Friday, February 17, 2006

Tangled Thinking

It comes as no surprise to me to learn that the unconscious mind is better at making complex decisions than the conscious. It has been my belief for a while now that our brains make use of quantum effects, and this piece of research fits right in with that.

We know that quantum objects can become 'entangled' for extended periods of time, which essentially means that the concrete outcome of their interaction is delayed until some macroscopic 'measurement' is made. (If this sounds vague, that'll be because it is. These effects are well known, but as yet have no proper theory to explain them.)

To me, some types of thinking, especially the unconscious, feel a lot like that. We all know the experience of waking in the morning with the answer to yesterday's unsolved crossword clue there in our minds. This research has confirmed experimentally that it really does pay to "sleep on it".

It seems our brains have two distinct modes: one which functions somewhat - possibly exactly - like a very complex computer program, following logical pathways; and a more mysterious one which is responsible for more creative thinking. It has already been shown (by Gödel in 1931) that human brains are smarter than algorithms, since we can perceive true statements which would bamboozle a computer - although the Strong AI crowd would like to pretend this isn't so. I can't help feeling that the difference has something to do with quantum entanglement, and its ability to hold contradictory states in tandem for extended periods, before "collapsing the wave function".

Maybe one day they'll make a true Quantum Computer, which can actually emulate these effects. Until then, I fear we're going to be stuck with plastic pals who are about as much fun to be with as Word's dancing paperclip.

Monday, February 13, 2006

It's All Mixed Up

(the complex joy of mashups)

It's fitting that, on the mashtastic album American Edit, Dean Gray (Party Ben and Team 9) chose to include a tribute to the KLF. An unlikely collision of the Glitter Band's "Rock 'n' Roll" with the Doctor Who theme made "Doctorin' The Tardis" a mashup in all but name: it had the power to startle, the merry absurdity, kitsch factor, lawsuits, everything. And it was a hit single! In these ultra-litigious times, when a gratis recording is banned* for infringing the copyright of supposed punks, it's unlikely we'll see "Doctor Who on Holiday" (which, naturally has Green Day thrown in — a mashup of mashups) or American Edit's standout, "Boulevard of Broken Songs", on Top of the Pops. I mean, good luck to Go Home Productions, whose sublime "Rapture Riders" has been sanctioned for release by both Blondie and the Doors, but given the industry's unillustrious history of co-option I think I'd prefer it if mashups remain underground and illegal.

For Mashup is the most optimistic art form of our age; the first hopeful thing to appear in music in a long, turgid while. Simultaneously nostalgic and adventurous, it exposes for ridicule pop's ugly guts while celebrating its gustiness, its jouissance. Who knew that Beyoncé Knowles would make a better Fugazi front person than Ian Mackaye? Or that "I Want to Dance with Somebody" and "Teenage Kicks" were basically the same song? At its most astonishing, Mashup is like reaching into two noxious shitpits and pulling half a shooting star from each. The right combination of the tired, the cheesy, the malfunctioning; the overcooked or half-baked; the overfamiliar or surprising can transcend Pop's predictable patterns, even as it reveals them.

The first bootleg that really caught my ear was a track called "A Stroke of Genie-us": a pure mashup of Christina Aguilera and the Strokes. Like many other startled onlookers, I was fascinated how enjoyable I could find a combination of two artists, neither of whom I like separately. Aguilera's drunken melismas, shorn of accompanying treacle, sat perkily alongside a functional guitar and drumbox chug. What was going on? I dove in: at first the high seas of p2p fuelled my new hunger, but it transpires you can find most mashups on the open web. Just grab Google and go! (There is a great deal of other music just lying around on websites, too. These pages explain how to find it.)

Now a mature area of exploration (you can tell this by the way some one-time fans are sounding its death knell), the mashup naturally takes various forms. If there were a bootleg folksonomy, I would give every tune at least one of these four tags: pure, dance, comedy and rescue.

Pure mashups combine precisely two songs — vocals from one with the music of the other (save for the traditional final reveal of the original vox). Dogmé-style purists insist on no sneaky key- or tempo-changes, but really: who cares, so long as it works? The best I have heard of this type is TimG's "Teenage Kicks with Somebody", which matches Whitney's cadences to the Undertones' absolutely perfectly — she even scats along nicely with the guitar solo — culminating in a neat de-naffification of the cheesy closing chords.

Dance mashups are, at their worst, little more than what jobbing DJs have been doing for years: sliding two or more similar tunes together subtly enough to leave clubbers undisturbed in their footsteps. Personally, I have no need to hear the riff from "Teen Spirit" whirled into another anonymous House track, and this type of mashup usually ends up in my recycle bin.

The comedy mashup is audio satire, and loveable for it. Most good mashups raise a chuckle, but to hear 50 Cent's "In Da Club" set to the Benny Hill theme tune is freedom from ever having to take the overhyped goon seriously again.

Rescue mashups, though, are probably the pinnacle of the Art. As with the Redemptive Cover Version (see: Red House Painters), here the mashup DJ is doing us all a favour, binning Britney's producer (or whoever), and exploring more outré sonic backdrops. Madonna is a major beneficiary from this, particularly her dreadful "Music", which has been rescued more times than Peter Mandelson. "I Hate Music" uses the Hives' ripoff of Blur's ripoff of Pavement to good effect, while "Wild Rock Music" chucks "Born to be Wild" and an Apollo 440 track into the mix so gleefully even I want to dance. (Please don't mention the Abba thing. Can you really mash yourself up? Of course not.)

One of the greatest gifts of this movement is a perspective on where Rap, Rock and R'n'B are at in the Twenty-First Century — their strengths and weaknesses. Take Queens of the Stone Age, for example. Failing to produce a hummable tune hasn't prevented them from becoming the motor force behind many a saccharine warbler, to the improvement of both. And while we may charitably assume Eminem's producers decided to showcase the greatest poet of our age with the dumbest of musical clichés because they felt his rhymes needed no more than the bare minimum to shine, we know there can always be more — as evinced by his numerous rescue mashups, most notably TimG's masterful and moving "Eagles in my Closet". And now we know why the soul divas of today can't cut it like Aretha: it's the horrid fake strings and lite drum samples, stupid. Underpin 'em with a bit of savage rockery and they soar. My decades of Soul-fear are over, thanks to a man with Soundforge on his desktop.

For a long time little more than club-footed leeches, DJs have finally found their purpose. Some folks still appeal for them to spin one track at a time, but if this is sacrilege, why did the Doors stamp so hard on a highly lucrative ad deal, but give GHP the green light to fuck with Morrisson's memory? It's not just the cachet. Something has changed about our perception of the past. An unhealthy reverence has been overturned. I knew this bubble had burst when I first heard Scissor Sisters' cover of "Comfortably Numb" (a song whose original I adored) not with anger, but with a grin on my lips. Missy Elliot working for Joy Division? The Beatles driven to Belinda Carlisle? Kraftwerk digitally blended with Coldplay? "Blame it on the Boogie" clashing with "Should I Stay or Should I Go"? Basement Jaxx sleeping with REM? Portishead manacled on Black Sabbath? You know it makes sense.

It's not the Sixties any more, or even the Eighties. (Someone wake the Kaiser Chiefs, would you?) In the absence of much really forward-looking musician-made music, this truly postmodern form is currently our best chance of breaking from the straightjacket of genre and finding something better in which words, melody and rhythm are imprisoned together on a Celebrity Desert Island, and have to co-operate to escape. Musicians, stop footling in the foothills and find your feet! Pop, tuck your shirt in: your guts are hanging out.

Mashup isn't dead, but it's not the End Of Music either, just one big "Intro Inspection" (look it up), ushering in a new era of better band music. Well I certainly hope so. But even if it isn't, there's no doubt it's the best new fun we've had in a long while.

* Of course, one of the best things about the internet is that — at least until Google fucks it up — there is no "banned".

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Britain's 100th Dead Perp

... but they're calling him a victim. A few thoughts spring instantly to mind:

  1. If you sign up for the army, you're putting yourself – quite literally – in the firing line. You can't turn around and whine, "I never knew there'd be a war! You didn't say I might die!"

  2. Everybody I know thought this was a stupid, unjustified and probably illegal war, with a near-certain messy outcome, before it had even started. What do you think that protest was about? If over a million people actually marched, it's likely that many times that agreed with the marchers, and it's a reasonable bet some of the dissenters were soldiers. Why, with the noble exception of Malcolm Kendall-Smith, did they all meekly assent to fighting such a war? Fuck military discipline! It's just a job. Quit and be a poet.

  3. Only a hundred? How many violent Iraqi deaths have there been since the war? A darn sight more than that. Apparently those people don't count. Nor, of course, do the ones – the many thousands – who died during our invasion. Some of them were soldiers, too.

Please, people. Heads out of the sand. A human is a human, no matter where they live. And armies are not a force for good.