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Aural Cannibalism

Aural Cannibalism

by 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.

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RESPONSES (10)
  1. Walter says:

    Or she. How bad is BEP’s new one, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life!”

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  2. Bob Blake says:

    “Let’s get physical, (meta)physical”.

    What does it actually mean to be original, though, Remy? I agree with you that “[f]ew artists have that longevity that will see their music replayed over and again in a year’s time,” but for a whole different set of reasons.

    I think we try and kid ourselves about how base music actually is/was. If music had this active- retaliatory effect in the ’60s, it was probably more to do with circumstance. At its essence, music still sold records, made people dance, returned them to primate sexual rites, gave their lives a very mediated meaning within the culture/genre that music operated in — it still does all these things, but the game has totally changed.

    Is it still possible to believe in liberatory pop music? doesn’t ‘alors on danse’ (recently celebrated on this site) commit the sin it indicts? and, for those readers here who are more theoretically inclined, isn’t the process of bettering pop music already lost to a greater problem within post-structuralism?

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  3. forest whitaker's lazy eye says:

    Remy, you may not realize it, but you are slowly transforming into your grandparents – those people who heard the great pop tunes you adored in your youth and slammed them for being primitive borrowings of the melodies and harmonies established by classical composers from yonks back.

    All music and art is cross-referential and borrows inspiration from what has come before it. Without a point of reference for us to place it against there would be no social plane in which we could ever define such art as “popular” or “inspirational”. As critics will say – context is everyhting.

    And this blatant embedding of pop from the past in remixed or recontextualised chart-fodder is nothing new – bands like PM Dawn and A Tribe Called Quest were doing it 20-plus years ago.

    What has changed more recently is the degree to which industry moguls and accountants have fine-tuned the machine to maximise the marketability of mainstream pop. Years of market research and psychometric analysis have given them the tools to construct product with maximum “universal” appeal and fewer detracting idiosyncrasies. If there is one thing that has disappeared more than anything else from pop music in the last few years it is sincerity. Despite the ironic lyrical commentary of the odd Belgian upstart, the music that accompanies such attempts at “innovation” remains dull and leeched of all primal identity or incisiveness.

    But this does not mean that there isn’t innovation and sincerity in contemporary music today – it just doesn’t stand a hope in hell of making it onto the mainstream charts or daytime radio anymore. Check out what’s being released on indie labels and discussed on niche forums on the internet. There are songs just as insightful and inspiring as anything from the past, but corporations have realised that there is much less money to be made in marketing stuff so specific and unapologetic.

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  4. Rémy, The Quill says:

    @ Bob: “I think we try and kid ourselves about how base music actually is/was. If music had this active- retaliatory effect in the ’60s, it was probably more to do with circumstance. At its essence, music still sold records, made people dance, returned them to primate sexual rites, gave their lives a very mediated meaning within the culture/genre that music operated in — it still does all these things, but the game has totally changed”

    – I completely agree with this statement. Music still does do all of the old things that it used to be. But simply because the function has stayed constant does not mean that the quality is still the same. More than anything else, I support music whenever I hear. I like creativity whether it is made originally or through extension. I realise remixes have been around for as long a music has been around. What I am lamenting though is that in this day and age where the tools to make “new” music are as many as there are stars in the skies we still have people reproducing instead of producing. It’s almost as though we are trapped in a Physics equation where nothing new is created, it just becomes something else.

    @ Forest: But this does not mean that there isn’t innovation and sincerity in contemporary music today – it just doesn’t stand a hope in hell of making it onto the mainstream charts or daytime radio anymore. Check out what’s being released on indie labels and discussed on niche forums on the internet. There are songs just as insightful and inspiring as anything from the past, but corporations have realised that there is much less money to be made in marketing stuff so specific and unapologetic.

    – Well said. It is good that you do bring this point up. The mainstream market as you call it is where all the cannibalism seems to be coming from. The smaller genres of music are still churning out original creations like they did twenty years. Perhaps it all goes pear-shaped when an industry becomes big. I remember a time when rap was new and fresh and everything was original. Now everything literally is a reference to everything else. It’s one big hive of recreation. There is no money in these small markets. But that is where all the originality is…Which is why I am such a huge supporter.

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  5. Macbeth says:

    Well written piece. I like this a lot. Good to have your pen back on Mahala. I listened to that BEP song. Those guys are fucking rip-offs.

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  6. James says:

    I agree with all of the sentiments that have been echoed above. I will point out that there is no clear method to assess the originality of music though. What is a new song? What makes it new?

    But at the same time, I must agree. BEP are fucking swagger jackers.

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  7. Ali says:

    Music is eating itself. It’s like Remy said, everything is merely a reproduction of something else. There is nothing new being made. It is not that I am trapped in the past, but I absolutely detest it when every single song I hear today is something I have heard from the past. It’s sad.

    Good article.

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  8. forest whitaker's lazy eye says:

    Rémy, it’s time to write that article about the impending death of Hip Hop?

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  9. BM says:

    …or you could just turn off the radio Remy.

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