There’s been a lot of news in the past week about the legal kerfuffle between the Beastie Boys and a company called GoldieBlox, which markets science/engineering toys aimed at girls (and their parents) seeking something beyond the standard pink princess fare.
Apparently, GoldieBlox has successfully leveraged the “viral” qualities of the net to project their “disruptive” brand, and the latest example does so spectacularly well, via a parody of the Beastie Boys’ well-worn, decades-old, silly misogynist ditty, “Girls.”
In fact, my first encounter with GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” arrived via word of mouth (i.e., Gchat), just the way viral videos are supposed to. My wife shared the link with me, as we ourselves are constantly struggling with the balance between giving our daughters lots of options for growth and play, on the one hand, and indulging their seemingly irrepressible desire to parade around as princesses on the other. As that type of dad, I couldn’t help but myself be smitten by the ad —
So, I was as surprised as anyone to learn about the legal battle currently underway over this parody of a parody (if, in the initial instance, an ambiguous one). Obviously, GoldieBlox’s “Girls” is derived from the Beasties’ “Girls,” but it’s a complete re-recording, marshaling certain familiar elements — the riff, the refrain, and certain text/melodic lines — not all unlike the ways the Beasties themselves cribbed and borrowed and reassembled their own song out of prior performances.
Redolent of a schlocky musical and cultural past — and perhaps helping to give the song some of its parodic edge — the Beasties’ “Girls” makes audible nods to both the Isley Brothers and Bo Diddley. Beginning around 0:40 in the following video, you’ll hear Diddley play on guitar the very same riff the Boys coax out of their wonky synth:
And this mashup underscores pretty convincingly how much “Girls” is inspired by the Isley’s “Shout,” with parellels in terms of song syntax, repeated refrain, and even a few striking melodic parallels (e.g., “say that you love meâ€¦” == “to do the dishesâ€¦”):
What should we make of the Beastie Boys taking two songs deeply inspired by African-American religious ritual — the ring-shout in the case of the Isleys, and Diddley’s hand-clapping & foot-stomping “communion service” — in order to make a rearguard, if possibly parodic, song about women? On what grounds should the Beasties be allowed the privilege of doing something so derivative/transformative, while GoldieBlox should not?
For many, it would seem, the crucial point turns not on questions of musical borrowing and re-signification but rather, on the Beastie Boys’ stated wishes to keep their music out of advertisements, as articulated in their open letter —
make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
This is especially poignant given that Adam Yauch (aka MCA) made this same wish explicit in his will.
But then, GoldieBlox isn’t actually using the Beasties’ music. Or are they? It’s a question — and not an easy one to resolve. (For any of us, or for a judge or jury for that matter.) They’re certainly not using the Beasties’ recording, or even a sample from it. Why should we determine that the Beasties’ should be able to stop others from re-assembling the same pieces that they themselves assembled without licensing/permission in the first place? Should GoldieBlox respect the Beasties’ wishes?
What about, say, James Newton’s wishes? An avant-jazz flutist, Newton famously insisted that the Beasties’ use of a sample of his flute performance on “Choir” for the Beasties’ “Pass the Mic” constituted copyright infringement, but a court ruled that the snippet was too short to constitute a part of his composition, and since the Boys had licensed the recording from Newton’s record label (for a paltry $1000), they were allowed to go ahead and use it despite lacking Newton’s permission.
Generally speaking, as readers of W&W will know, I support that sort of relatively unbridled approach to transformative re-use. Songs are shared things, and if you don’t want someone to play or sing along, hold them close and sing them quietly in the corner. Once something is out in the open, in public, via commercial or even non-commercial circulation, it becomes available for sharing and reinterpretation. Courts and lawyers and some artists like to draw hard and fast lines between folk culture and commercial culture, but these are usually little more than language games having to do with claiming ownership, not stable definitions of cultural domains. (Sometimes, they’re struggles over power and money, which are not to be diminished, though they are hardly at play in this case between some rich musicians and a successful start-up.)
When did “Girls” escape the Beasties’ creative control? Perhaps as soon as it was commercially released and massively distributed. In its own way, the Beastie’s “Girls” was, in the first instance, itself an advertisement — an ad for an album, an ad for concerts, an ad for a sophomoric act that the Beastie Boys took to the world and to the bank.
All that said, it’s still a little odd for the likes of the EFF to step into the fray, and to argue for fair use simply because they agree with Glodieblox’s putative politics. Clearly, commercial instances of parodic fair use have been upheld before — s/o Luther Campbell & Henry Louis Gates — but it’s always a matter of convincing some judge/jury about the lines people want to draw around musical ownership. Toward that end, I think considering the big musical picture here helps.
I mean, just imagine the chilling effect on other renditions of “Girls”! In a world of personal branding, where do we draw the line between commercial and non? Between advertisement and not?
Tell this guy Bro Chuy he’d better not “go viral” –
Or this girl for that matter —
And someone should really warn these squirrels not to attempt to monetize their questionable “parody” –
For my part, as a dad, I’ll be sure to teach my daughters how to reverse engineer our favorite Beastie songs as soon as the girls are ready for some serious digital music trickery.
Africa Is a Country, a wry but passionate blog devoted to “Africa” — the idea, not (simply) the song — in contemporary media (but “not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama”) has been threatening to make a weekly series out of the genuinely remarkable resonance of Toto’s 1982 soft-rock anthem. It’s a begrudging tribute of sorts to the song’s “resilience as a piece of media about Africa.” Did you know that in addition to dozens of covers, which they promise to feature, the song is also popular sampling fodder for hip-hop producers (among them, Madlib)?
It promises to be entertaining, whether or not you can withstand the earworm. This week they pointed to a new appearance of what they’re calling “the Toto ‘Africa’ meme” courtesy of r&b crooner Jason Derulo, which, I have to admit is both “inane” as they note over there and a pallid by-the-numbers attempt to reproduce the feel and form of “Watcha Say,” his debut single and highest charting song (it hit #1).
I can’t help but be reminded of a strange and oddly apropos discovery about Toto’s “Africa” I made a few years ago, which may be of passing interest to some of you, especially fellow followers of Africasacountry.
Here’s how it happened: my dear friend and colleague, Sharon, is a doctoral student in anthropology who studies the transmission of traditional Malian dance, especially in transnational contexts. A longtime trad-African dancer herself, she has studied and danced in Mali, the US, and France. Anyway, long story semi-short, when Sharon was getting hitched a few years back she asked me whether I might help her arrange some music for her reception (an awesome & lively affair, full of drums and dance, in which a young & chubby Nico got to prance about with the august & strikingly spry Dr. J. Lorand Matory).
Her idea was to take one of the common rhythms from the Malian repertory and mash it up with some pop or hip-hop tracks that employ the same patterns. The idea was suggested to her by the fact that her local teacher, Joh Camara, himself would reference Will Smith’s “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” as a sort of mnemonic device when introducing students to the didadi rhythm. You know, the na-na-na-na-nana-nah bit. You can hear it pretty clearly in this performance I turned up on the ‘Tube (esp between 0:40 and 1:00):
This seemed like a fun task, especially given how much I love tracing patterns across different repertories. But after a few days of intense humming along to myself and attempting to trigger things in the recesses of musical memory, I had come up with relatively little. However, while I had only located a couple tracks that make reference to the rhythm, I had seemingly stumbled across an almost incredible possibility: that Toto’s “Africa,” which seemed like one of the least African songs I could imagine, might actually be based around an actual African rhythm. (And I use actual there twice because it’s a magic word, like Africa.)
Here’s what I shared with Sharon:
I have to confess that I’ve found it rather challenging to think up other songs that employ the same rhythm(s) as Didadi (aside from the tight fit that is “Gettin Jiggy Wit It”). Been racking my musical memory, which has led to some false leads and close fits, but nothing else — until this afternoon — save for a funny refrain from a Cypress Hill song (“la la la la la la la la” in “Hand on the Pump”).
Funny enough — actually I think you may find this discovery fascinating — as I was trying once more this afternoon to think of other songs that might match (and I’m being fairly exacting in wanting a good match — a direct rhythmic overlay), I started humming the rhythm to myself: buh-duh-duh-duhduh-duh-duh. Eventually a vaguely familiar bassline / chord progression emerged from my murky brain. I couldn’t place it, though, and couldn’t remember any words, so I just sang along with the melody until I reached the chorus, where, I hoped, I might remember a single Googlable word. When I got there, I was stunned: the word was “Africa” and the song, natch, “Africa” by Toto! What a hilarious coincidence! I have no idea whether the group was intentionally figuring Africa with that rhythm — it’s never sounded very African to me, but it sure does now!
Anyhow, I’m afraid that means I have only turned up 3 songs that use the same rhythm(s) as Didadi. And two of them are quite cheesy. But this is all in good fun, right? Anyhow, see attached and tell me what you think. For now, I’ve chosen to leave Joh’s performance unedited, so you hear the entire ~2:00 rendition that he gave us, the full arc, including all his variations and the general accretionary/crescendoing dynamic. If that works for you, that’s cool. If not, we can do some editing. Just let me know what you think. It’s easy enough to loop any of the measures he plays or to cut something here or add something there. I could extend any of the songs mashed with the drums, or shorten them, or change their order. I could also change the tempo so that it is faster or slower or gets faster over time (Jo does gradually get faster, and that’s one change I’ve made: now he stays at the same tempo, which helped me to mash/match things up).
Now, judging by this Wikipedia entry and it’s detailed accounts by members of Toto of the way the song came together, it sounds like the guys in Toto might have more or less entirely stumbled upon this felicitous rhythmic concordance. Meter minutiae aside (however fascinating), I find this quotation from drummer Jeff Porcaro most pregnant:
… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.
At any rate, you can imagine the bizarro eureka moment as I pulled that schmaltzy tune out of some dark corner of my mind. As for the main keyboard riff’s Africanness, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Here’s the “mashup” I sent to Sharon (which, suffice to say, was a little too goofy to work for the wedding):
The first time one of my daughters said “internet,” I was deeply curious about what she might understand it to be. So I asked. Here’s how it went down:
“Did you get it on the internet?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying ‘internet.’ … Internet.”
It was an awesome bit of backpedaling, but it’s not like Nico didn’t know what she was talking about. Surely I had told her many times before that I was getting some video or other “on the internet” (although this time I was just searching for an mp4 on our harddrive).
Of course, defining “the internet” in plain terms is no simple task, even/especially for experts — never mind elected officials (for whom even the proposal of a relatively reasonable metaphor, say a “series of tubes,” can lead to eternal ridicule).
Anyway, as tweeted, we had occasion yesterday to revisit the exchange. This time both Nico and Charlie offered up awesome answers — with no evasions — and I even got it all on video!
As we were getting back in our car after lunch at a local diner, Charlie asked me if I wanted to buy a newspaper. I told her I didn’t and then said something to the effect that I could read the same stories on my phone — that is, on the internet. At which point I had to ask, in a somewhat strange and serious and playful voice, “What. Is. The. Internet?”
To which Nico replied, rather reasonably, if in her own strange voice (a “boy’s voice,” she tells us)–
I thought that was great, so I took out my internet phone and asked her if we could re-run the Q&A for the camera. The kids love seeing themselves on video, so Nico agreed, and that’s what you see up there (with my question inadvertently truncated).
After which, natch, Charlie needed a turn. At first it seemed like she was just going to rehearse the same exchange herself (complete with funny voice), but instead, operator-style, she threw a curveball. A hilarious curveball, especially after my follow-up —
NASA’s announcement in December about our impending arsenic-based overlords caused quite a stir, followed by a fair amount of disappointment. Despite oddly worded reports suggesting that “NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesnâ€™t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living on planet Earth” (his emphasis), it turned out that NASA scientists had not encountered an actual extraterrestrial lifeform, only that they had (allegedly) “discovered” — more like, tricked into being — a form of life that departed enough from conventional understandings (by processing arsenic in place of phosphorous) that it is practically alien, and as such has implications for the study of extraterrestrial life: namely, that we need not expect life from elsewhere in the universe to look quite like it does here.
Um, earth to NASA…
Of course, tantalizing as it may have seemed, NASA’s press release was also, in retrospect, fairly dry and careful, promising no more than “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” But for those who nonetheless had fantasized about a closer kind of encounter, do I have news for you.
Better than news, actually: remixes.
Put aside for a moment your suspicion that aliens might be sending us interstellar 419 scams. Why not audio edits? We did, after all, launch a big ol’ golden phonograph into space some 33 years ago. What if the Voyager record found its ways to alien “ears” (or intelligences, anyway) after all? What if the response was to scramble and reassemble our own sound and syntax and to send it back earthwards? And why not send remixes with a cosmic twist of the critical dagger?
That’s the contention, anyway, of the SETI-X collective, a group of scientists exiled from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence consortium responsible for the ‘77 Voyager record. SETI-X has released a CD, Scrambles of Earth, which purports to present a collection of decoded remixes from outer space:
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft, fastening to each a phonograph album containing sounds and music of Earth. If the best calculations are to be believed, one of these records was intercepted and â€śremixedâ€ť sometime in 2005 by extraterrestrial intelligences on the edge of our solar system. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Exile (SETI-X), a dissident offshoot of the better-known Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in 2010 finished decoding signals believed to be transmissions of these â€śremixes.â€ť Scrambles of Earth, unauthorized by a skeptical SETI, is SETI-Xâ€™s document of these audio signs of possible alien intelligence.
If we are to take the researchers at their word, this record would constitute no less than a close encounter of the fifth kind (though some might dispute the expansion of Hynek’s three-level CE model). In the words of CE5’s greatest proponent, Steven J. Greer, a close encounter of the fifth kind is “characterized by mutual, bilateral communication rather than unilateral contact.”
But beyond that, what’s striking about the discovery of these transmissions is that they would appear to offer a critique of everything from the original project’s colonial overtones to the absurdity of the copyright regime’s claims on the record. As the liner notes speculate:
It could also be that the aliens were unmoved by Voyager’s musical program and sought in their version to reprimand Earthlings with an obnoxious response to what Sagan and others modestly termed, in the title of the explanatory coffee-table book, Murmurs of Earth.
There are some stunning procedures on the disc, including a selection where the amplitude envelope of an excerpt from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is apparently used to modulate the pitch of Andean drums, or a number of looping sections that perhaps suggest, as the careful liner notes point out, “artifacts of earthly deconvolution technologies.” And yet –
Even through the translatory medium of all-too-human audio algorithms, however, it is apparent that the aliens are playing fast and loose with complex intercultural questions and flirting with copyright violation on an interstellar scale.
Take, for example, “Fifth World”:
The people at SETI-X are looking out for additional transmissions and transpositions. Let’s just hope, if any come in, they don’t start sounding too phishy.
PS — I’m pleased to report that representatives from SETI-X will be joining us TONIGHT at Enormous Room for a special Beat Research session. To help celebrate their stunning discovery, Flack and I have invited some local friends to dig through the cosmic bins of their record collections and unearth all their deep space footage. So in addition to the SETI-X reps, Tim of A Stack of Dusty Records, the co-owner of Mystery Train Records in Gloucester, MA, will offer some thematic accompaniment, VJ Dziga will mix’n'mash rare NASA footage and other alien sights on the big screen while TDOGG explores further levels of photon manipulation. It’s gonna be out of this world!
Ok, I promise to quit kvetching about SoundCloud soon enough, but the material just keeps piling up. So permit me one more for now, a little ludic repair, if you will, courtesy of Carl Craig, rightly revered innovator of Detroit techno’s so-called “second wave.” (Here’s a recent interview if you’ve got some catching up to do.)
Like fellow Detroiter and techno trailblazer Kevin Saunderson (as recounted here), Craig has taken to SoundCloud to stage a playful response to his discovery that a classic production of his, an early 90s release under the pseudonym Paperclip People, had been “bootlegged” — i.e., edited and supposedly “mashed up” with another track, then released as an anonymous 12-inch (“Track 3″ by “Unknown Artist”) with no attribution of the original.
For the record (ahem), here’s a vinyl rip of a recent reissue of “Climax” on Craig’s label, Planet E.
Rather than simply giving the infringing track away as Saunderson did, Craig has gone one better: he’s remixed the bootleg, no doubt improving it (though it’s hard to say without any comparison), and he has invited others to do the same. (To be clear: though I’m getting to it late here on the blog, Craig’s actions precede Saunderson’s by a few weeks and, for all I know, may have inspired them.)
Now shared globally as “The Climax Bootleg” Craig describes what he’s done as a “re-appropriated re-edit of the appropriated version” –
Quinto did a re-edit of my re-edit of the mash up of my paperclip people version of my original version that was released on Retroactive (my 1st label) back in 1990 and re-issued on my current label, planet e communications (20yrs this year!!!), that also included a fantastic ‘reshape’ by basic channelâ€¦anyway, Quintoâ€™s version continues this language that i wanted to start. this is why i am giving away this download to you for â€śfreeeeeeeeeeeeeeâ€ť. so, i want to hear your ‘new’ versions or reedits (theres some work involved) and i will post them here on my soundcloud page which will link to my carlcraig.net site. global forum here folks. much love from detroitâ€¦c2
You’ll note that Craig’s edit contains a wonky piano line (if not in the strict sense), which is apparently sampled from the unauthorized “mash up” (whether the use of mash up in Craig’s discussion is “strict” is also unclear to me since I haven’t heard the “original” “bootleg”; he does seem to enjoy playing loose with all “this language,” as he puts it). Commenters are torn on whether they like the “re-appropriated re-edit” at all: some express that it fails to improve on the original and hence extends and glorifies an insult; others appear to dig the new version, even the piano part.
Some remixers / re-editors have run with the new elements while injecting their own, others have hearkened back a bit more to the spirit of the original. Here are several, the titles of which, in some cases, get more and more recursive as they go (the sounds too):
Perhaps you’d care to join in the fun and try your hand at one? Gotta love a little collective, creative clowning.
Of course, there’s an interesting, though somewhat vague, distinction being drawn here between remixes, reedits, and bootlegs, generally turning on questions of commerce and attribution. At least for Craig, you get the sense that it’s one thing to edit/remix/mashup something and post it on the web; it’s another to press it up (or compress it up, into an MP3) and sell it without sharing the proceeds or the credit.
One key footnote here, as Craig himself points out, is that there have been many authorized remixes of “Climax,” including a “reshape” by Basic Channel. Here are a couple:
And you might be familiar with this Avalanches track, employing a subtle sample of “Climax” at the 4 minute mark –
– which Craig, in turn, himself (in the guise of Paperclip People) appears to have remixed (?!?!!):
To assist with the launch of NWLA (New Weird Latin America — read all about it), a new curatorial effort by some friends in the DF, I cooked up a video mashup I’ve long been wanting to assemble. The piece stitches together 13 performances of “EspaĂ±a CaĂ±i,” as collected on YouTube. It pegs them all to the tempo and (more or less) the key of the instrumental, or pista, from Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.”
As I wrote in the opening of my reggaeton chapter, to my ears Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina, produced by Luny Tunes, “galloped up the charts” on a “riff befitting a bullfight”:
I mean, could it really be a mere coincidence that Yankee raps, “En la pista nos llaman los matadores”?
At any rate, whether or not a suggestion simply planted in my own head (and now yours?), I wanted to explore the strange overlap between arguably the biggest Spanish song of the last decade and one of the biggest Spanish songs of all time. So I went to YouTube and rounded up a baker’s dozen “EspaĂ±a CaĂ±i” instantiations. I like how the search itself, and the video below, help to highlight the amazing array of contexts for which “EspaĂ±a CaĂ±i” provides a model and soundtrack: from classical guitar etude to lounge piano standard, bullfights to ballgames to ballroom dances, baroque visions of Gypsy Spain to trippy scenes of liberated bulls and beefcake matadors jamming at Charo’s club, Pascual Marquina Narro’s composition sure seems alive and well — and often weird.