A wave of protest rippled through the Web this Tuesday, to protest against what was either Warner Music's crackdown on an altered version of one of its albums, or maybe just as an excuse to repeat the fabulous word mashup.
At issue was the new Green Day album called American Idiot. An outfit calling themselves Dean Gray (ho, ho) had taken American Idiot and fused each one of its tracks with other pieces of music, ranging from Bryan Adams to Queen. Then they changed the album's name to American Edit and set it loose on the Internet.
This is a mashup, the on-line stepchild of the remix and the latest way to anger a music company. It's true that the concept sounds improbable; when pairing two different songs, the line between mashup and train wreck can be thin indeed. But the Zen of good mashing isn't about pairing random songs; it's about picking up on the similarities between two tracks, and tweaking the songs to have them create more than the sum of their parts.
This can mean taking the lyrics from one song and playing them over the beat of another, even if it means digitally rejigging that beat to match. Or taking two songs in the same key and laying the instrumentals of one over the chorus of another. Software that's readily available on-line lets would-be mashers slice and dice songs to suit; and the rafts of digital music floating around the Internet provides an unlimited supply of source materials.
With a good ear and a gentle touch, the results can be surprisingly good. One song in particular propelled American Edit to minor Internet stardom; it combined the Green Day song Holiday (which, on its own, falls somewhere between inoffensive and unremarkable) and the theme music from Doctor Who.
The fused song is called Doctor Who on Holiday and it's better than either of the songs were on their own. The Doctor Who music's famous hum glides over Green Day's lyrics, giving them the impression of being more interesting than they really are. The Green Day beat gives the Doctor Who theme the energy it was never able to muster, even with the promise of Styrofoam aliens to follow. It's fantastic.
You can guess where the story goes from here. The album got publicized on blogs big and small, and was downloaded aplenty before Warner Music, which owns the rights to the Green Day music, started sending threatening letters. The album was promptly yanked off-line -- until Tuesday. In protest, a number of websites simultaneously put the album up for download for one day only, on the premise that Warner can't lawyer them all for a hit and run.
The whole fiasco was a repeat of the moment in February when a DJ fused the Beatles' White Album with rapper Jay-Z's Black Album to create a mashed-up Grey Album. (Indeed, it's possible that this whole mashup business is just a pretext for witty titles.) EMI threatened to sue, the album was pulled, the original Grey Tuesday protest was launched and the flap subsided. Nowadays, Grey Album is floating around out there, just like every other piece of illegal music on the Internet. Google for it.
Martyrs notwithstanding, the mashup scene is going strong. It's part hobby, part novelty, and once in a while, it turns out some real gems. At the same time, it also represents a calling-out of modern music for producing so many all-too-compatible songs in the first place. If there weren't so many riffs and beats being stolen from one song to the next, mashup artists wouldn't have nearly so much to work with. The music industry might want to mash that one over in its spare time.
Turning now from ears to eyes, try popping by the all-too-cute game that's on-line at http://www.samorost.net, and its sequel at http://www.samorost2.net. These two games channel the look and feel of the Myst series, albeit on a shorter and less maddeningly complicated scale. They tell the tale of a tiny astronaut living in a space-faring mossy tree-stump who spies another ship on a collision course. Can you point and click him to safety? Yes, you can, and without too much difficulty either. But the ingenuity of the graphic design and the beauty of the sound makes it all worthwhile. It's just another one of the Internet's derivative delights.