22 November 2006

The mashup and the filk

As materialist cultural analysts and activists, we start from the following principles:

- culture and ideas are real physical things. They can influence the physical world in the sense that they provoke certain kinds of behaviour.
- influential cultural artefacts, ideas, memes, etc. will often start with something familiar to the audience, but offer a "new twist" on it.

I suggest that the mashup (two or more recorded pieces of music mixed together to form a new variation), and the filk (new words of humorous commentary set to a popular tune) are quintessential memetic devices in this regard. The filk is probably as old as song itself, and simply involves "piggybacking" original content onto an existing widely-spread meme. The mashup, on the other hand, is a specifically modern form - layering two widely-spread memes on top of one another, revealing something brand new. The classical composer Charles Ives was doing this in the 1930s, before recording technology had evolved to the point where such things can be done effortlessly, and digitally.

The vital point about about filks and mashups: they're both illegal, and therefore free. Here's the paradox: in modern information technology, production and distribution is totally free. The only reason why all music, computer programmes, stories and other information goods aren't free in our modern age is that copyright law "encloses" them so that they remain profitable for the corporates. The mashup laughs in the face of copyright law - therefore, there is no problem with finding as many of them as you like online, free of charge. (I can particularly recommend two really badass ones: Enya's "Orinoco Flow" vs. Prodigy's "Smack my Bitch Up", and Van Halen's "Jump" vs. The Supreme's "Stop in The Name Of Love".) The filk is a greyer area, legally - probably more analogous to fan-fiction. It's not illegal, but you can't profit from it. Therefore there are no artificial barriers to its expansion.

I wonder how many powerful memetic technologies can be described metaphorically as "mashups" or "filks". I also note that, if you really want to use these forms, you have to give up pretensions to "original creativity" - a concept which actually only evolved at the same time as "intellectual property rights" and for the same, outmoded reason (private profit).

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In other news: another nail in the coffin of techno-utopianism. Holy shit we need a revolution to stop these pieces of crap enclosing any commons that we carve out, on any plane of reality whatsoever. New inventions will not do the job for us. And no, staying home and beating off over scribbles does not count as a revolution (although it can certainly be part of a complete breakfast, as the saying goes).