Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: That’s What Lessig’s Perfect Remix Is Made of

Back in high school before I came into my musical own, I didn’t understand the appeal of remixes.  My thought was, “Why tamper with a song that’s already great on its own?”  I especially couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of remixing a dance song because doing so seemed redundant: how could a dance song possibly get any dancier or a pop song sound any poppier?  My younger self was clearly a subconscious yet nonetheless firm believer in the “Read/Only” (RO) culture that Lessig attempts to extend in Remix.

As an avid connoisseur of remixes nowadays, I can say with conviction that not all remixes are created equal, that chances are a “majority of remix, like the vast majority of home movies, or consumer photographs, or singing in the shower, or blogs, is just crap” (Lessig 92).  Lessig is right in his assertion that very little follows from this criticism, but I would also stress how crucial it is for us to be aware of how much such a criticism sounds like and essentially is a value judgment, one that is undeniably subject to our individual, capricious tastes.

What I’m unsure of, though, is how self-aware Lessig is of how his own value judgments cloud his argument as he tries to parse out the “differences in value” among remixes, value he qualifies with the rhetorical question, “Is it any good?” (90) His bias is especially apparent, not to mention problematic, when he argues in favor of remix: “I want my kids to listen to SilviaO’s remix of fourstones’ latest work—a thousand times I want them to listen. Because that listening is active, and engaged, far more than the brain-dead melodies or lyrics of a Britney Spears. Her work draws on nothing, save the forbidden and erotic” (95).

Yes, not all remixes are created equal—that fact seems self-evident.  But what makes SilviaO so special, and what is it about her remixes that warrant “active and engaged” listening?  And more to the point: what should a remix have to do, say, be, or sound like in order to foster the kind of listening that Lessig advocates?

And besides, what’s so bad about Britney??

Although Chris Crocker’s impassioned outcry for greater respect for Britney dates back to her Blackout era drama, his sentiments nonetheless apply here as well (especially since Remix was published within a year of the album’s original release).

I’d argue that Lessig’s praise for SilviaO stems from his implicit (explicit?) approval of her involvement with Creative Commons because it shows that she takes an active role in generating creative communities.  But I’d strongly disagree with his implication that “popular” music, with all of the ideological and linguistic issues that Stuart Hall once critiqued intact, like Britney Spears can never be generative, that we should therefore automatically relegate it to a passive, RO listening experience.  Not to mention how Britney Spears is an entirely different kind of artist/chanteuse than is SilviaO.

Such an implication on Lessig’s part ignores a crucial trend in remix culture, one that can be gleaned from even a cursory glance at iTunes: pop music is one of the most heavily remixed genres.  And just like every remix is not created equal, neither does every remix set out to achieve the exact same project.

Because every artist cannot or does not want to be SilviaO or Girl Talk, then, Lessig’s argument begs the question of what needs to be at stake in a particular remix for it to demand our critical attention and thus enable it to transcend the realm of RO culture and enter that of RW.


7 thoughts on “Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: That’s What Lessig’s Perfect Remix Is Made of”

  1. connoisseur, chanteuse, capricious: such delectable words.

    Ahem. Back to it.

    I admire how you brought our attention to the value-laden assumptions Lessig makes about “good” vs. “bad”, inspired vs. crappy. Lessig himself links college writing to other forms of remixes (and is none-too-positive about student writing!). “For again, like the Internet, the vast majority of what student’s write is just crap (trust me on this one)” (93).

    It strikes me that, in thinking through issues of copyright, we have put such a huge premium on PRODUCT without much thought about PROCESS. Which is a significant problem, because as writers and instructors ourselves, and I could be wrong here, our work manifests in the process, the steps, the path we make. It’s not encapsulated in a solitary product.

    This doesn’t mean that we should avoid assessing or making value judgments, like you point out; but we shouldn’t unthinkingly accept this paradigm without trying to maintain some level of awareness that seeing the end product of creation (song, video, piece of art, essay, poem…) only reveals part of the story. And by fixating on the need to parse out what’s “new” and what’s “old”, we’re missing the boat entirely.

    1. Janel, I really appreciate how you’ve brought this discussion back/into the first-year writing classroom! I always struggle to balance an emphasis on process and product, keeping Donald Murray in the back of my head chastising me when I veer off course. But even if we monitor peer review sessions in class, give our students requirements for revision and even have them hand in that work, and comment on rough drafts, it’s impossible to be privy to the entire process that goes into creating the product that we grade. We’d have to record our students composing in computer labs, dorm rooms, benches, and homes to get a better sense of their process—and really I’m just not comfortable with that (and I can’t imagine our students would be either).

      But this is especially true for remixes: we lose the entire process and are left with only the final, mastered, “mixed” version of that remix.

      Perhaps we can start petitioning remixers to record and release the entire process that goes into a “proper” remix. I’ll call dibs on contacting Calvin Harris! 😉

  2. I think this is related to a theme that we’ve been flirting around with all semester: our ideas are built by the cultures we inhabit and then these ideas become cultural products (in a sort of circular form). Is there any “pure” music or “pure” idea? No. Even Marx and Engel’s economic system was based on historical ideas, cultural ideas, and other economic theories.

    And if everything is a remix, then perhaps nothing is, in fact, really a remix.

  3. I will echo Chris Crocker here. I agree with you – I thought that was such a needless value judgment to make (at the same time, I’m all about no guilty pleasures when it comes to any artistic production. If I like it, I like it. I actually marathoned Britney videos on youtube just a couple weeks ago). I feel like in all the texts we’ve read this semester, there’s a tendency to demonize the old in order to talk about the “new” (however new these elements of digital culture and writing are). While I don’t like that, I think it is partially due to where these books fit into the conversation, and their general audiences.

    Davidson, for instance, clearly wanted to write about education. Yet, the quick review on the front cover only mentions her discussion of neuroscience (the part of her text most of us found to be limited).

    Baron beats us over the head with discussions of writing technologies.

    Standage throws television completely under the bus to prop up social media.

    And now we’re at Lessig, who, in this moment, starts questioning the value of popular music in order to elevate the value of remix.

    I think all of these approaches have their limits. At the same time, they suggest to me a cultural environment in which bold, broad claims are the only way to get attention. It suggests almost an overcorrection to generate a reaction – start a large conversation – from which individuals (or digital writing classes!) can start to break down the discussion and introduce multitudes of complexities.

    1. Caitlin,

      Your point is extremely well taken; I hadn’t considered the various “issues” in these texts as generative, although clearly they have been – not just for class discussion but for these blogs posts and the various media assignments we’ve completed thus far (ahem: mine and Callie’s collab, for instance).

      I think what I’d like to see, though, is these authors actually admitting to the fact that they absolutely need to make such sweeping generalizations and to paint with a roller rather than a fine-tipped brush in order to “startle” the digital media/composition conversations to let them in. If anything, I’d be MORE inclined to, at least temporarily, buy into what they’re saying and view them as credible if they made this kind of concession.

      Also, even though we’ve been totally dismantling our notions of genre (which I appreciate to the fullest!), could we say that the label “guilty pleasure” is in some way not just a label but a “genre” as well? I’d argue that a handful of the videos on YouTube that go viral (like, say, Salad Fingers or Charlie the Unicorn) were more than likely created as guilty pleasures. And of course I in no way intend to use the phrase “guilty pleasure” to imply a value judgment, or at least a negative one! Clearly a video, as seemingly “mindless” as the ones I’ve just mentioned may be, needs to have some kind of “value” (re: a redeeming quality) to prompt such a viralization, even if that value is simply the ability to share it with friends at laugh at it together (or maybe even to co-opt it into our vernaculars, like Gab pointed out in her post)!

      1. Chris,

        This is in response to your desire for more openness in these authors’ “startle people into conversation with bold statements” (which are often too bold and unsubstantiated). You know, I think it would be totally possible to pull of a book based on a large, controversial statement, but there actually needs to be evidence and arguments. Most of the time, those bold statements end up serving only as a hook (“Look at me; I’m being dramatic!”) rather than a move toward substance.

        For example, I read a lot of analytic philosophy articles with David. These articles often make a large claim or introduce a striking question at the very beginning. Then the whole article (which is usually under 12 pages, because philosophers are great at keeping things short) is arguing, counter arguing, and responding to counter arguments (to several different levels). There’s no hiding behind the flashy rhetorical effects for them!

        One thing this kind of writing does is it makes one’s arguments really vulnerable to other peoples’ critical attention. I think a lot of writers are scared away from writing this way, because once we actually look at the structure of their claims, we might realize that all of their ideas are built upon a foundation of clouds which go back to “things I’d like to believe are true, thus I will interpret the world in one singular, idealized way and completely ignore any version of history that is not my own.”

        Thanks for letting me hijack your comments section with my own hobby horse. #sorrynotsorry

      2. I agree with you about the concessions 100%.

        And guilty pleasures as a genre – definitely an interesting idea. We will need to do some blackboard brainstorming to figure out its features. I always have Dave Grohl in mind when I think of guilty pleasures: “That whole guilty pleasure thing is full of fucking shit.” If Dave Grohl says so, then I believe it!

        More seriously though, I do think that they have value just as the “bad” remixes Lessig talks about have value. I will watch babies laugh or cats do cat things forever on youtube and I find that to be an extremely valuable part of my day (…maybe this comment isn’t “more seriously”…)

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