Scattered Thoughts About a Three- or Four-Year-Old Mash-Up

Listening to this song a few days ago, as I often do while editing narrative non-fiction for second graders about saving the environment, it occurred to me how cool it would have been if Jay-Z himself had the notion to sample “Bitter Sweet [sic] Symphony” while recording “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, if the above jam had happened not by mash-up but by Jay’s own will. And it occurred to me shortly thereafter what a weird thought that was. Why, after all, should it matter whose idea it was to sample the Verve, if the end product is (hypothetically) the same?

I suppose it’s because, as with most popular creative forms, the thought of authorship heavily informs how we receive pop music. With pop it may even be particularly hard to separate the art from the artist–think of listening to Plastic Ono Band without knowledge of John Lennon’s troubled life, or listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy without knowing what a living-in-public kinda mess Kanye is. The mash-up is an oddity in this respect, with so many of a song’s component parts having come preassembled. The work of celebrity mash-up artists such as Girl Talk notwithstanding, pop may have no subgenre less beholden to thoughts of the author.

“Dirt Off Your Shoulder/Bitter Sweet Symphony” confounds the who-is-the-author question more aggressively than even most other mash-ups. It’s a mutant song among mutant songs, one that combines with Jay-Z’s verses a sample from a song that itself appropriated a piece of music from a symphonic recording of a hit single by a canonical classic rock band (“The Last Time”, The Rolling Stones). And which has now been posted on YouTube by multiple users, most or all of whom are not the person who originally mashed up all these disparate elements. A few years old or not, this song is paradigmatic as fuck.

YouTube user sejt123456789, whose version I embedded up top, notably asks users to comment and rate his video. Which, yeah, is a common practice, but given the complex DNA of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder/Bitter Sweet Symphony”, it’s still important–sejt is claiming, if not authorship, than at least a form of ownership. At a time when people increasingly feel that all intellectual property belongs to everybody, songs like this one makes it easy to believe that’s so.

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