In his recent book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, British-born writer Simon Reynolds laments what he believes is the lack of creative originality in contemporary popular music. He compares what he perceives as the debilitated state of today’s sounds to the toxic instruments of financial piracy that nearly collapsed the global economy: “music,” he writes, “has been depleted by derivativeness and indebtedness.”
And yet one might note the irony that Reynolds himself initially emerged as a champion of English punk, a musical form that leapfrogged back over the stylistic excesses of glam, disco, and arena rock to mine the lode of romantic primitivism that fueled skiffle and the thrashier proponents of beat, in particular groups like Them, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds. What’s more, the subsequent style Reynolds lionized, rave, is even more obviously built upon a preexisting foundation, pilfering tracks from a variety of sources, which are sampled, looped, and mashed-up into collages of sound.
That this is pretty much the way that popular music, and indeed much of art, both high and low, has long been made is obvious to Kembrew McLeod and Rudolf Kuenzli, who have put together the collection of essays, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law (Duke University, 2011). As befits its subject, the book brings together a broad range of contributors, from highfalutin academics to cutting-edge (no pun intended) street-level remixers, who reflect on a plethora of creative practices in all manner of media and genres.
An idea underlying the book is that the process of exchanging, altering, and assimilating information is and always has been central to humankind’s conscious being in the world. Natural scientist Richard Dawkins terms the basic unit of information exchange the meme, which is to culture what the gene . . .