A couple of weeks ago, Dale Lawrence and Jake Smith (of, respectively, each other’s bands: Dale’s The Vulgar Boatmen and Jake’s Mysteries of Life – got that? There will be a test.) were here in Seattle for the EMP‘s second annual pop conference. Jake was presenting on the advent of video games as a central pop concern of the kiddies, displacing pop music, to the concerned clucking of old fogeys like me. I’m far from being in a position to discuss that perspective, though – I never spend time around young people anymore, so I have no idea.

Dale’s presentation, though, was on mashups, presumably based on his mashups piece on the No Nostalgia website. Viv and I had dinner with Jake and Dale while they were here, and really enjoyed the too-brief time spent discussing home and music and friends and so forth.

As I’ve noted before, Dale’s music – from his very earliest record, recorded live at CBGB’s Max’s Kansas City in 1978 to current bootlegs of live dates in the Midwest – is the most important material to me personally of all American pop. I grew up with it, I learned about song structure and playing techniques by listening to it, and decoded the antecedents and relationships with other musicians that helped form it. I came to Buddy Holly and the Velvet Underground through listening to Dale’s reactions to these artists.

So, when Dale takes the time to write about other people’s music for publication, I’m going to pay attention to what he has to say.

While here, Dale had intended to drop off a mix CD of mashups for me to check out so I could have some context for his piece. After this delay and that delay, I’m listening to it right now.

Dale’s arguing that the intersection of blanderized pop vocal performances and often less polished backing musical tracks (but frequently also from a well-known source) creates something new and better than the initial work. “They might be the freshest, most exciting records being made right now,” he says in the piece.

On the disc there’s a mix that employs The Stooges “No Fun” backing the vocals from Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It”, which immediately stood out. Other tracks that have had an impact include, well, basically anything with Eminiem’s infuriatingly amusing razor-sharp wordbombs (“Without Me” atop Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”, for example) and a track called “Superbike Party” that places Pink’s “Let’s Get This Party Started” atop the music from one of the Superbike video games from Electronic Arts.

So are these mixes better? Do they define a new direction for pop music? I think I have a difference of opinion with Dale on this. The Stooges/Salt-n-Pepa thing is a rawer, better version of Run DMC’s fifteen-year-old collision with Aerosmith. So what am I actually getting out of the material that’s new or resonant?

I think the answer is not much: I’m bathed in the warm glow of being a lifetime listener to the Stooges and an early appreciator of Salt-n-Pepa’s brainy, self-assured pulchritude: good for me, I’m a music geek! I think the same is true when I listen to “Without Me Rag” (actually titled “Marshall Gets Snookered”, as the rag concludes with the telltale sound of the click of billiard balls, cueing us to the The Sting, situating Eminiem as a winking, grinning scam artist). However, in this case, the reflective material available to the listener is greater than the simple pleasure of the absurdity of the mash, which leaves one chuckling in shock.

The real content of the piece is in the reiteration of the history of American pop music the track represents, something Eminiem actually directly addresses in the lyrics for “Without Me:”

And though I’m not the first king of controversy
I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley
do black music so selfishly
and used it to get myself wealthy
Here’s a concept that works

Scott Joplin, of course, was among the first popularizers of black music, being a black man himself. Yet he did it by presenting his material in the context of a system that had previously been largely restricted to white artists: as an author of sheet music, rather than as a performer.

Hearing this dialog between black music and white performers and interpreters presented with such a sense of sly wit – only appropriate to Eminem’s undeniably funny writing – elevates the piece.

Chuck D steps up to the plate next with “Rebel in His Own Mind” over the top of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Chuck and the other members of Public Enemy helped to define the potential of layered sampling, a creative approach that Chuck, as well as numerous other commentators, now claim is impossible without recourse to violations of copyright. Which, of course, brings us to the encore.

Dale hears this dialog as a call to current guitar rockers to bring the black back and to bring the punk back to the funk:

“Listening to Freelance Hellraiser’s ‘A Stroke of Genius’ or McSleazy’s ‘Don’t Call Me Blur,’ one realizes how much more that bands like the Hives or the Strokes could be doing — particularly if they didn’t so consistently turn a deaf ear to black music. The cross-pollination of black and white sounds has virtually defined American pop, but in today’s indie-rock scene, funk (or its first cousin, rap) is about the only trace of R&B you’re likely to hear. That strict musical segregation is the key subtext of Best Bootlegs. Many of the tracks are textbook examples of how exciting the collision of black and white rock can be.”

He concludes that the music is “punk that likes to dance as much as it likes to fight,” a precise, accidental description of Dale’s early work with the Gizmos, no question about it. Additionally, it may sum up some things about what Dale finds worthwhile in music. Listening to the live Boatmen show I recently cut up for MP3 hosting, it also applies to his current performances.

Mashups and remix culture present opportunities for new kinds of creativity and comment that are as valid and challenging and could be as resonant as other kinds of more traditional music creation strategies. Can mashups present the individual-to-universal emotional landscapes that have traditionally been the purview of pop and singer-songwriter musicmaking?

With the possible exception of the U2-Missy Elliot (? I think)-Whitney Houston mashup “I Wanna Dance with Some Bono”, by Go Home Productions, which injects a cellophane party song with a desperate longing that transcends both source songs, the answer appears to be no. Why? I believe it’s the symbolic freight of the material that is employed to create the tunes. Instead of just grooving to “No Fun,” I was thinking about the tension between Iggy’s angular white-boy fear and repulsion toward his own body and Salt-n-Pepa’s round and bodacious sex-positive embrace. My experience of these songs was in my mind, not in my heart or in my body. My appreciation of them depended on my scholastic appreciation of the source material, of my ability to contextualize it.

Does that mean that the basic technique – layering two independent melody lines together – is irretrievable or can’t be used to create work with the vigor that the juice of two melodies can promise? The answer to that is clearly no.

Interestingly there’s at least one major pioneer in that technique in post 1960’s pop – The Grateful Dead. However (and whaetever your opinion of their material is), in their application it’s actually two independent rhythm lines, under improvised melodies, as opposed to the single beat, two-melody approach. Other big names in pop have worked with the technique (specifically, Brian Wilson and the Beatles in their grand studio manners) but because they were emulating classical models rather than pop ones the use of it is unheard, subsumed into the orchestral projects they were pursuing.

Dale himself could put his money where is mouth is – making vocal-only tracks to some of his songs available, to see what might come of it. For that matter, I could construct some myself on Dale’s music, employing the material of persons whose influences are so clear to my ear in his music.

Another possibility – the one I’m most interested in, in fact – is for an accomplished songwriter such as Dale to mash his own songs up – just sit down with an acoustic and ProTools, record fifteen two-track songs with fully separated vocals and guitar, and start mashing.

I’m thinking “Katy’s Heartbeat” might be interesting. Of course, to really do it up right, I should be looking at running Dale’s high sweet tenor on top of George Clinton. Don’t touch that dial!

(Corrections via Dale, updated – ha! look at the posting date – 04/26 7a)

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