“Boulevard of Broken Songs”

Mash-ups as Textual Re-appropriation of Popular Music Culture

How to Cite

McAvan, E. (2006). “Boulevard of Broken Songs”: Mash-ups as Textual Re-appropriation of Popular Music Culture. M/C Journal, 9(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2680
Vol. 9 No. 6 (2006): 'jam'
Published 2006-12-01

Ever since the spread of cheap sampling technology in the 1980s, popular music has incorporated direct quotations from other songs. This trend reached its zenith in the “mash-up,” that genre of popular music which has emerged in the last 5 or 6 years. Most famously, DJ Dangermouse distributed his “Grey Album,” a concept that mashed together the a Capella vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album with the music from the Beatles’ White Album. Distribution of the project was swiftly met with a Cease and Desist order from the Beatles’ label EMI, leading to the Grey Tuesday online protest in which many websites distributed the album for free in the name of free expression. As the name suggests, “mash-ups,” sometimes also called bootlegs, mash together two or more already released songs. This use of the term ‘bootlegs’ should not to be confused with bootleg recordings of albums or concerts, which are merely illegal copies sold for profit. Both mash-ups and bootlegs are new pieces of art, almost always unable to be bought from stores.

In their most basic form, mash-ups take the vocal from one song and the instrumental from another—what bootleggers call an A+B. This has taken ever more elaborate forms, for instance, San Francisco’s DJ Earworm’s “Stairway to Bootleg Heaven” mashes together Dolly Parton, the Beatles, Art of Noise, Pat Benatar, the Eurythmics, and Laurie Anderson. By now, the history of mash-ups and illegal sampling in general has been well covered by many journalists (See, for instance, Sasha Frere Jones and Pete Rojas). The question, then, is not so much what mash-ups are so much as what they do.

Many theories of consumer reception have often reductively posited a passive audience impelled by little more than the desire to consume. When it comes to popular culture in modernity, Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, both in his own writing and with Horkheimer, made the hugely influential argument that the only cultural work it can do is in the service of hegemonic capitalism. Adorno argued, “the entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms” (232). Painting his argument in rather stark terms, Adorno said that “the categorical imperative of the culture industry no longer has anything in common with freedom. It proclaims: you shall … conform to that which exists anyway” (236). As philosopher Jane Bennett points out, Adorno and Horkheimer construct a passive audience consuming the derivative, repetitious pleasures of mass culture, under the thrall of the fetishised commodity “as if it was alive” (Bennett 123). Horkheimer and Adorno’s influential work denies the “possibility of an affective response to commodities able to challenge the socioeconomic system that generates it” (Bennett 121).

Adorno damns the modern culture industries, but in an interesting way he also elevates their power, for his theory privileges the producer of the text, not its consumer. The question presents itself, therefore, what happens when subjects are both consumers and producers? The makers of mash-ups are clearly both. Arguably, mash-ups are a fannish re-appropriation in the manner that Henry Jenkins uses to describe slash fan-fiction in Textual Poachers (Jenkins). Like slash writers, mash-up artists take a common popular culture (music in this case) and appropriate it for their own desires and creative impulses. Rather than a purely passive audience, mash-ups show there exists at least a segment of an engaged audience, able to deconstruct and rework popular culture. Jenkins argues that “fandom celebrates not exceptional texts but exceptional readings” (284), a facet clearly exemplified in mash-ups use of not only the rock canon but “disposable” pop and chart R&B. What makes a mash-up interesting is not that it uses quality critically-approved materials, but that it re-works its materials into new contexts.

Bootlegs as a whole can embody the “dissonant possibilities” of the commodity (Bennett 127)—as disruption of the normative reading of songs, as a critique of postmodern capitalism, as an affirmation of consumption, as a critique of the pop auteur cult that privileges certain acts as “art” and not others, as frivolous party music, and more. Most obviously, of course, mash-ups illuminate Fredric Jameson’s thesis that postmodern art is an art of pastiche (Jameson). Mash-ups often take disparate elements, songs from different genres, and make songs that shouldn’t belong together somehow work. Freelance Hellraiser’s classic “Stroke of Genius” bootleg took then band du jour The Strokes and overlayed pop muppet Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in A Bottle” vocals into a surprisingly soulful new song, showing in the process that the gap between “manufactured” pop artist and “authentic” rock artist may not be as far as some would imagine. Alternatively, artists can mash together songs that are basically the same, pointedly noting their lack of originality—for instance, the mash-up from which this article takes its name, San Francisco bootlegger Party Ben’s “Boulevard of Broken Songs,” which takes Green Day’s recent “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and shows its uncanny similarity to Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” as well as other songs by Travis, Coldplay and Aerosmith.

Like any commodity, mash-ups are in some ways implicated in a hegemonic capitalist economy. They are an object to be consumed, and are reliant on the consumption of other texts. In a practical sense for its makers, making mash-ups requires the software to make music, often the Sony-owned ACID program, whose loop based lay-out lends itself to the use of sampled materials. Given their general immersion in technology, it is questionable whether bootleggers necessarily purchase these programs, given the availability of “cracked” software on peer-to-peer downloading programs and Bit-Torrent. Similarly, making mash-ups might require the purchase of CDs or mp3s, although again this is far from certain, given the easy accessibility of “illegal” mp3s downloadable on the internet (but of course that requires the money for an internet connection, as does the hosting of mp3s on individual mash-up sites). Compared to the money needed to “legitimately” release songs, though, mash-ups are a relatively inexpensive way to create “new” music.

Most mash-up artists post their work with a disclaimer with words to the effect of “I don’t own these songs, I will take these songs down if asked by the copyright owners, don’t sue me.” Songs are usually available to download for free, and the selling of mash-up CDs on E-bay is highly frowned-upon. While this is partly an attempt to avoid being sued by copyright holders, it also suggests an opting-out of a capitalistic system—art for art’s sake. The most obvious critique of capitalism occurs in the form of the “cut-up,” which sees songs or speeches sampled and reassembled to form different meanings. This may be political, for example, the cut-up by RX that re-assembled George W Bush’s speeches into U2’s anti-war song “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Australian readers may remember the satirical Pauline Pantsdown single “I Don’t Like It” which re-arranged right-wing One Nation politician Pauline Hanson’s voice into nonsensical sayings about shopping trolleys and discos. Like the slash that Jenkins applauds, this may also take the form of a rupture of the heteronormative surface of most pop music. One good example is Bristol mash-up artist Andrew Herring’s “Blue Cheese mix” which cut together Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” into a homoerotic love song (“He was a boy/he was a boy/can I make it anymore obvious?”), over the top of such queer-friendly songs as Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real” and Placebo’s “Nancy Boy.” This is not to suggest that queer sexuality is outside of a capitalistic economy, but rather that queer re-readings take popular music culture into new contexts less frequently taken by the largely heteronormative music industry.

But while some mash-up culture exhibits a decidedly anti-capitalist out-look, a few mash-up artists have made the leap from bootlegger to major-label sanctioned artist. The press coverage for the aforementioned Dangermouse got him a production gig with the Gorillaz and the leverage to release his much-hyped Gnarls Barkley project with Cee-Lo (of course, it rather helped that he already had a record deal with rapper Gemini). Richard X’s bootlegs landed him a number one UK single when the Sugababes re-recorded his “Freak Like Me” mash-up, and a number of mash-ups have been licensed by the labels of the original artists and released officially (French bootleggers Loo & Placido’s “Horny Like A Dandy,” English bootleggers Phil & Dog’s “Dr Pressure”). Particularly in the first flush of the mash-up hype in the UK in 2001, there has been the potential at least for a few bootleggers to break into the music industry.

Thus, one should not consider mash-ups as an unambiguous refusal of late capitalism, for many bootleggers would like nothing better than to become part of the system from which they currently pilfer. However, given the nature of the medium, its commercial co-option is far from assured, since the clearance fees for many bootlegs render them un-releasable. In their re-appropriations of popular music culture, though, mash-ups embody the contradictions inherent in late capitalism—fun and serious, nihilist and political, anti-capitalist and marked by hyper-consumption. Immersed in pop culture, but not quite of it, the liminal place of mash-ups on the edge of the culture should continue to make them of interest to critics of media culture.

Author Biography

Em McAvan