The Grassy Knoll of Mashup Culture

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

A few months ago I watched a History Channel special devoted to debunking the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s assassination. After pointing out the glaring holes in the Grassy Knoll and Magic Bullet hypotheses, the program closed with a spectacular idea: that people need JFK’s death to be more complicated than it (probably) was.

Why? Because the idea that one ordinary person — one unspecial, unskilled guy, the real-life embodiment of Nikolai Gogol’s “little man” — could so thoroughly change the course of human history, rewrite it even, is something we can’t stomach. The Holocaust stands in contrast, said the program: Humanity’s greatest evil being perpetrated by humanity’s greatest villains makes sense. Those two things deserve each other. But JFK? Who wants to imagine that our global narrative — sacred as it is, meaningful, (supposedly) larger than the individual — was slashed by one man acting on whim and delusion? It sends shivers down the spine because it doesn’t feel fair. Who gave Lee Harvey Oswald the authority to change our culture and disrupt the narrative?

I can’t help but connect this to the cultural strife that surrounds copyright laws and remix culture. I’m intrigued by the idea that unbalanced scales regarding narrators and narratives is what makes people most anxious about what Lawrence Lessig has famously called “Read/Write” culture. Could it be that the same reason we object to the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald changed history on his lonesome is the same reason the elite, the powers that be (whatever you want to call it/them) object so strongly to remix and mashup culture?

In a 2007 article called “Dr. Mashup” (new window), author Brian Lamb points out that people have always been remixing — reappropriating data from sacred canons and changing them, tweaking them, combining them as much as they liked. Once upon a time, this practice was approved, and appreciated with words like “tradition” or “influence,” words that have a positive “aura” about them and convey a gravitas we don’t question. Problems only arose when technology became so user-friendly and ubiquitous that instead of imitating or approximating sounds, images, and text, artists could recreate them perfectly, even rip them as-is from source material. Homage gave way to replication. This, we can see, has enabled individuals to effect monumental change in collective culture from their basements and dorm rooms. What’s worse, in the eyes of some, is the idea that this change is thusly owed more to a spirit of boredom or irony rather than one of true “inspiration” or “creativity.”

Like most Generation X-ers, I think copyright law is stronger than what’s good for public culture. But hear me out on this one: Some pro-copyright concerns are reasonable. Compare how jazz musicians operate to the fate of the “Amen Break” (new window), a six-second sample from the ’60s that since its inception has made appearances in everything from hospital commercials to cartoon theme songs to Amy Winehouse tunes. Jazz musicians use their craft’s “open source” nature to riff on each other’s work, imitating but innovating at the same time, sort of how random mutations for the better can occur in the genetic code. The Amen Break, though, was simply ripped from a little-known song and popularized by bands much bigger than the band that created it, The Winstons, who today earns zero royalties from its usage. Plagiarism much? The purest purpose of copyright law is to prevent situations like this, to protect the ideas of the less powerful from exploitation by the more powerful. The only meager silver lining for The Winstons is that the Amen Break is at least still in the cultural dialogue as opposed to its trash bin, where the vast majority of things more than 50-years-old have long since been relegated.

It’s almost impossible to combat pro-plagiarism technology — especially when, as Lamb observes, the metadata and folksonomies that old-schoolers never thought new-schoolers would centralize have become reality in the form of thousands of torrents (many of which come with keygens or instructions on how to bypass purchase codes) or websites that rip audio from YouTube (new window) or turn you into your own “Obamicon” (new window) or give mashup tutorials (new window) or give you log-ins and passwords (new window). All of this is discomfiting to academic, commercial and bureaucratic investors in pop culture because the great faceless Anonymous — you know, the Internet’s collective pseudonym — is creating culture almost more than It consumes it, and it’s doing so by “reimagining iconography” and “unearthing artifacts” (Lamb). By making bacon double cheeseburgers out of the sacred cows.

I love bacon double cheeseburgers.

Still though — who is Anonymous to reshape the cultural landscape? Gone with the Wind and some bored kid with iMovie don’t balance on the narrative/narrator scale. Even Justin Bieber and some bored kid with iMovie don’t balance on the scale. Not to be too dramatic, but think about it — Anonymous is a lot like Lee Harvey Oswald. It changes culture and history despite previously presumed powerlessness. It’s whimsical and delusional. And although this narrator-narrative imbalance doesn’t bother me personally (I believe Anonymous innovates while imitating [see: Memes]), I understand why the situation unnerves some people. Like the History Channel suggests, the anxiety might be more instinctive than we think.