‘Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture’
Posted on Aug 27, 2010
I believe that the deep ambivalence reflected in this exchange strikes at the heart of the larger sense of uncertainty I have discussed throughout this article. This becomes especially apparent when we look at the ways in which DJs use the term in reference to themselves. DJ Axel, who has worked as a professional DJ for much of his adult life, told me that he considers himself a “bedroom producer,” and that this appellation means that he is “part of a community of mash-up artists.” Tony Montana, one of the earliest mash-up DJs, used the term as well when I interviewed him in 2003, associating it explicitly with illegality and an outlaw image (an association reinforced by his nom du laptop, taken from the fictional Cuban crime lord played by Al Pacino in the 1983 film Scarface):
Tony Montana: only some of the stuff i do is “leagle”
Aram: what about the other stuff?
Tony Montana: its bedroom producing
Danger Mouse, who is probably the best-known mash-up producer today due to the continuing popularity of “The Grey Album,” appears to go out of his way to emphasize the bedroom as both his physical and spiritual location in interviews he grants to the press. In a 2006 profile in the New York Times magazine section, for instance, the mash-up producer, whose given name is Brian Burton, told journalist Chuck Klosterman that the idea for the album-length mash-up came to him suddenly one day while he was cleaning his room. This moment of clarity becomes the turning point of the 5,000-word article, meriting an entire paragraph consisting solely of the sentence: “It was at this point that Burton decided to straighten up his bedroom.” Similarly, in a 2004 interview in Remix magazine, Danger Mouse told interviewer Rob Kirby, “I do almost all of my preproduction in my bedroom. I have to be working next to a bed when I’m coming up with new stuff.”
In its ability to communicate both deprecation and pride, both otherness and selfness, to suggest both the bonds of community and the exile of the outlaw, the term “bedroom producer” resembles nothing more than a well-known racial epithet that has been used against (and by) African Americans for centuries. The implications of this correlation are complex, to say the least. Although I attempt to unravel them more thoroughly in my book, for now I will simply observe that the significance of the bedroom is in its universality. We all have bedrooms, and in today’s technological environment, we are all producers to some extent. In short, “some kid” isn’t just a convenient rhetorical straw man; it’s us.
From “Bedroom Producer” to “Bedroom Citizen”
This is a transitional moment in our cultural and technological development. With 5 billion mobile phone subscribers, 2 billion Internet users, and half a billion Facebook profiles spanning virtually every mile of habitable land on the globe, we are creating social formations, institutions and public forums on such a scale that the great nations of the 19th and 20th centuries look like city-states by comparison. Virtually everyone on the planet has the power to make direct contact with anyone else, and billions of us are contributing daily to the amorphous, rapidly evolving culture(s) of cyberspace.
Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture
By Aram Sinnreich
University of Massachusetts Press, 240 pages
And yet, we are still a world divided, and subject to an ever greater degree of institutional oversight and political accountability. Privacy as we know it will soon cease to exist entirely, as every transaction and interaction we undertake lives on in perpetuity in the Internet “cloud.” Censorship can be imposed on millions or billions of people with a single bureaucratic keystroke in Beijing or Washington, D.C. And as “closed” devices like iPads and Kindles begin to replace fully-functional PCs in the homes and hands of consumers, it’s not clear whether and to what degree we’ll still have the power or the incentive to create as we consume.
What kind of future are we building for ourselves, and what place will the old institutions and mythologies have in it? What kinds of institutions and mythologies might replace them? Who will have the power to help shape our collective destiny, and who will be consigned to watch from the wings as their fates unfold?
Clearly, there is no simple answer to these questions. But music, as it always has, offers a glimpse into the future of our society. As Plato once wrote, “the musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws.”
If the DJs are questioning the myth of the Artist, and developing a new set of evaluative criteria for their music, it’s a good bet that our laws – and the rest of our society – are going to change, as well. And if the “bedroom producer” stakes out a new territory for musical participation between consumption and production, it opens the door for us to become “bedroom citizens” – active, enthusiastic mixers and mashers of the laws and institutions that govern our collective experience.
Our challenge, then, is to ensure that each of us has the same kind of control over our lives as a DJ has over a sample – as DJ Earworm might say, our skill as bedroom citizens will reside in “knowing how to make society, keeping rhythm, knowing how to keep in time. Knowing how to arrange ourselves. Knowing how to produce our laws. Knowing how to choose our fate.” This means making sure we all have access to the cultural library, and permission to add, amend and comment as we see fit. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what comes next.
This article was adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book, “Mashed Up: Music, Technology and Configurable Culture,” written by Aram Sinnreich and published this month by University of Massachusetts Press.
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