Taking Power from the Past
By Raizel Liebler
After Texan Brad Neely watched the first Harry Potter movie, he decided to DIY it into something new, writing and performing an alternate parody soundtrack that anyone can download and play while watching the movie. In his version, Wizard People, Dear Reader, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are alcoholics and Quidditch has homoerotic undertones. His new version has been shown at the New York Underground Film Festival and the San Francisco Indie Fest.
Using elements of others’ works can lead to new art, but it can also be seen as a form of poaching someone else’s creative output. Others believe that remixing culture is part of a vibrant new cultural movement. One of the strongest advocates for this movement is DJ/conceptual artist Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky).
Recently, DJ Spooky has been touring, presenting his video remix of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation called “Rebirth of a Nation.” DJ Spooky is part of a larger cultural context for remix culture. On his website (Djspooky.com), DJ Spooky explains that he created this new version to challenge the way people view the original film and history itself. While the original film is disturbing and racist, used as a propaganda tool by the Ku Klux Klan, DJ Spooky does not veer away from the artistic intensity of the original film. “Repressing memory is not a good way to make sure that we learn from the mistakes of the past,” he said in a phone interview.
“DJing helps people view collective memory, to help us understand how we create culture from digital memory. [Remixing culture helps us] to have tools to think of the present and to understand the past. The hardest part is for America to live up to its ideals…which is due to lack of awareness of history.” In addition to remixing Birth of a Nation, DJ Spooky has remixed the Blue Series, an influential jazz release, into Celestial Mechanix. He also plans to continue to remix films — his next film-based project is a remix of Nazi-era propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”
Remixes aren’t always done with artistic motivations, but can sometimes just serve as the results of a frustrated fan armed with video editing software. Many fans of the original Star Wars trilogy who had waited almost twenty years for more movies from George Lucas were disappointed with the new movies. One anonymous fan took action in 2001, by creating “The Phantom Edit” from the movie Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, by re-editing the movie, eliminating the reviled Jar Jar Binks character and focusing on action sequences. While DJ Spooky is able to re-edit Birth of a Nation any way he wishes because the copyright has expired, those remixing more contemporary work, such as the Phantom Editor, face a host of legal entanglements.
Fan-created film remixes allow individuals to have control when previously they could only be passive participants in their fandom — now they can remix their fandom into “perfection.” After all, what really makes film remixes different from adaptations — except that remixes are not always “authorized”?
Even more than video sampling, music sampling has become a ubiquitous part of our culture, but not without its own legal consequences. When the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique was released in 1989, it was considered a masterpiece of sampling, including over an estimated 200 samples. However, it took the Beastie Boys twelve years after the release of Check Your Head in 1992 to clear a six-second three-note sample of jazz flutist James Newton’s composition “Choir” used in “Pass the Mic.”
Once a composer of a song authorizes a recording, anyone can then record the same song — US copyright law does allow for “covering” an entire song. This is how Orgy was able to cover New Order’s “Blue Monday” in 1998. This is also why the profoundly creepy Kidz Bop CDs have all of your favorite adult-oriented and sexually suggestive songs sung by children, lyrics intact, such as Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” and Maroon 5’s “This Love” (“I tried my best to feed her appetite/Keep her coming every night/So hard to keep her satisfied” and “My pressure on your hips/Sinking my fingertips/Into every inch of you/Cause I know that’s what you want me to do”). What this means is if Joe Blow’s punk band records a whole album of MC5 covers, the music publisher is required to give them clearance — as long as the band pays for it.
This leaves artists in the peculiar position of seeing their entire compositions redone by others without their permission, but still able to keep others from using small parts of the whole. While sampling has become accepted as a form of cultural remixing (if the right people are paid), mash-ups have become controversial.
The latest form of sampling, mash-ups, layer or twine two different songs, often of differing genres, together. Mash-ups are different from traditional sampling because they often layer two or more complete songs, rather than using small portions of a song. Most mash-ups are not legal; however, mash-ups are all over peer-to-peer networks and remix websites. Fans and DJs have created these new songs for a variety of reasons, but originally there was no commercial potential due to potential copyright issues.
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