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Positive Feedback ISSUE 46
november/december 2009


From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: In Which we Learn About Girl Talk
by Clark Johnsen


RiP! A Remix Manifesto, A Film by Brett Gaylor. DVD available from $19.95

Music is back in the people's hands. - B. Gaylor

Oh, I just wanna hear girls talk. - Elvis Costello

After receiving a review copy of this DVD (a privilege of the scribbling class), naturally I inspected the source website. It was loaded with titles such as Disinformation World News: Invisible College, Hollow Earth, Alan Turing and More; Codex Alimentarius – The Plan To Outlaw Free Trade of all Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs and Supplements; War Made Easy; and The Lady Gaga Code. So I wrote the owner, "With so many other sites serving up subtle disinfo it's refreshing to find one that professes it." He replied, he had never heard that particular take before.

Gratified, I sat down to watch with no intention whatsoever of seeing the thing through to the end—anyway not without fast-forwarding. The notes had promised a film "exploring the complexities of intellectual property in the era of peer-to-peer file sharing." Oh. Well, shit, none of my own peers ever seem to care to share. Not like that, at any rate. Or, they're as unaware of modern life as I am.

Turns out, there are, ah, artists… artistes… who use others' art to create their own art through combination and recombination and endless riffing. And they call it music, and draw big crowds to concerts called mashups. Whoo-hoo! How little I knew. Now I am fully informed, thanks to Canadian filmmaker Brett Gaynor, after eighty-six minutes of nonstop pure cinematic joy (supplemented by ninety minutes of extras).

Love ya, man!

So much for girl talk. For now. That was just between you and me, ladies. And laddies—this is a laddie magazine after all. No offense, right?

OK: Mashup... remix... rip!... piracy!! Crime on the high seas, with sounds.

Cut: Here in Boston a college student is being sued by the Powers for $4.5 million for having downloaded thirty copyrighted tunes. One local band, Aerosmith, has joined the prosecution. I say, Dudes, don't walk this way!

But it's more insidious than that. Why, even a short passage, half a measure, a syllable, a freakin' note even that's been employed in a context outside the copyrighted original and incorporated into another composition, may be subject to litigation.

Found music? Apologies to Picasso, but ain't no such thing in the eyes of the law.

Cut: Consider the most famous single chord in musical history, the Tristan chord. Found (!) right in the beginning of Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, it created and defined late-Romantic chromaticism. The enigma of the harmonic ambiguities in the Tristan chord instantly became a major subject of scrutiny and imitation. And still today it intrigues the ear.

What if the Tristan chord had been defendably copyrighted?

We might not have had Brahms. Could Johannes have become so intimidated, he might never have dared assay his later, highly chromatic work? Schönberg too, in his early years, extended the Tristan chord and then founded a whole new genre of composition called the New Viennese School. Mahler, Bruckner and many more as well built on that chord.

While this particular point did not appear in the film, limited as it is to pop material, that chord's repercussions apply throughout musical history. And now we have the mashup. What's a mashup, exactly? Wikipedia: Though the term "bastard pop" first became popular in 2001, the practice of assembling new songs from purloined elements of other tracks stretches back to the beginnings of recorded music. If one extends the definition beyond the realm of pop, precursors can be found in Musique concrète, as well as the classical practice of (re-)arranging traditional folk material and the jazz tradition of reinterpreting standards.

Mashups have become a feature of today's musical life, wherein elements of previous recordings are arranged and orchestrated—and distorted—to a beat set by a programmer and computer. The, ah, composer... integrates all elements into a coherent whole that youth can dance to and do Ecstasy.

What's wrong with that? No one gets violent.

However: you may get sued.

Would that Wagner have had such great laws, eh?

He would have OWNED THAT CHORD!

And consequently have become litigious, in addition to being rather unpleasant.

Girls talk, they wanna hear how girls talk.

Ownership is the item here. Intellectual property, it's called. Don't get me wrong, I have some of my own that I'm reluctant to give away by publishing or disclosing it. Present copyright and patent practice does not really protect creators. Owners may litigate, but in the view of many (including this film's maker) they are but petty villains, given our society's current fascination for, well, mashups. One should also bear in mind Thomas Edison's enjoinder from well over a century ago: "A patent, simply gives you the right to sue."

RiP! conducts us on a trip, a romp really, through the obscure history of such activity and very entertaining this turns out to be, with cinematic, narrative and musical elements engagingly deployed. Did you know, Walt Disney was an early mashup artist? Yes! His first Mickey Mouse cartoons (Steamboat Willy) were copied from actual films. And yet, Disney Studios today are in the forefront of suppression of copyright "violations". Huh!

One of the Chatty Cathys of RiP! is artist Dan O'Neill, whose Air Pirate comix were detained by the Disney police way back in the Seventies for their re-presentation of the Mickey Mouse image. This resulted in formation of the Mouse Liberation Front. (The creators of Mickey Rat comix never faced the wrath of Walt, who wisely chose to minimize any publicity whatsoever for that seedy, alcoholic character.) Another Cathy is Harvard professor Laurence Lessig, who has given lectures on these topics. We also join him and O'Neill in conversation, with the latter picking banjo and playing piano while discussing his continuing legal difficulties. Very poignant.

Hey! Did you know? The tune of Happy Birthday to You is still under copyright too. Every time you sing it you may be subject to fines. Well, not exactly... but you better not put it in a film or on TV without paying. RiP! however dares to do just that. And hence explores, before our very ears, the uses of "fair use", a concept as elusive as the government's erstwhile "fairness doctrine" in broadcasting. The filmmaker has striven to exceed, albeit narrowly as possible, the constraints that subject him to criminal prosecution. We follow his logic in what becomes an amusing ramble through the legal system, including segments with, of all people, a sympathetic U.S. Registrar of Copyrights.

The film itself is something of a mashup, just as its creator clearly intended. Speaking from a technical (sonic and visual) point of view, results do vary. Some of the material comes in video low-rez, just like the MP3 music that drives the dancers. On the other hand, original portions are shot on a high-def videocam and these look great. The sound always comes across well. Great graphics too... and some of the cuts and juxtapositions are laugh-out-loud funny. Only towards the end, when the scene shifts to Rio, does it begin to drag a little—but the trip must have been a gas.

This Canadian filmmaker includes himself in several scenes and comes across charmingly. We like the guy. One only wishes he had said something about his own country's circumstances, where the content both of literature and film is subject to limits stricter than the USA's in several regards.

And they think they know how girls talk.

So, to wind up, is Girl Talk a crime? Girl Talk (now I'll tell you) is the actual protagonist of this film, a mashup musician name of Gregg Gillis. By day a harmless biomedical engineer in Pittsburgh, by night he attracts large crowds to his raves, where he usually ends up stripped down to shorts. To his credit no sequence is pre-recorded; every sample and loop is triggered by hand in the heat of the moment, although he does confess to rehearsing. He calls this presentation a "live collage". But he still gets sued. Is his activity a crime? It comes back to "fair use". How much is too much, how little is still illegal? And what if he had purchased the recordings and not merely downloaded them? To what uses is one then entitled?

On the other hand, the slogan "Music is back in the hands of the people" strikes me as fatuous. "The people" are as free to play and sing and dance as they have ever been. Karaoke, anyone?

This is a great movie, an unlikely, energetic and witty excursion (some of it conducted on the Disneyland rollercoaster) through the complexities of intellectual property and of ownership in general. As a documentary it ranks right up there with Supersize Me, Capturing the Friedmans and, yes, Gimme Shelter.

But should you buy this DVD?

Negative. I'll make you a copy. For free. So sue me, Brett.