Mash-Up Culture: Why We Remix Everything

The first two minutes and 30 seconds of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video are, in a word, entrancing. Illustrating Gaga’s introductory narration, swirling images transmogrify from the repulsive to the intoxicating and back in a deluge of shock and awe. You can barely follow its twists, as little plastic pieces of visual culture tumble in and out of sync, gripping you with kaleidoscopic hypnotism.

It’s gorgeous and it’s disorienting. But it’s also strangely, eerily, familiar. You may be thinking, I’ve seen that spacey nebula birth scene before, I’ve heard this mythic tale told. But with a work of art so beautiful (and campy), my question it: Who cares?

Yes, Gaga borrows from other artists. She is a master sampler, as it were, of visual and aesthetic texts, and she flaunts that. In fact, “Born This Way” gets its four-on-the-floor beat and its melodic hook, and even its title, from gay disco icon Carl Bean’s “I Was Born This Way.” And somehow Lady Gaga gets to be on top of human civilization?

The answer is, YES OF COURSE. Because we – as irreverent, spoiled kiddies with no sophistication or patience (lolz jk) – love our music mashed up. We love remixes. We eat what we like, and the more delicious nuggets we can consume in one sound bite the better.

DJ at Graf Art garage

Ever hear someone describe a new movie/album/television show as “sort of Pinky and the Brain meets Glee,” or “sort of Peter, Bjorn and John meets Buckethead,” or “sort of Annie Hall meets Batman Begins”?

That meets right there is postmodern as heck; reusing iconic referents – visual, aural, “cultural” – to give meaning to a “new” thing is exactly what defines our era. A time in which we are skeptical of the very idea of originality.

The resemblance of Gaga’s “Born This Way” to Carl Bean’s 1975 gay anthem is at most an example of cultural recycling to instill important meaning in our work. Gaga wanted to put an empowering queer manifesto into the mainstream, but she needed more than simply drag queen-related lyrics to pack a subversive punch; she needed to infuse her art with an important tidbit of LGBTQ musical history, giving “Born This Way” the power she envisioned.

It’s pop culture shorthand, something we mash-up lovers dig to no end, a language of the mass media literate spoken most fluently by Family Guy writers and the creator of Everything Is A Remix.

This extremely informative blog and video series addresses the practice of the Remix, in music, movies and memes. Although it has yet to acknowledge the current sample royalty, (Drag)Queen Gaga and King Kanye, it makes a pertinent case in favor of embracing the Remix as a necessary part of creativity in this day and age.

Part Two of the series highlights Quentin Tarantino’s work in the Kill Bill epic. It’t revealed the films are essentially comprised of a stream of references to other films, expertly interwoven in a cinematic mash-up – an artistic feat achievable only by a buff like Tarantino. (He spent most of his twenties working as a clerk in a video store, steeping in the iconography of campy B-movie cinema.)

The creator of Everything Is A Remix brilliantly dissects numerous films and songs in a delightful run-down of who’s borrowing from whom. It’s entirely non-confrontational and an exciting display of how the Information Age will influence art and its interpretation.

A Sharp Objet d'Art

This is also why Girl Talk will never die, no matter the legal consequences to his Illegal Art: his mash-up albums are as intoxicatingly disorienting as a Gaga video, yet we listen to them and feel at home, surrounded by a blanket of snippets and samples that come together in a tapestry of meaningful music. It’s an interesting sonic space to be in. where the excessive familiarity of everything entering your ears makes you viscerally aware of how important you are as the audience, and you dance like it’s your birthday.

The Mash-Up genre (if you can really call it that), is a “sign of the times” whose success speaks volumes about the postmodern, media savvy kids these days.

It’s not that we’re lazy and can’t come up with anything new. And if grumpy Baby Boomers shake their fists when we – mostly Kanye West, actually – lift some strings from a Peter, Paul and Mary song, or some high notes from an Elton John jam, let us not feel ashamed for not giving credit where credit is due (note: Mr. West exempt due to his pathological incapacity to feel shame).

The highest form of flattery is imitation, and if anything, our re-incorporation of “classic” elements of film and music shows a profound reverence for our forebears and their art, even if they are a bit uncomfortable with being remixed.

Alejandro Gomez I was born in the blond sunshine of southern California, and reared in the blond Scandinavian casserole of suburban Minnesota. My parents are neurologists, and so I love my brain for all of its wackiness and resent it for all of its neuroses. I feel exactly the same way about America, which is why I like to write about it. Twitter: @deaddad

View all posts by Alejandro Gomez

4 Responses to “Mash-Up Culture: Why We Remix Everything”

  1. Angela Stefano

    Yes! Totally agree — at least in terms of music (I’ve never really noticed the film stuff, though I’m not exactly a huge movie buff). I firmly believe that the “Boulevard of Broken Songs” mash-up that floated around a few years ago (Green Day, Oasis, Travis and Aerosmith) is absolutely brilliant. But I think the mash-ups or those like Girl Talk’s — they bring together things you never would have thought to throw together. I mean, Van Morrison with Ludacris, or something like that? And it’s freakin’ genius and sounds SO GOOD.

  2. ashley lee

    sidenote: their concerts are also ridiculously fun, and i think there’s a culture around that too. we’ve had both girl talk and major lazer in my 4 years at wellesley (and i’ve gotten to hang out with both of them…my cell phone case has been signed by diplo) and they’re insane.


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