Remixing

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Interesting YouTube contest circa 2008 — Aimee Mann invited fans to cover one of her songs and upload a video.  A video of the winners is here, but there were plenty of other good versions that didn’t make the cut.  (e.g. this).

Thought I would share it here because:

1) I’m going to be looking at various forms of amateur creativity for a new project I’m working on, and it’s really interesting to use these videos to see the contrast between amateur and professional media.  E.g., how do the amateurs in this contest recreate the standard form of music videos?  Where do they “fail” in terms of artistic method or content quality? What risks do they take that we don’t see in more polished media — e.g., would you ever see two kids in car seats in a non-amateur video?

2) I was just reading Jacqui’s article about supernatural fiction and moral rights, and was pondering the relationship between cover songs and fan fiction.  Jacqui surveys the field of vampire fiction and finds that most of its famous authors are fairly hostile toward fans who take up the pen and riff on their work.  This is obviously the opposite in the case of music. Copyright law treats the two forms of amateur creativity differently, but are they fundamentally similar?

3) I’ve recently started using Spotify, and I’ve found that one of the most interesting things to do with such a vast library of music is to dig up cover versions.  (Notably, Spotify doesn’t seem to feature any “Freeway” covers!)  As often as not, I like one of the covers better than the original song.  Actually, after watching all the contest videos, I watched the “authoritative” version and I wasn’t sure if it was as good as some of the covers.

4 thoughts on “Remixing

  1. I’ve been thinking about the point you raise in (2) recently as well — motivated mostly by my own interests as a reader/listener. I quite enjoy listening to cover versions of songs and hearing how the artist makes the song her own, but I don’t have much interest in reading most fan fiction, although I recognize that fan fiction authors are often motivated by the same sorts of creative impulses.

    I’m still trying to figure out why this is, but perhaps one reason is that I (perhaps inaccurately) experience many covers as transformative but experience much fan fiction as additive. So I judge a cover by its difference from the original, while I judge fan fiction by how similar it is to the original. Conversely, a cover that is too similar to the original is, to me, not particularly interesting, while fan fiction that is too distinct from the original feels more like an unrelated work (and so is assessed like any other unrelated work).

    In both instances, I guess I’m looking for a work that reveals something about the original I hadn’t previously considered — that a song has good bone structure and thus is readily adaptable (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” makes a fine swing number) or the underlying motivations/emotions of a book/film/television show’s characters (The Wind Done Gone).

    Will ponder more . . . .

  2. Hi Laura — thanks for the thoughts. I agree there’s something different about covers. I think it has to do with the inherent repetition in music — like if you like a song, you listen to it repeatedly, then go to a concert and expect to hear that song again, and most of the song is repeating a chorus or a chord progression, etc. So there’s something about music that lends itself to large amounts of copying with small variations. (In a way, that is music.)

    Whereas I read most fiction once, and only a few books repeatedly. Narratives are, for most readers, I think, about discovering characters, events, settings, etc. The first reading is usually the best experience and repetition isn’t part of the medium’s form.

    So I think that plays into how “remixing” works — playing a song again seems to be in the nature of a song, whereas writing another Twilight story seems, like you say, additive.

    I wonder, though, to what extent we have learned this approach to stories from the form of books, which are expensive commodities governed by copyright law. In folk culture, I think stories were/are much more like music.

  3. Interesting discussion. A cover is going over the same material in a different way, whereas most fan fiction is not, it’s typically a different story told in the same universe, perhaps with the same characters. It’s a little hard for me to compare these though since most covers I hear are done by professionals; I don’t read a lot of fan fiction because most of it is awful writing, and I don’t have time to sift for the good stuff. So maybe a better comparison is the “reboot” or modern adaptation of an old series or film or video game. Some of those are pretty good, e.g. Spiderman and Battlestar Galactica and various iterations of Yojimbo, the Four Feathers, Sherlock Holmes, the War of the Worlds, Superman, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, just to pick a few that popped into my head; of course some fail to update well or are poorly written (Manchurian Candidate, Bionic Woman). And of course there’s the phenomenon of Shakespeare plays, Gilbert & Sullivan, Broadway musicals, etc.; I’ve probably seen 5 or 6 different versions of “Hamlet” alone.

  4. So Hamlet is a play, and for plays each performance is a “reboot” or “cover” of sorts. It’s interesting, though, that recordings of musicals sometimes highlight that they feature the “original cast.”

    Professional “reboots” of old movies are abounding now, just because I think the money in Hollywood prefers the safe bet over the risk. (Apparently, superhero blockbusters are the current safe bet?)

    But I’m mostly interested in the line between the awful writing you mention in fan fiction and the stuff that isn’t quite so awful. I think a lot of amateur work (incl. fan fiction) is pretty “bad” in that it isn’t polished, but I’m interested in understanding exactly what that means and the spectrum between that sort of bad and the bad of most of todays movie/television, which is also bad, imho, but “professionally” bad in a more polished way.

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