An Examination of Mashup Culture

Music is endlessly adaptable. Every sound can be transposed. Every note can be interchanged and repurposed.

“All pop music sounds the same,” so the old adage goes. This has always been true. Common pop chord progressions are as old as Bach. Some probably stretch back into the unwritten folk music of ancient cultures around the world. Most pop songs can be easily interspersed with other pop songs.

As a result, the pop mashup has really taken hold in the 21st century. Far from the days in which you’d have to learn how to play an instrument, create a band or learn how to use turntables to make a mashup (the horror), you can now create mashups on your computer using Audacity and some music editing software. Then, you can post on YouTube and get millions of views.

I would argue that while “mashup culture” is heavily influenced by the age-old practice of remixing, it is a separate phenomenon. For some reason, people like listening to tapestries of individual songs. It’s an longstanding truth of music.

For someone who spent years trying being forced to become a musician by my Korean parents mother (I kid, I actually liked music…after turning 16), there is nothing intrinsically creative about mashups. If the mashup doesn’t hold much creative weight to a “musician” like me, I would suspect it is even less impressive to actual Musicians and Artists across the world. Let’s be honest, making mashups is as easy as copying and pasting random lines of Shakespeare and Marlowe to create Doctor Macbeth. Most mashups end up as jokes or memes.

Memes write themselves. You have your “All Star” by Smash Mouth mashups. You have even more All Star mashups. Yeah, we should talk about Smash Mouth.

“All Star” is clay within humanity’s hands. It’s an unstoppable, malleable force. Musically, it fits with almost anything you put your mind to, as proven by Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Sounds.

Neil Cicierega’s work with Mouth Sounds, Mouth Silence and Mouth Moods, are the pinnacle of mashup music. In addition to embracing the sheer number of memes that mashups invite, it also actually sounds good.

Neil’s mashups are so “good”, they raise an inevitable question. Can a mashup ever be art? Well, I think so, but only if they go above and beyond the level of creativity we expect. I don’t even mean stretching the membrane between “low art” and “high art”, (most of which is determined by meaningless academics in ivory towers). Mashups need to surpass a level of originality to become art. Art, by definition, does need to be original. Creating a copy of The Persistence of Memory (you know, the one with the melting clocks) is not art. Neither is creating a copy of “Clocks” by Coldplay (you know, the one with the melting chords).

Placing the Persistence of Memory in a gallery next to similar art and marveling at influences is also not art. That is “curation”, I think. A mashup needs to go beyond curation. You have to go beyond creating an instrumental track of your favorite pop song and then adding vocals. Anyone can do that. Hell, even I can do that. Actually, I did that!

This mashup is admittedly quite funny. However, it took me, no joke, about 45 minutes to cobble together. I would argue that, in order for a mashup to ever become “art”, it needs to have some serious time put into it.

For example:

Most mashups, therefore, are essentially “art”, just as good collages are most definitely art. The transition between the two songs is seamless and the creator clearly has a good ear for music. It has a statement. It has a purpose. That’s all I can really ask for.

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