Monday, April 23, 2007

Covering Irony, the New Irreverent Mashup

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. It is an epistemological study concerned with the connection betwee sign and referent. The principles of semiotics gave birth to one of the most powerful film movements and tools - montage editing. A bit of a redundancy, montage editing makes editing the defining tool and aesthetic of film. While classical Hollywood editing strives to be invisible, to hide the artifice, montage editing does just the opposite. Montage works to show work. Jarring edits juxtapose two disparate images to create new meaning only understood by the comparison of two images.

The modern musical mashup seems like the obvious aural corollary. An artist takes two songs and in mashing them together juxtaposes their vocals, rhythms, and harmonies and creates something entirely new. But mashups are yesterday's musical zeitgeist. It was years ago that Danger Mouse was making New York Times headlines with his then groundbreaking Grey Album. And even The New Yorker jumped on and picked their favorite mashup hits.

But today, in the age of YouTube, it seems that the ironic and satirical cover is the way to make a musical statement. YouTube, designed for video dialog, has ushered in a new era of collaborative satire, criticism, and expression (potentially covered under "fair use" depending on your reading of the DMCA).

While YouTube is littered with teeny-boppers lip-syncing to the latest pop chart toppers there are some gems that take this medium to the level of art (and maybe Art). Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" is a prime example for both camps. The popular podcast sitcom The 'Burg did a great cover of Will.I.Am's booty bumper. The juxtaposition of the hipster's utter disdain for pop culture and the enthusiasm with which they mouth Fergie's words is hilarious but it isn't until Jed's entrance that things really get started. Apparently Fergie didn't find it funny, and it has been pulled from YouTube but it can still be found on The 'Burg's site.

More recently there was Alanis Morissette's cover and spoof of the original "My Humps" video. Without listening to the lyrics one might think that this was actually an Alanis song. But it is that discrepancy that reveals how ridiculous the lyrics really are. Still, she manages to make you smile as opposed to cringe as she moans "my hump my hump my hump my humps, they got yoooooouuu..." over a melodic piano.

This sort of ironic cover has been Ben Folds' bread and butter for some time. Applying his massive musical talent, Folds is able to reduce any musical composition down to it most basic elements. And when you strip away the produced beats and predictable cadence of an early Dr. Dre song what do you have left? A tale of misogyny, racism, and chauvinism! Ben Folds' cover of Dre's "Bitches A'int Shit" revels in the hateful language and casual violence, all the way down to the single's album art (which is available on iTunes). The YouTube version is complete with an entire bleacher section of strumming acoustic guitars as Ben Folds sweetly whispers into his mic "Tight than a mutharfucka with the gangsta beats, And we was ballin' on the muthafuckin' Compton streets." And to get meta, make sure you check out UC Berkley's DeCadence's cover of Folds' cover.

The ironic cover is a powerful musical tool. Moving songs across genres reveals a lot about the original song's composition and meaning that otherwise would not have been explored. Add links to your favorite ironic covers in the comments, but I think we've all heard the blue grass cover of "Gin and Juice."

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