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.