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Mashups, Lady GaGa, and the Rebirth of Pop

2010-06-03 5 min read Electronics Anonymous marco

A slightly unusual post today. I’ll talk for a change about music, even if with a firm rooting in technology.

As someone who lived through the 80s, I can say that whatever you may think of politics, economics, fashion, or architecture, you’ll have to admit that music in that decade was exciting. Sure, the 60s had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc. – but the 80s had by far the best pop music. In addition, they started an explosion of musical movements and genres (rap, punk, hip hop, etc.) that came to fruition (and popularity) a lot later.

There were, as of my reckoning, two main reasons for this explosion. For one, the CD came on the market and with it a completely new ball game for music distribution. CDs were incredibly cheap to mass-produce, incredibly accurate in their rendition, and the players were obviously equivalent. Everybody could listen to high quality music from a cheap player, and CDs could be sold at extremely low cost.

The other reason is the advent of PC technology. Married with the MIDI interface for musical instruments, it put music in everyone’s reach. A two man band could perform the same music that until then required a whole band, and professional recording was increasingly affordable. The democratization in music had begun, and the fruits were clearly visible.

The 90s brought a double shock. For one, there was enormous consolidation in the music industry, with smaller labels being gobbled up by larger ones, and these in turn by even larger ones. The end result was a choking off of the creativity and inventiveness of small labels in favor of big names. Even those big names, though, were choked off, as the story of Prince shows quite clearly.

The second component, in a wonderful symmetry to the perfect duo of the 80s, was technological. In the 90s, technology to copy CDs became more and more widely available, and the long decline in sales of music began.

The new Millennium brought an intensification of the trend. For one, there was the Internet: the perfect medium for the transmission of digital files. Napster started something that became clearly unstoppable, while the music labels continued their consolidation and rejection of a search for quality over the predictable.

You see, music has had a trend to simplification. Pop music in particular had started a long progression towards less and less content in music. You had an idea – a new melody, beat, or harmony – and you’d extend it for four minutes. That would be fine and in the trend of he time – the mixing shops would take your song and extend it from four to eight or even twelve minutes.

Going dancing soon became an exercise in boredom, at least as far as the music was concerned. You’d listen to something that would go on forever, pulsating its way into your brain until you zoned out. Music became the background, not the reason for dancing any more.

In doing so, music bucked a trend towards increasing complexity and information density that the Internet has brought on. Consider the new trend in editing: take a scene with low information content (such as a person moving on a straight trajectory) and increase the speed in editing, acting as if the viewer had used the fast forward button. That’s the trend: make information more compact, give me a constant stream of information, don’t bore me. We have become very efficient information processors, and the Internet has become the main source for our constant desire for information – and fuels increased ability to process information.

Music couldn’t skip the trend forever. The information density in music had to increase again, making music richer than it was any time in the past. We wouldn’t accept a musical idea spread over four minutes for long, things had to change.

The first ones to do something about it were DJs. They took matters in their own hand and decided to do something innovative: combine different songs into one. For it to work, the songs had to have similar beats and compatible chord progressions – and lo and behold, the lack of imagination in music made that all possible!

It so came to pass that mashups became all the rage. You can hear all sorts of mashups, for instance by typing “mashup” in the YouTube search bar. Some are combinations of current pop chart songs, some combine those with rock and roll classics. An astonishing amount of them mixes Eurhythmics’ Sweet Dreams (are Made of This) with whatever flavor of the day is available.

A second degree of mashup is the multi-mash. DJ Earworm is an outstanding example of this kind of work – since 2007 he has produced a mashup of the top 25 most popular songs of the year (amongst other work). These mashups are staggering in quality and complexity and succeed in creating a new genre in music, one where other people’s songs are the instruments used to create a new song. (Oddly, that’s basically the idea that Edgar Varese had 50 years ago. His music, though, sounds really alien and frightening.)

Enters Lady GaGa. Those who know here point to her whole persona as the reason for her success: the outfits, the political opinions, the collaboration with other artists. That’s all very true, but without innovative music, Lady GaGa would not succeed.

Listening to her most popular songs, one notices that they are more complex than typical pop songs. Instead of the simple aba or ababa structure, in which chorus and narrative alternate, her songs have three, four, five key musical concepts that are followed around and alternated. Bad Romance, the crazed sinfonietta whose video became the most watched in YouTube history, is particularly rich with unrelated themes. Lady GaGa is also perfectly able to have those themes play with each other, adding a mashup element to the dramatic complexity of her music.

You may like the Lady or not, but you’ll find out that soon everybody is going to write songs like hers – or even more complex. And we can get back to the musical explosion of the 80s.

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