Frankenstein’s Genre

DJ Gregg Gillis–better known by his stage name, Girl Talk–is a mash-up artist. He collects bits and piece of hundreds of songs from all genres–some popular, some not–and spends countless hours at his computer, editing and re-editing them, cutting and pasting them, and finally stitching them together, creating an album pulsing with a life.

Okay, okay–so that’s a bit dramatic. But what Gillis–Girl Talk–is able to create with these carved out pieces of song is not unlike what mosaic artists did and do–with one notable exception: bits of rock aren’t copyrighted, and the songs making up a Girl Talk “mosaic” most certainly are.

Copyright laws are, without a doubt, some of the most convoluted and confusing laws ever written. Some of the most relevant issues–for musicians like Gillis, as well as scholars like ourselves–in establishing fair use are those of of “purpose and character”–whether an artist is transforming the original work in some way–and “amount and sustainability”–how much of the original is actually being used (Wikipedia, “Fair Use”). These provisions are why it’s okay for us to use excerpts of original texts in our theses and dissertations–we’re certainly transforming the original authors’ words, taking only small bits of them to fit our own, unique projects. And these provisions are what Gillis and other artists like him depend on to create their Frankenstein-inspired genre of mash-ups and remixes.

What’s strange about copyright law–to me, at least–is how relatively modern it is. The idea of preserving someone’s words, thoughts, projects, etc.–keeping them safely marked as that person’s property, so to speak–only came about with the popularity of the printing press. As Elizabeth Eisenstein says in her historical work, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, “Personal celebrity is related to printed publicity at present. The same point may be applied to the past […] Until it became possible to distinguish between composing a poem and reciting one, or writing a book and copying one […] the modern game of books and authors could not be played” (94-95). That is, until there was a reliable way to record, once and for all, that someone had done something–well, it didn’t really matter who had done it. Everything was essentially free to anyone who cared to copy, edit, annotate, change, improve, etc., it.

I’d argue that the Internet is bringing us back to pre-printing press conditions. The availability of texts and other materials–copyrighted or not–has, in a sense, brought us back to a time when authorship is dubious and it’s not clear who did what first. The ease with which anyone can, say, download hundreds of music files free, fast, and easy makes him, in some way, “owners” of that music. It’s only natural that Gillis–and others–would take on the roles familiar to the dubious print shops of ages past. And, with my feeble understanding of fair use to back me, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing: Great things can happen when we take the work of others, digest it, and turn it into something new, something a bit mashed-up and strange, something a little creepy and new–but, isn’t that what academia is all about, anyway?

[For a cool documentary about copyright law (and outlaws), check out Good Copy, Bad Copy. It covers an array of copyright issues, but primarily covers music copyright; Gregg Gillis is interviewed, as well as DJ Danger Mouse and some Brazilian remix artists, as well.]

For further information on the printing press, print culture, etc., see: Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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