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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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August252006

What Can Students Possibly Learn From Danger Mouse?

Today I’d like to talk about Jay-Z, Danger Mouse, Beck and Muppet Hunter D.

No, you haven’t gone to the wrong blog.

Even if you don’t know any of these names, I guarantee your students will. What they represent is a whole new way the public interacts with popular culture. And one day they may change how you teach as well.

For decades, media was consumed in a very uneventful way. You would watch a movie, listen to a song. Nothing was expected of you, as least not creatively; all the work was done by the producers and the artists involved in making the product. Once the work was complete, the public would buy it, consume it. Apart from perhaps the exchange of money, the whole process was a one-way transaction.

Starting in the 1980s, hip-hop artists came along with a whole new perspective. Rather than perform the instruments themselves, they would “sample” bits and pieces from other’s people’s music and incorporate them into their new work. Many critics lambasted sampling as a form of stealing - the illicit procurement of someone else’s creative talent just to build something on top of it. In some cases, it was indeed stealing in the sense that they didn’t license the work for an appropriate fee, leading to lawsuits. But even when all the lawyers had done their jobs and a hip-hop artist had paid for the use of certain samples, it was often dismissed by naysayers as cheating: you couldn’t make new music by stringing together bits of old music. Even though composers have copied and paid tribute to each other for hundreds of years, the idea of appropriating the actual recording of someone else’s work troubled many people.

Then digital media changed everything. As the years went by, it became easier and easier for people to make their own digital copies of music or video and re-edit them. And as bandwidth became plentiful, you could also upload your work and share it with others. People began experimenting with all sorts of cultural content, often taking two works that were totally different in style and substance and mashing them together. The resulting work wasn’t just the sum of its parts; it was a new creative work in its own right. The mashup was born.

Perhaps the most famous mashup in the music world is a collection of songs mashed together by a young man who goes by the name Danger Mouse. An avid fan of all types of music, he had an enormous record collection, including the Beatles’ White Album, as well as the Black Album, a hip-hop record by the artist Jay-Z. Two albums that are about as different as, well, black and white. For some people, the two albums didn’t deserve to be in the same room together, but to Danger Mouse, they were a creative opportunity just waiting for the right person to figure it out. He recently told the story to the New York Times:

So I’m listening to the White Album and I’m putting The Black Album away, and I suddenly have this idea: I decide to see if I could take those two albums and make one song, just because of the names of the two albums and because they’re perceived as being so different and because I’ve always loved Ringo Starr’s drum sound. I sat down and tried to make one track, and it happened really fast. Then I tried to make a second song, and it took a lot longer, but it still worked. And I thought, Wow. What if I can do the whole album? It was almost this Andy Warhol moment, where I made a decision to do something artistically without a clear reason as to why, except to show people what I could do….

Before long, he had a collection of tracks that he called, appropriately enough, The Grey Album. He couldn’t release it commercially because he didn’t have permission from the Beatles’ music publisher, but that didn’t stop him from sharing it with his friends online. Word began to spread, and suddenly, millions of people were downloading it. Music magazines around the world declared it as the best album of 2004 - even though it was never commercially released.

Danger Mouse is just one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of young people who spend their free time making mashups. In general, Hollywood and the music industry have a hard time dealing with it, because they focus so much of their energy on copyright and licensing. In the mean time, countless local artists are releasing their work on Creative Commons licenses that are designed to encourage people to re-use and re-edit it. Just this week in Wired.com interview, the alternative artist Beck talked about his next album, which in many ways won’t be an album in the usual sense of the word. Instead, he hopes it’ll be a collection of content - modularized tracks, loops and clips - made available online. He’s talking about turning to the public to mash it up for him, creating countless versions of each song, producing home-grown videos on sites like YouTube.com, even getting members of the public to design their own album covers.

“There are so many dimensions to what a record can be these days,” he told Wired. “Artists can and should approach making an album as an opportunity to do a series of releases - one that’s visual, one that has alternate versions, and one that’s something the listener can participate in or arrange and change. It’s time for the album to embrace the technology.”

And it’s not just music that’s being transformed by mashup culture. The growth of video-sharing websites and video editing tools has led to an explosion of countless video mashups. In some ways, video is the perfect medium for mashups, because the juxtaposition of sound and images allows you to convey humor, irony, even political commentary. Among the many video mashups that have made their way around the Internet is a fake duet of George W. Bush and Tony Blair lip-synched to the song, “Endless Love.” Another Internet favorite, Muppet Hunter D, features the music of the beloved Jim Henson program matched with a dark Japanese anime film.

All of these mashups have several things in common. First, they demonstrate an enormous range of resourcefulness and creativity, mixing up things that no one in their right mind might otherwise mix together, like a cadre of pop culture Dr. Moreaus. Second, they require an impressive array of media skills. Not only do you need to know how to use various types of editing software, you also need to have the creative acumen to recognize when two or more things might mix together in an interesting way, and why that’s the case. Muppet Hunter D wouldn’t be as hilarious if it were a collection of muppet songs mixed with other puppets, nor would it work if it were a collection of anime scenes mixed with Japanese pop music. The video works because of the irony, because of the absurdity of it all. Meanwhile, you need to storyboard it, develop the plot, construct it, edit it, re-edit it, perhaps even striking compromises if it’s a team effort. All skills a student could put to use in other contexts, from school to working environments.

Having watched mashup culture grow to what it’s become today, I can’t help but wonder how all of this should have a role in the classroom. Whether you realize it or not, there’s a good chance that some of your students have already made their own mashups. In the same way that teachers are now exploring other forms of originally produced student media, it seems natural to me that there’s a place for mashups as well, given the enormous amounts of audio and video available over the Internet. And with the growth of Creative Commons, copyright is no longer the stumbling block it once was. More and more high-quality content is being placed online, ripe for the taking, without fear of licensing or lawsuits.

Education blogger Josh Thomas pondered the possibilities earlier this summer in response to a piece I posted on my personal blog:

What would a mash-up of MLK and JFK sound like? What about Nixon and MLK? or Dvorak and the Dixie Chicks? What about Beethoven and Biggie? The examples I’ve chosen would probably be awful. But maybe not. Not in the right hands, the right voice. Or from the right story teller. Literate individuals can absorb information in whatever its language (binary, English, mathematical symbols), decipher it, validate it, reflect on it, synthesize it with other information and communicate something of value back about it. Reading and writing are only parts of the equation. Seems to me that mash-ups might prove to me a highly advanced example of literacy.

Like Josh suggests, mashing up the Dixie Chicks with Dvorak might be a terrible idea. But given the right educational context, as well as the right hands and the right voice, such a mashup could turn out to be something educational and powerful. Or mashing up speeches of current political leaders with historic leaders, to demonstrate how politics change - or stay the same. In the right hands and in the right context, I’m sure that mashups could serve as a powerful educational outlet. The question is, though, how many educators are willing to try it? Will next year’s Danger Mouse, political humorist or cultural critic become famous because of skills she learned in school, or because she hunkered down with friends on her home computer? And do schools have the time - or the inkling - to care either way? -andy

Filed under : Youth Media

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