twentieth century, beginning, of course, with sound recording.

Digital sampling is a notable sub-sub head under the digitization of music, one small element of the revolution which was aurally recorded music, an equivalent revolution to printing and the circulation of music written in notation. It's not sampling that gives rise to cultural cross-reference. It's simply one way to accomplish it using a very slight degree of separation from the original material.

If you don't see it as a technological development, then it's a stylistic element. Stylistically, is the use of sampling more important than other developments in musical genres and movements? I don't think so. The departure of Western music from the modes of early Church music to the classical scales was a bigger stylistic revolution. Given the landscape of music today, the influence of sampling adds a little texture, but has not taken hold of pop music and sent it in an astounding revolutionary new direction.

Every generation sees itself as kings of history and contemporary culture, able to pick and choose from the best of the past and present, in architecture, writing, music, food, and fashion. Revolutionary-era Americans read about the excavation of Pompeii and went gaga for re-creating classical design; in the song Yankee Doodle, they took a child's nursery tune and continually added and changed lyrics full of pop references, throwing the song back and forth as a weapon between British and American forces. We use whatever technologies we have available to mine the past and present for material to use in fresh combinations. That sampling is used for this purpose is not a revolution. It fits solidly into world musical tradition and repeats creative patterns in use for milennia.
posted by Miko at 7:48 AM on April 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


I agree with Miko that digital sampling, mashups, etc, are interesting, but they are a subcategory of cultural reference—and really, a different one than I was trying (unsuccessfully perhaps) to raise with my FPP. For that matter, direct quoting of other works is a different one.

I can't put myself in the position of a person from the past; when historians do so, they are still doing so from the perspective of someone who may see a wider view of the past than contemporary people saw of their own present (and there's no question that Miko has a wide and deep view of the past, as we're seeing in this thread). Just because a musician acquainted with the past is referring to it in a work doesn't mean the audience gets it. Sort of like when "Can't live" is described as a Mariah Carey song. The pieces I mentioned in the FPP are the contra-examples—where the audience is assumed to be hip enough to recognize a guitar lick as borrowed from Fleetwood Mac, or a momentary image as coming from a 1980s Rush video.
posted by adamrice at 10:12 AM on April 20, 2008


where the audience is assumed to be hip enough

Sure - kind of reminds me of reading 19th-century poetry, too. Modern people - or less educated people of the time period in which it was written - can read it and get something out of it. It's in English, a reader can understand the topic and main statements.

But when you have enough background in the literature of the time period, know what was popular, what were the bestsellers, what was being read and discussed in literary circles, and know the sources they used, suddenly an entire world of allusion and cross-reference opens up to you. It's amazing how much knowledge you need to pick up every allusion - excellent familiarity with the "classics," Greek mythology and epic poetry especially, and the Bible, to begin with. Once you are more aware of the things people in that time and place would have been exposed to in daily life and as part of their education, little references that at first appeared to have no meaning suddenly get a lot more weighty and interesting.

Similarly, in music, the more you know about the sources, the more allusions you catch and the more meaning you can take from the reference.
posted by Miko at 12:30 PM on April 20, 2008


Thought of some earlier examples of multi-layered pop cross-reference and self-reference.

"Minstrel Show" number in the 1954 movie "White Christmas" (the movie itself one of the most densely packed with references I can think of: a self-spoofing update/remake based on "Holiday Inn," incorporating prior, twenty- and thirty-year-old Berlin hits like "Blue Skies" done with a hip-for-the-time new twist in dancing and arranging, also including recycled songs from another Berlin musical that tanked, called something like "Stars on His Shoulders.")

Lucille Ball incorporating her Charlie Chaplin costumed impersonation into a 1950s tap-dance floor show, then reprising that bit on her "I Love Lucy" TV show and finally her 1970s variety show.


All of 1940s-era Bugs Bunny - one great example.
posted by Miko at 7:58 AM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


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