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Are Remixes Novelties or a Durable Genre?

Bottom-up culture emphasizes participation over ownership. Is it a novelty or a durable genre?

I keep tripping across some clever and sophisticated remix works of video and music. It has gotten me wondering what it all means. Are these works ephemeral novelties that are captivating chiefly because they are unauthorized uses of mass-media product — a kind of cultural rebellion that we can’t help but love? Or do they herald a more serious and durable genre of culture that exemplifies the emerging networked environment?

Some commentators like author William Gibson have suggested that the very idea of cultural “product” will be rendered obsolete in the future as most elements of culture become more or less fluid and accessible to everyone. Others have suggested that the consumer/producer dichotomy will in time be exposed as an artifact of the mass-media era. Everyone will, instead, become a participant of one sort or another in online communities.

As always, William Gibson is worth reading (this is from Wired magazine, June 2005):

Our culture no longer bothers to use words like appropriation or borrowing to describe those very activities. Today’s audience isn’t listening at all — it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.
Today, an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product (another antique term?). To say that this poses a threat to the record industry is simply comic. The record industry, though it may not know it yet, has gone the way of the record. Instead, the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.

To me, it’s an open question whether explicitly recombinant creativity will move beyond the “parody ghetto.” But one thing’s for sure: there is a powerful bottom-up surge of creativity coursing up from the street, and amplified by the Internet, that cannot be denied much longer. Its vitality is all the more salient because of the growing sterility of “product” being manufactured by the commissars of the corporate mass media. But how will the insurgent culture “break through” to the mainstream or supplant it?

Right now, while mainstream media (MSM) patronizes insurgent culture (remix and otherwise), it can’t help but dabble in it to show how hip they are, or to goose their own audience ratings (e.g., blogging by MSNBC news anchor Brian Williams, which is intended to send the message: “Look at me -— I may be a mass-media commodity, but I can still act like an unscripted regular guy who can swim with techie-populists.”).

In truth, I think the new bottom-up media genres — blogs, podcasting, wikis, social networking, peer-to-peer, sampling — represent a perplexing dilemma for the guardians of MSM: they can’t ignore them, but they don’t really understand them either. They recognize the creative energy and authenticity of the new genres, but they don’t know how to co-opt them (or if they can!) or adapt their mass-media DNA. They’re riding a snarling tiger with a frozen grin.

To give a sampling of the range of remix stuff out there — and also, just to amuse and entertain the readers of OTC — I decided to pull together some of my favorite remixes. I learned about most of these from online word-of-mouth (thanks to all my tipsters). [Memo to Hollywood: this form of marketing that is a helluva lot cheaper than the national ad buys, if you can stomach the idea of respecting your customers’ autonomy and intelligence.] Anyway, my faves:

Disney’s Dumbo & Sun Ra: When Sun Ra’s moody music, mixed with the classic parade of the pink elephants from “Dumbo,” is a fantastic re-imagining of this animated hallucination (via BoingBoing).

Fox News promotional spoof: Fox News as an evil enslaver of minds in the manner of “The Matrix.”

The Old Negro Space Program: This “shocking-but-false story of America’s Blackstronauts” is a a hilarious and skillful parody of Ken Burns’ old-timey documentary style.

‘Dean Scream’ remixes: a pivotal moment of the 2000 presidential campaign is remixed with Twilight Zone effects and hip-hop styles, among other goofs.

Grey Album: the landmark melding by DJ Dangermouse of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Don’t miss the video derivative of this, the “Grey Video,” which combines footage of the Beatles in Albert Hall with the rapping from Dangermouse’s “Encore” — a brilliant time-warp commentary.

Illegal Art Exhibit: one of the single best collections of remix art — audio, visual and video.

I’m sure someone more doggedly obsessed than I has assembled a better inventory, but consider this a nice sampling. The culture would be poorer without these unfiltered, underdog voices commenting on the corporate media.

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Program note: I will be interviewed about the commons by Francesca Rheannon on the WMUA radio show, Writer’s Voice, on Friday, August 26, at 5:30 pm (91.1 FM), available in Western Massachusetts. A podcast of the show will be available next week at this link.