Sunday, November 06, 2005

Re-reading the piece I wrote for Baltimore City Paper three years ago about Boom Selection_Issue 01, I feel more than a little naive. For one thing, I was treating as an album what amounted to a paid-for CD-R dump of one man’s MP3 folder, a strategy I would soon be utilizing myself during my attempt to rid myself of a physical CD collection by digitizing the lot (a process that continues, though I’m in far less of a hurry to sell off items I like). For another, it’s utopian in a way I balk at even given my continuing tendency toward wild-eyed optimism. I don’t think either I or the piece were stupid, exactly; I’m just a little embarrassed at how thoroughly I had convinced myself that because mash-ups as a trend (not as a form; I was obviously familiar with their predecessors) felt exciting to me it might be the harbinger of something . . . maybe not new, but different, a wrinkle worth exploring, one that might shake out something else entirely, a border-crossing worth attending to.

Right after re-reading my piece I re-read Dale Lawrence’s from the Chicago Reader, which I thought then and still do got the tone I wanted exactly right. Both of us came to them, seemingly, as pop fans who heard an intensification of pop’s pleasure in physical fact rather than merely as idea--meta-pop that delivered. We heard lines being crossed and ideas blurred. It was novel, sure, but it kept moving past novelty into somewhere else altogether. For me, it felt like a next step after a heady period for pop, beginning roughly with the late-’90s rise of Timbaland and then the Neptunes (and OutKast), taking in the more voluptuous end of house (Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx, Luomo), and throwing in the more swaggering, sexed-up end of indie rock, however narcotic or neurotic that could be (Strokes, White Stripes). There was lots more, but as ILM and Pitchfork and a lot of other things began to emerge and dovetail, the end of the ’90s and beginning of the ’00s--1998-2002, to be schematic about it--felt blessedly heady. Mash-ups, it seemed to me then, were a meeting point, a place for everything to connect before, it’s obvious now, diverging again. In 2002 they felt like a portal to the next phase; now they sound like a cap on their era.

Like most things that gather momentum, mash-ups became a glut market, and that probably had as much as anything to do with the quiet diminishing of their cultural moment. But I have to wonder whether the iPod had more to do with it. I am trying to be careful here by emphasizing that I’m speaking only for myself, but 2002 felt like a pop year dominated by tech-driven methodology. Obviously, hip-hop and techno and ragga are dependent upon technology to sound the way they sound. But mash-ups are completely dependent upon technology to exist in the first place, even if we’re simply talking about live blends performed on dual turntables. Sure, you make a hybrid by singing new words to an old tune; mash-ups startle because they commingle the what I’ll call the basic sound-manufacture of multiple records in one place. This is different from e.g. MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” where we recognize the basic sound-manufacture of the Rick James backing track, plus there’s a guy rapping on top of it. With e.g. “A Stroke of Genius,” you recognize the basic sound-manufacture of the Strokes’ music and the basic sound-manufacture of Christina Aguilera’s vocal--not just the grain of the voice, but the grain of the production of that voice, and the grain of the production of the Strokes’ guitars, bass, and drums. It’s also different from e.g. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising or Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in that aural snippets and loops are given new shape and definition by the guys rapping on them--the effect is kaliedoscopic in a way that’s similar to mash-ups, but mash-ups are far more disorienting, because their shapes are determined by their components alone. Even when those components are rearranged, they’re still recognizable as themselves, and their inner logic seems to doing the work, rather than being sublimated to the rapper’s or producer’s will, whatever the actual amount of work the producer has done (in some cases, quite a lot) to ensure that A and B fit neatly together.

Mash-ups offered a glimpse into what a less-bordered sonic future might hold--a glimpse, I’d reckon, that the iPod broke apart. If mash-ups sounded like all the records in your collection commingling as records, rather than as discrete sonic artifacts, the iPod allowed them to commingle more intimately than ever as discrete sonic artifacts, with less overt disorientation but also without the taint of novelty. A shelf could fit in your pocket, and played on random it could take on a life and shape of its own that you might not have figured for it, one that might teach you something you didn’t know about your own collection. A lot of the shock of mash-ups had to do with their reconfiguring of well known songs, but the iPod reconfigured (in a different way) songs well known to their owner rather than the public at large, which gave them a more immediate and solipsistic appeal. That’s how it worked for (again I emphasize) me, anyway--once my collection became an easy-to-access playground (well, relatively easy--I still had to rip and upload the songs), the novelty shifted to hearing what I already had and liked in new ways, or just on easy repeat, which is probably my favorite thing about the iPod.

I hope I’m not belaboring my point here, and I do want to be clear that it’s a musing and not a manifesto. But I wondered where that future-shock feeling of that ’02 article went, and I suspect this may have been where.