Book Review: ‘Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture’

‘Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture’
By Aram Sinnreich
Reviewed by Charles Cronin

“Point and click” interfaces have made it simple to manipulate existing information in digital form, and electronic pastiches of existing information – typically that created by someone other than the manipulator — known as “mash-ups”, can be assembled by anyone with a computer.  The thesis of Mashed Up, Aram Sinnreich’s re-working of his dissertation (Communications) is that the ease with which one can make a music mash-up, and the fact that so many people enjoy this activity, suggest that the output of this hobby is sui generis and should, as such, prompt a fundamental change in copyright protection for existing works from which mash-ups are derived.

Mashed Up is a slumgullion of what appear to be the author’s disparate student seminar notes, and the ideas and quotations of mash-up musicians and Sinnreich’s “peers” (ahem), like Harvard Law School’s Lawrence Lessig, that the author never synthesizes in order to offer practical recommendations to resolve the purportedly worrisome conflict between practice and legal regulation in the field of popular music today.

In his preface Sinnreich unwittingly reveals the underlying reason Mashed Up is mostly dreadful: despite the “beautiful Steinway baby grand” in his childhood living room, and Sinnreich’s purported early love of music, the only instrument Sinnreich learned to play – as the old joke goes – was the radio.  Learning to read music, and to play the piano, takes years of solitary and focused work that most children without the benefit of a Tiger Mom — including Sinnreich, apparently — avoid.  The reward for this substantial investment of time and attention is an understanding of, and the ability to interpret and reproduce in a personalized form — for the delectation of oneself and others – complex and beautiful musical works.

Playing the stereo and fiddling with tape recorders requires none of this solitude or thoughtful focus and, predictably enough, does not lead to expertise in any musical endeavor except, perhaps, as a listener or – as most fittingly applied to popular music – a “consumer”.  Writing about musical mash-ups per se does not require knowledge of music history or theory.  It requires this knowledge, however, when the writer attempts, as Sinnreich does here, to locate this genre within (and outside) Western music of the past several hundred years.  Writing about mash-ups similarly does not require knowledge of copyright unless, as in Sinnreich’s book, one’s thesis is entirely premised on a dilemma generated by this area of law.

Sinnreich’s lack of “cred” in both music and law may be the genesis of Mashed Up’s grandiose interdisciplinary claims and sententious pronouncements on the importance of its topic: “…this is a moment of profound change…”  Perhaps this lack also contributed to the provincial geographical and linguistic scope of a discussion in which the author lovingly dwells on his native Brooklyn and somehow manages — despite the fact that Mashed Up is a re-working of the culmination of study toward a doctoral degree at a respectable university — to avoid referencing a single source in a language other than English.

Another means of camouflaging a sketchy understanding of a topic is to lard one’s discussion of it with pretentious academic verbiage.  Sinnreich is adept at this obfuscation, but it is remarkable that he could bear working in this vein for the better part of 200 pages.  Some of this palaver comes off simply as bad writing as, for instance, his discussion of “a hierarchy of uniqueness” of works of intellect, but most of it is Paul Fussell BAD – “phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating”.  Sinnreich’s thoughts on a relatively contained topic – whether there is anything new about electronic audio pastiches — could have been condensed into an article.  Alas, it is treated to a repetitive and longwinded discussion freighted with grotesque references to “discursive crises,” “hegemonic institutions,” “formalistic disruptions,” “established ontologies,” and “taxonomic matrixes.”  Even something as simple as a break between songs on a record is inflated to an “interstitial silence.”

The oeuvre of TradeMarkG and Girl Talk – among the acts whose output indicates to Sinnreich a new musical genre — offers none of the hilarity of the performances of similarly monikered drag queens like Lipsynka, Dame Edna, and Mme. Vera Galupe Borszkh.  With their preposterous pseudonyms and utterly derivative shticks, however, these mash-up performers share both the campiness and the cultural significance of these lightweight entertainers.  While deliberate travesties like Dame Edna and Pee Wee Herman are in on the joke, mash-up performers like TradeMarkG, DJ Earworm, and Mysterious D – one infers from Sinnreich’s sanctimonious consideration of their output – actually take their work seriously.

Sinnreich justifies his ponderous discussion of mash-ups – whose appeal appears to lie in their intentional frivolity and comic outrageousness — not only by elevating through overblown terminology the simple musical works they involve, but also by asserting flimsy claims that mash-ups involving digital technology somehow constitute a new and sui generis form of expression meriting weighty consideration across disciplines.  He bases his claim that they are such on the fact that they involve copying recorded performances, and not merely the underlying musical works being performed.  Moreover, he argues, today anyone can create a mash-up using readily available software that “undermines the producer/consumer dichotomy itself”.

Sinnreich draws no meaningful correlation between the fact that mash-ups typically use pre-existing recorded performances and his claim that this particular form of pastiche constitutes a new genre of expression.  The complex and problematic opinion of Bridgeport v. Dimension, dealing with the question of liability for unauthorized sampling, should have been an essential part of Sinnreich’s argument of this point.  But Sinnreich never analyzes the thorny legal issues this case raises — as does Newton v. Diamond – that Sinnreich glosses over.  After informing us that the defendant in Bridgeport was found “guilty” of infringement, he merely reports the comments of a number of attorneys whose views on these cases he solicited.  Likewise, simply the fact that now anyone can create an electronic pastiche in no way supports Sinnreich’s deduction that these mash-ups are categorically different from those produced when digital media copying technology was less accessible.

Mashed Up is riddled with half-baked arguments like these.  Sinnreich tut-tuts about the “severe and far-reaching” consequences of Wal Mart’s “censoring” pop musicians by carrying only recordings of songs with lyrics that do not contain “objectionable words”.  It is “patent nonsense”, says Sinnreich, that Wal Mart simply seeks to sell CDs that their customers want to buy.  Indeed, I might likewise claim that because of a similar reprehensible imposition by the Walton family of their own tastes on the marketplace, I can never find any recordings of works by Jacques Offenbach or Adolphe Adam on Wal Mart’s shelves (Adolphe who?).

Recordings of music are discretionary goods; no one must buy them, and no buys them unless they want them.  The fact that people do buy pop music recordings at Wal Mart means the company is selling them what they want.  The fact that the recorded version of the rap song they are buying may not contain certain information (typically obscenities, misogynist expressions, and an otherwise unutterable racial slur) of the urtext might, in fact, be the main reason they want to buy the recording at Wal Mart rather than simply download a copy of the “authentic” version from the web.

Sinnreich’s discussions of specific points of copyright law swiftly go off the rails.  Apart from howlers like: “George Harrison was convicted of plagiarizing a song previously recorded by the Chiffons…” one comes across canards about how “powerful media companies” are limiting fair use, and the implication that fair use is a venerable tenet of copyright law.   In fact, the concept of fair use – framed not as an affirmative right of readers, but rather as a limitation of the exclusive rights of protected authors – was only codified in the most recent U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

His perfunctory mention of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (legislation apparently too tedious to explore and understand) does not touch upon its underlying premise that new technologies – and specifically the ease of reproduction they offer —  prompt a reconsideration of the protection of the interests of those affected by them.  He questions why melody is privileged in deciding infringement disputes, apparently not having read numerous federal court opinions – including Learned Hand’s superlative discussions in this area – addressing this question exactly.

The field of serious music, like copyright law, is another minefield for Sinnreich.  He refers to opera’s “pedestrian origins”.  Opera originated, as every Music 101 student learns, in sixteenth-century Florence, in the rarified Camerata of a group of aristocrats and intellectuals. He relates the shopworn story of Hector Berlioz’s objecting to François-Joseph Fétis’s emendations of Beethoven’s symphonies, and wraps up with the extraordinary suggestion that in the near future – because of “paradigmatic changes in the ways we make and experience music” — we will wonder why Berlioz was exercised over this matter.  Sinnreich completely misses the point (or suppresses it in an attempt to make the vignette support his thesis): Berlioz was not — as Sinnreich’s recounting of the incident implies – incensed by Fétis’s ministrations per se, but rather by his presumption in proffering materially doctored scores as faithful representations of Beethoven’s authorship.

Digital technologies have significantly changed the ways we make and experience all works of information.  These changes do not, however, diminish the importance of veracity and integrity in the creation, attribution, and transmission of these works.  If Sinnreich is suggesting that, in the near future, we won’t be concerned about instances of intentional misattribution, misrepresentation, and misappropriation in music, he should consider the effects of a similar laissez-faire attitude applied to quantitative and scientific works like writings in medicine and aeronautical engineering.  Or does popular music not merit our preoccupation for authenticity when comes to information like medical and financial records?

Sinnreich informs us that “configurable musicians” (a catchy term he coined for those who are musically illiterate but play – and play with — the radio) “reject the premise of artistic exceptionality” and “reject the concept of the artist as a separate class of individual.”  Because I never did what it takes to become truly proficient in any sport, and I dislike professional athletics, I similarly reject the premise of athletic exceptionality, and reject the concept of the athlete as a separate class of individual.  Sadly, my rejection does not mean that exceptional athletes, and athletic teams and star players magically cease to exist.  It simply means that I, and similar athletic mediocrities, can form a duffer team of our own and imitate, however clumsily, the moves of exceptional players.  If we are unwilling to acquire the most fundamental technique in the sport, we might even play a “virtual” version of it, and simply copy and combine video clips of professional athletes’ star plays.  Doing so allows us simultaneously to assert a flimsy rapport with the professionals while sullying their work through self-consciously insouciant handling of the documents that record it.

Exceptionality is an essential part of every field of human endeavor, whether one as arguably inconsequential as figure skating, as unremunerated as poetry, or as vital as cancer research.  Our desire to be exceptional fosters the creation of works of original expression that move a field forward, and leads to recognition in the guise of Olympic medals, Academy awards, Nobel prizes, and myriad tokens of less renown.  Not surprisingly, the unexceptional on the fringes of a field – “configurable musicians” who never learned to read music or play more than a few chords on the guitar; the blunderbuss on the ice; the medical school reject — resent and denigrate these acknowledgements of exceptionality because they are an embarrassing reminder of their inadequacy in a field of interest in which others are vastly more proficient.

Attempting to give the impression that his discussion is based on a catholic appreciation and knowledge of music across time and space Sinnreich drags into the mix allusions to Wagner and Mozart, assuring readers that he happily listens to the complete Ring Cycle (after carefully distancing himself from Wagner’s anti-Semitism, a matter that is, in fact, far more subtle than Sinnreich’s simplistic mention suggests).  So what? Occasionally, after a couple of drinks on a JetBlue flight between New York and Los Angeles, I happily watch five hours of “Housewives of Beverly Hills”.  Alas, doing so brings me no greater understanding of, or closeness to, its deliciously tawdry subject; it just helps pass the time.

Sinnreich’s references to composers of serious music, particularly 19th Century musicians whose works most fully embody the notions of ex nihilo Romantic authorship, should have prompted him to compare the methods and output of these consummate Romantic composers with those of “configurable musicians”.  He would have found there innumerable examples of extraordinarily original work whose very titles (like Brahms’s Handel Variations) belie the notion of ex nihilo creation.

What should we make of the same composer’s weaving of the melody of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into the complex texture of the piano part of his Piano Concerto in B-flat, or Dvorak’s and Mahler’s exquisitely refined re-workings of preexisting folk music in their symphonic works, or Charles Ives’s allusions to well-known tunes in his Concord Sonata, or – a personal favorite – Donizetti’s use of the popular melody of his day, “Home, Sweet Home”, in Anna Bolena?  Despite the bathos of associating Eminem with Brahms, without a discussion of musical appropriation in the past – especially during periods in which copyright protected music – there is no heft to claims that music mash-ups signal a new form of musical expression and a reworking of copyright law

Mashed Up opens with “Music as a Controlled Substance,” a calculatedly provocative title to a chapter that begins, interestingly enough, with an overview of governments’ proscriptions of performance of certain types of music in ancient Greece, 18th Century China, and the U.S. South before the Civil War.  Sinnreich doesn’t raise the obvious corollary to these proscriptions, namely governments’ use of certain types of music to impose itself on, and to control, others.  The U.S. military used rock and rap music, along with physical violence, to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib and force confessions from them.  It similarly forced Manuel Noriega to surrender after imposing the sounds of rock music on him, along with those of a similarly obnoxious artifact of American popular culture – the Howard Stern Show.

But wait: if Howard Stern had personally appeared, prattling obscenities without electronic amplification outside Noreiga’s house, Noreiga would simply have shaken his head in disgust, shut the window, and contently gone about his creepy business.  If Dr. Dre and Eminem materialized at the Abu Ghraib prison rapping away without microphones, they would likely have visited upon the prisoners simply a bit of unexpected hilarity – a couple of overfed gibbering Americans who’ll be hoarse, silent, and mercifully gone, within an hour or so.

Works of music depend upon the means – voice, instruments, electronic equipment — by which they are rendered in audible form.  The more purely musical the work, however, the less it depends upon any particular means by which it is rendered.  Bach’s Art of the Fugue, for instance (which the composer may, in fact, have intended as a musical work to be “performed” silently in the aural imagination of the reader of the notated score) has been rendered by every imaginable combination of instruments without losing its essential meaning and identity.

The less musical a work the more it depends upon the means by which it is rendered in audible form.  Most contemporary popular music has so little musical content that its appeal depends entirely upon its rendering.  More specifically, it depends overwhelmingly upon the electronic technology used to produce and reproduce the work, and visual imagery associated with its performers.  Aural mash-ups have an additional dependence – namely upon the work of others that they copy literally.

Serious musicians have an intimate understanding of how their instruments are built and work and, in some cases – e.g. oboists – actively participate in their construction as well as their maintenance.  It is only through such knowledge that these musicians locate in their instruments an extraordinary means of accurately conveying their personal musical expression.  Electric audio amplification distorts or destroys both this intimate relationship and also the performance as the unique expression of an individual musician.  This is because serious musicians are not electrical engineers.  Their work as musicians requires little or no understanding of electron behavior or acoustical engineering.  Without this understanding they have, ultimately, little control over their performances that are electronically amplified.  This lack of control and attendant distortion of their expression are the reasons serious musicians shun electric amplification — except when they slum playing throw-away “in-the-park” performances and the like where they know no one is (or can) listening carefully — and are contemptuous of performers who depend upon microphones – hidden or otherwise – to do their work.

Today, performers of popular music depend upon not only electronic amplification of their performances but also electronic “engineering” that tweaks the recorded performances into something saleable to a targeted market.  They depend also on similar manipulations of images that are essential to the overall “packaging” by which their work is marketed.  Indeed, as I overheard one music industry “player” wryly remark to another, in a post-mortem over a cup of coffee at Peets on Larchmont Avenue near Hollywood the day after the recent Grammy Awards: “remember, it’s not how it sounds, it’s how it looks.”  It is no surprise that there are no counterparts to the polio-stricken Itzhak Perlman in today’s roster of successful popular musicians.  Nor does it include anyone resembling superlative and obese middle-aged musicians like Stephanie Blythe and James Levine – unless one counts The Fat Boys, whose visual shtick is morbid obesity, mined for comic effect.

Audio mash-up creators share with today’s popular musicians these dependencies upon the essential participation of electrical engineers and the utility company.  They are even more dependant on the work of others than are mainstream popular musicians however, in their utter reliance upon not only existing musical material produced by others, but also the hardware and software with which they fiddle with it.

Lacking any understanding of, or experience working in, fields like object-oriented programming or signal processing technology, creators of mash-ups have played into a regime of peonage in which they are subjected to the whims of those creating and selling the machinery and software on which they depend utterly.  Such a dependency leads to an ethos of consumerism on the part of mash-up creators, generated by those controlling the supply of machinery and energy – i.e., the smart students who studied electrical and computer engineering in college, who profit from shrewdly lacing their products with “built-in obsolescence”.

What becomes of the mash-up creator who can no longer afford the more “robust” versions of the software he uses with which he is forced to “upgrade” indefinitely or deal with the consequences of incompatibility?  What happens when Con Edison pulls the plug because his mash-up made no money and he can’t pay his utility bill?  Given the modest intellectual investment that is needed to acquire the technique to create mash-ups in the first place, and the commensurately modest attachment to this pursuit generated by this investment, it seems likely that he will simply cut his losses, abandon his mash-up activities and return to flipping burgers or vegetating in front of mom’s TV.

Attempts like Sinnreich’s book, to elevate the cultural significance of mash-ups and similar “appropriationist” pursuits do nothing to ameliorate the fragility and dependency of their practitioners.  In Mashed Up Sinnreich has attempted to puff up digital mash-ups — a lightweight fad that neither supports nor welcomes the academic mumbo-jumbo he has applied to it.  Sinnreich’s time would have been more profitably spent, I believe, teaching English to public high school students, helping them to improve their SAT scores, and thereby attend a good college where they could learn computer programming or music theory – or both – so that they would be able confidently to participate in the fields of music and technology.  As for the Sinnreichs’ unused “beautiful Steinway baby grand,” I am sure there are a number of “Afro-diasporic” churches in Brooklyn whose gospel choirs could finally put it to excellent use.

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