Over 100 students lined up to dance to the music of the Super Mash Brothers on May 20 at Freeborn Hall. But even for first-time listeners, the tunes were familiar.
That’s because Super Mash Brothers creates mash-ups, or combinations of music originally created by other artists. Musicians, lawyers, corporations and music lovers alike have long debated the legality and legitimacy of the mash-up. And in today’s digital age, the argument is still far from settled.
American studies professor Ari Y. Kelman said that the mash-up has its roots in early music, before the term “mash-up” was even used.
“The cultural practices that led to the mash-up have been going on for a really long time, going back to jazz and folk music,” Kelman said. “A mash-up is any kind of retextualization of a known song. Usually you take the instrumental part of one song and the lyrical part of another song and you lay them on top of each other to create a new, third song.”
Kelman said that borrowing from other artists’ work is a commonly accepted practice in some musical genres.
“The old jazz practice of quoting other people’s music, or quoting another person in your solo, or even playing another person’s style in your solo, is out of respect,” he said. “Or, [it’s] out of a way to musically say ‘anything you can do I can do better.'”
Music professor Sam Nichols agreed that composers and musicians have a long history of borrowing styles to create new works – even in such respected forms as the symphony.
“Gustav Mahler, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, died 100 years ago. He was really the father of the mash-up,” Nichols said. “He was doing it in his symphonies, which was very high art and high culture. He was combining it in collage fashion, taking lots of different kinds of music and combining them simultaneously.”
However, the modern mash-up can be a touchy subject for musicians who do compose their own original music. Andy Jones, a professor in the University Writing Program, said that there is a fine line between taking inspiration from different musical elements and copying another artist’s work directly.
“Musicians are always taking things that have been created by others and we don’t fault them for that,” he said. “Where it gets tricky is the explicit use of someone else’s words, tunes, lyrics and also sounds.”
An early conflict occurred when 1970s hip-hop group The Sugarhill Gang used a sound from Chic’s “Le Freak” in their song “Rapper’s Delight.” Chic sued The Sugarhill Gang for compensation and won.
“The great concern is that, if you’re a copyright holder or if you’ve created something of value, it can easily become stolen, built upon and shared,” Jones said. “The value of your labor goes down. This is basically the concern of artists today.”
Nichols said that since younger generations have grown up with advanced technology, they are more accepting than older generations of allowing music to be made available for others to experiment with.
“Your generation gets that if there’s a little bit of selflessness up front then you can reap the rewards for that,” he said. “The older generation comes at it from a different point of view, that there’s a lot of drudgery and hard work and you have to have everything done a certain way.”
But with new options for protecting and sharing intellectual property now available, the mash-up has become accepted and even embraced by many people in the music industry. For example, the Creative Commons license allows individual artists to decide for themselves how protected they want their work to be.
Many musicians, including UC Davis technocultural studies professor Bob Ostertag and bands like Nine Inch Nails, even make their content available online for free so that others may use it in their own work.
The future of the mash-up as we know it today is uncertain. For some, the practice seems likely to continue as long as it can be done easily. Others, however, think the novelty of it may already be wearing off.
“Part of the appeal is it’s transgressive, just like rock and roll a few years ago,” Nichols said. “You know you’re breaking copyright. But more and more artists are releasing things under Creative Commons license, and that removes the whole transgressive aspect.”
Still, fans at the Super Mash Bros. concert didn’t seem to be weary of the mash-up just yet. First-year Jacqueline Garcia, a nutrition science major, said she thinks the Super Mash Bros.’ creations are entertaining and refreshingly different from other popular musicians today.
“There was this song that really shocked me,” Garcia said. “It had Coldplay’s piano, Pitbull’s “Dirty” lyrics, and “Mr. Sandman” just merged in. I thought it was hilarious. I really appreciated that because not many artists do that. And if they do, they don’t pull it off that well.”
ROBIN MIGDOL can be reached at email@example.com.