The song begins with a familiar ring. The rapid, staccato guitar melody line countered by rhythm chords and propulsive drumbeat quickly identifies the tune as "Hard to Explain," a hit by New York City punk-pop band the Strokes. About twenty seconds in, however, something is clearly amiss. Instead of the slightly distorted, laconic vocals of Strokes front man Julian Casablancas, the listener hears the moans of pop princess Christina Aguilera in the opening vocals of her first hit single, "Genie in a Bottle."
What gives? Has Aguilera suddenly abandoned her pop roots? Are the Strokes that hard up after their most recent album, Room on Fire, didn't light the music world ablaze?
Nothing so conspiratorial. The track "A Stroke of Genius" is what's known as a mashup, the musical love child born of two or more songs melded to create a third, entirely new song. "A Stroke of Genius" is credited to Freelance Hellraiser, an anonymous DJ.
The potential musical ingredients that go into the mashup Mixmaster run the gamut, from the shiny, happy chorus of "All You Need Is Love" sung over the gut-bucket stomp of the Rolling Stones's "Casino Boogie" and Johnny Cash's murderous boasts from "Folsom Prison Blues" laid on top of the hiccuping line-dancing anthem "Achy Breaky Heart" to the soaring vocals from "Ave Maria" against the cacophony of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."
Most mashups amount to little more than amateurish caterwauling, but with the right person creating the mix, some reach the level of genius usually ascribed to the most avant-garde artists. Thanks to the widespread availability of low-cost software and the fact that most PCs these days pack plenty of processing horsepower, mashups are popping up everywhere.
They're also finding audiences around the world, thanks to their method of distribution: the Internet. Most mashups are distributed online, and what a teenager creates in a basement in New Jersey can become a smash dance hit in Croatia a few days later.
Not only are mashups bouncing the musical world on its head, they're also providing tech-savvy teens with a quick education in artistic license. This point was brought home recently to Glenn Otis Brown. Brown, executive director of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that encourages artists to explore alternative legal rights schemes instead of going with the standard copyright, was visiting the Chandler School, in Pasadena, California, to meet with middle school students. His subject: the ins and outs, and dos and don'ts, of music copyrights.
Talk about an eye opener. "Their questions were amazingly insightful and smart," says Brown. "Many of them went straight to some of the most complex and interesting issues in copyright law. I knew when I was setting up my computer and a seventh grader asked me about royalty-free music that this was a sophisticated crowd."
Mashups introduce a wide array of issues and opportunities to the classroom. First, the creations can be a valuable tool to get kids interested in computers and mixing technology. Second, because the Recording Industry Association of America is suing downloaders at a regular clip, teachers can use the issue of mashups as a way to discuss the legality of downloading and why it's such a contentious issue.
Artists -- or, more appropriately, artists' record labels -- have mixed positions on the issue of mashups. Several online DJs have received legal threats from recording companies, citing unauthorized usage of copyrighted material. Other artists have come out in favor of mashups, or at least mashups they can control. David Bowie, for instance, likes the mashup idea. The gender-bending glam-rock icon has long supported the Internet, recognizing its potential to induce musical creativity. Asked to create music for a German car commercial, Bowie turned to the Internet and created a mashup contest for fans. He released song snippets for participants to work with and partnered with Audi to offer a brand-new 2004 Audi TT Coupe as a prize.
David Choi, a mild-mannered eighteen-year-old living with his parents in Fountain Valley, California, saw an announcement for the contest on a music-mixing site he frequents. Choi hadn't dabbled much in mashups, but he decided to give it a shot. He already had a computer-based music studio he'd created to record his own songs (he won the 2004 USA Weekend John Lennon Songwriting Contest for Teens) and was up for the challenge. "I wanted to try something new," he says. "I write songs but hadn't done any mashups."
He's got a pretty good batting average: Choi won the contest with his first mashup creation. In typical teenage fashion, Choi says, "When I heard I had won, I got all crazy. I was driving around with a friend of mine, screaming." Though excitable, he's also pragmatic: He says he chose to take the cash instead of the coupe, noting that he already has a Honda Civic.
Though mashups are an international phenomenon, right now England lays claim to the biggest scene. Club DJs there regularly play bastard music, as the form is known there. Even radio stations play some of the more popular mixes. "Mashups can be a good way of exposing a hidden production talent," says Mark Vidler, a London-based DJ and mashup artist. "It's totally up to the individuals creating the material."
In May 2002, Vidler created a mashup called "A Slim McShady," which mashed the vocals of Eminem's "Without Me" with Wings's "Silly Love Songs." The song was widely downloaded and even received airplay on New Zealand's national radio station. Vidler has gone on to pair Whitney Houston with U2 ("I Wanna Dance with Some Bono") and the Beatles and the Monkees ("Paperback Believer").
Pop-music historians may declare the mashup, or bootlegs, as the latest in a storied lineage of musical experimentation that began with jazz and was updated for the urban world in the 1980s with the advent of sampling in hip-hop and early rap songs. But in the end, for listeners, the mashup is a guided sonic tour -- an extension of what many of us hear on any given day in an urban environment, where we're treated to a procession of Dopplerized sounds from passing car stereos, mixed to the yelps of dogs, pothole beats, and our own inner rhythms. Perhaps one of the reasons mashups are so popular is that they're a common acoustic experience many of us already know. They surprise us, and yet feel completely familiar.
Mashups first appeared on the pop-culture radar screen earlier this year with the release of The Grey Album, a group of mashups that paired the vocal tracks from popular rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album with the Beatles' self-titled 1968 ode to psychedelic experimentation popularly known as The White Album. DJ Danger Mouse, a New York-based DJ, spent three days creating the mix.
The released recordings caught fire online, and within weeks thousands of listeners had downloaded it, copies were fetching upward of $80 on eBay, and record label EMI -- which owns the Beatles's work -- issued a cease-and-desist order.
But legal threats couldn't stop the momentum of The Grey Album, and its popularity became a lightning rod for the genre, spurring multiple mashups. Within weeks of its release, other Jay-Z-inspired mashups began appearing, including The Slack Album, which combines Jay-Z's raps with the classic Slanted and Enchanted, from protoslacker punk band Pavement. Other releases included The Black Album, Unplugged (Jay-Z and Nirvana), and The Double Black Album (Jay-Z and Metallica's Black Album).
Of course, this spark could not have occurred without the tacit approval of Jay-Z. It's not uncommon for DJs to remix popular rap songs. It's a chance for them to prove their skills and give dancers a bass-heavy version of a hot song. For rappers, it's a chance to make more money from the same material. When a remix's popularity warrants it, rappers will release remixed versions of the original song. To accommodate this, Jay-Z released an all-vocal version of The Black Album. Fans can download the entire vocal version (weighing in at more than 600 MB). Of course, Jay-Z likely didn't have The Grey Album in mind when he did this.
A hotly disputed issue within the mashup community itself is whether the genre has peaked. Will it grow more popular, or remain a novelty? "I hope mashups will evolve in some way," says DJ Mark Vidler. "New techniques are being used in interesting ways, but I fear it will become a fad, if it hasn't already. The interesting thing is watching which artists are now embracing the 'culture,' and for what reasons."
Though the Creative Commons's Glenn Otis Brown appreciates the talent that goes into creating a good mashup, he remains in the latter camp. "As long as the gimmick factor exceeds the aesthetic factor, it'll be a novelty," he says. "Right now, the concept of mashups outpaces the execution of them. It's like rock and roll when it first started out. It was illegitimate, but there will be some interesting things coming out."
Whatever the future holds for the music industry, mashups are an art form for these times of shortened attention spans, unlimited choices, and democracy gone global through technology. So, next time you're sitting next to an open window on a busy street or right in front of your stereo speakers and you hear two songs converge in a happy accident of melody, appreciate the moment. You've been mashed.
Eric Hellweg is a Cambridge, Massachusetts, writer specializing in business, technology, and entertainment issues.