On Pitchfork’s Top 500 singles of the decade list, Freelance Hellraiser’s “A Stroke of Genie-us” ended up at number 76. That’s actually 11 points higher than it ended up on their half-decade list back in 2005. And on a subjective measure of musical merit, it probably doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near that high on either.
But somehow, it feels right too.
For all that the 21st century has offered us musically – and it’s a lot – what really hasn’t been brought to the table is a genre to call our own. The 1980s saw the rise of hip hop, 1990s had grunge and the rise of “alternative” music (in the modern sense). We’ve certainly had a strong “indie rock” culture, but musically it feels almost as if the definitive feature of the past decade has been intertextuality – a generation of musicians who succeeded by borrowing, aggregating and combining the sounds of those that came before them into something novel, but not really approaching something new.
Given this, there’s something fitting to the fact that the mashup may be this decade’s single most unique contribution to popular music.
Qualification necessary, of course: the mashup is obviously an extension of what hip hop and club DJs have been doing for decades. But something ephemeral, fleeting for a moment in a dance hall or concert room is very different than a static creation that can be shared, unaltered, from person to person, stereo to stereo. In that sense, the “mashup” as a persistent artistic creation could never have come to prominence in any other time before now. There were too many laws keeping sounds stuck in their original form, and too few actors with the tools and access needed to smash them into something new.
The Internet changed all that. Obviously.
Now, “A Stroke of Genie-us” is hardly the best mashup the decade created, nor was it the most successful; there’s a good case to be made for The Gray Album to take both titles and with one notable exception (we’ll get to him in a bit) Danger Mouse is the only mashup artist to turn an online novelty into an ongoing, famous career. But Freelance Hellraiser came first, and more importantly his song spoke to the crumbling critical divide between the pop charts and the basement record stacks. Would it have still been socially acceptable to have both The Strokes and Christina Aguilera in the same record collection had “Genie-us” not come along? Probably. But it sure as hell made it easier.
A good mashup succeeds in novelty, but a GREAT mashup succeeds through conversation. Whether it’s the symbolism of having the biggest MC of all time rap over the biggest band of all time, or the irony of having Enya combined with “Smack My Bitch Up but with the keyboards timed so right, there’s got to be more there than just two catchy tunes. The best mashups bring with them gravitas – a sense that you’re hearing more than just a bedroom DJ fooling around in Garage Band, but a conscious archivist who realizes the responsibility inherent in slamming people’s beloved soundtracks against each other.
This brings me to, of course, Greg Gillis aka. Girl Talk, who this week was announced as one of the marquee acts for the 2009 Halifax Pop Explosion. For all his hipster veneer, Gillis is a rather unpretentious live performer – he makes no apologies for his aim to throw the biggest party possible. But he’s no simple sensationalist. On the record, he aims to bring together hip hop and rock with a singular focus unseen outside of your old Run DMC records. Live, he knows his moment – at Osheaga, mere weeks after Michael Jackson’s death, he knew that we were all struggling with the King of Pop’s place in history, and he was determined to show us that he deserves to stand alongside anything that music history has thrown us.
It’s a mashup world out there. And everything is everything.