Aural Cannibalismby Remy Ngamije / 05.01.2011
That is the thought that swirls through my head whenever I turn on the radio or the television nowadays. It seems like I am caught up in a constant déjà vu, some fateful glitch in the musical matrix where all of the things have been carefully reproduced to recreate the illusion of newness. One chorus sounds like another; an artist I heard in my youth suddenly makes an appearance on a badly remixed remix of a remix. The songs all sound the same, and when they are not caught up in a mirror-play, they have samples, hooks and choruses from popular songs of old. Some would call it aural cannibalism.
Music is eating itself.
This might be true if one flips through MTV, VH1 and a handful of other music channels of television. All of them are saturated with remixes and remakes, young artists taking tunes from their older peers and putting a semi-new twist to them. Some of these pieces are entertaining, but they lack a certain originality – that “I am the first to make this sound” quality that has immortalized the greatest artists in human history. All around, the desire to spend time making something new, something that the ears will prick up at, is slowly but surely dying. Music seems to penetrate less deeply than it did. It is about making a song that will sell x amount of ringtones. Producing a hit that will be used on the airwaves for a week and then fade into the background a week later – it is the here and now that seems to matter most. Few artists have that longevity that will see their music replayed over and again in a year’s time.
Originality is not something that should be underestimated. It means a lot to be the first to do anything – it is one of the last signs of evolution taking place. Being the first to do anything that no one has done before, that is what separates the best from the rest – it is what history recognizes. Mimics are rarely, if ever, remembered. Only the moments of originality, where something special and novel happened, matter to history. They are the moments parents tell children about. “I was there when Michael sang his first song, son.” I would be hard pressed to see a future where I tell my grandchildren that I was one of the first kids on the block with a Justin Bieber record. I was not, by the way.
I predict that if you look back far enough in history, you will find a template for all the songs that are currently on the radio at the moment. The Buggles, The Clash, Madonna, The Eagles, Boney M, Ray Charles and The Animals are just some of the artists of old that are circulating on headphones today – but in a different guise. They are being re-synthesised, re-guitared, re-popped, re-R&B’d so much you would not know that it was them. Classical songs that were considered before their time now form the skeleton of any aural creation on the radio or television.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about all of the “borrowing” that is going on in the music industry is that the songs being used are not properly referenced. Take Duck Sauce’s “Barbara Streisand”, for example. Any music listener with parents that love Boney M will automatically run to the television thinking that the hip African-American band with “that guy with the afro and deep voice” is making some kind of comeback. Alas, it ends up being a collage of music stars and pointless sketches with the bewitching hook. The worst part of it, I think, is that the people who know Old School will immediately pick out the Boney M sample, but younger listeners will think of it as a Duck Sauce creation. Really, it’s a kind of default plagiarism going on. You cannot claim to be a musician and skate on the works of others without giving them all the credit that is due.
The Black Eyed Peas, another band that is hell bent on keeping their teenage markets saturated with party anthems could not help but dive in the Old School kitty bag. They do it unabashedly; they take whole songs from past artists and simply re-shoot music videos with drunken techno party freaks. Will.I.Am, uses The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in a manner that makes you want to cry – the song that brought about the first music video is now being re-mashed and re-music video’d in a way that has no flair or originality in it. I find it strangely disturbing the way the Black Eyed Peas massacre songs, especially legendary songs – music video or not, the originals somehow always end up being better than the new re-hash.
Far from being a purist, I do not want to ban musicians from borrowing songs from each other, and by no means do I suggest that they should not remix or re-interpret music. I do however, believe that there is a limit – at some point, someone has to make a completely original song that no one has heard before, something that our generation will listen to and go “he made it first!”
But that’s rare in the music industry at the moment, but I have hope that originality will come back around again.