If It Ain’t Broke, Remix It? Does Remixing Songs Ruin or Enhance Them?

It is inevitable that we find ourselves nostalgically yearning for the music of our adolescence— those songs take us back to our formative years, bringing up good (and sometimes bad) memories with them.  Many current movements in art, fashion, society, and music often reflect throwing it back to a time everyone insists was inherently “better.”  Even “Throwback Thursday” or “Way Back Wednesday” are things.  We’ve seen ‘70s boho style make a return just before overalls became a fad again (why?!).  We’ve seen Lady Gaga work with Tony Bennett, recording a classically styled jazz album as a nod to his career that began in the ‘50s.  Arguably, these are prime examples of remixes, as they are reimagining old ideas.  Have you ever heard a remixed version of an older song?  Did it make you cringe to hear how someone butchered a piece you consider a classic?  Or did you enjoy experiencing a fresh perspective on an old favorite?  We are all familiar with remixes (there is an infinite number of them floating around), but there seem to be two distinct camps: those who are pro-remix and those who are anti-remix.  There are an array of remix types out there: radio remixes and nightclub remixes are still prominent and have even evolved into an entire genre of mashup artistry (Girl Talk, anyone?).  Often, remixes were made in order to improve a song’s quality (for example, remastering older songs with modern technology for enhanced sound) or to extend the songs for nightclub use (this often involved adding longer intros and outros and a more infectious, throbbing dance beat to get the club going).  Sometimes, remixes were even pursued as a way to cross genre boundaries (i.e. a ballad transforming into an R&B beat).  Unfortunately, there are remixers out there who simply seek to capitalize on others’ work, infuriating artists and music lovers alike.  Are these people ruining the remix for everyone?  While a remix generally adds (and at times removes) pieces of a song to create a new audio collage, how can remixing be considered its own art form if it is borrowing from older material?  Why is there a grey area surrounding how remixers are viewed?  Let’s run through both sides of the argument, and you decide: if it ain’t broke, do we really need to remix it?

Before we get into it, I think it is important to distinguish the difference between a remix and a cover.  While it may seem obvious, covers often get lumped into the remix category since they are another artist’s reinterpretation of someone else’s original song.  The remixes I plan to discuss here do not include covers, as remixing utilizes previously recorded audio bits from the original song, whereas covers are entirely new recordings.  What seems to be enraging dedicated music lovers is the fact that amateur remixers are doing a shoddy job of tackling a famous artist’s song, then slapping their unknown name onto it in hopes of getting internet hits and attention.  It’s the idea that searching for your favorite artist will lead you to some crappy remix of their song that’s angering fans.  Instead of producing their own work, these parasite remixers are latching onto another artist’s creative success in hopes of getting their names out there.  Some cover artists fall under this parasitic category, as well, but that’s an argument for another day.  This begs the question: what makes these remixes so bad?  Obviously, there is an element of personal preference involved here, but overall the resounding answer seems to be that the crappy remix fails to keep the original heart and soul of the song intact.  A remix can wildly change the essence of a song or it can barely change it at all.  Drastically different remixes have a way of butchering the original.  Hardly changing a song yet calling it a remix feels phony and lazy.  A good remix falls somewhere in between the two, altering the original just enough to make it interesting and enjoyable while ensuring the song feels whole.  There is a fine balance between a remixer’s style and the intended emotion of a song— a respect needs to be maintained for the original and often this is lost.  Some in the anti-remix camp have even gone so far as to assert that remixers lack creativity and skill, considering their “art form” nothing more than copying.  But this assertion needs to be taken a step further: aren’t all ideas borrowed in some way, shape, or form?

In researching this debate, I stumbled upon a documentary on YouTube called “Everything is a Remix”, that states, “Copying is how we learn. We can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent in the language of our domain and we do that through emulation.”  The makers of this documentary encourage the act of remixing, considering it to be a creative skill in its own way.

When an artist remixes her own work, fans tend to encourage it, finding it interesting to see their favorite artist reimagining and readdressing an old project.  But when other remixers tackle someone else’s work, they are greeted with skepticism and placed under a microscope, often forced onto the defensive.  Can’t remixing be considered a creative dialogue of sorts?  A dance remix of a ballad can bring out elements of the song that seemingly went unheard, it can call forth hidden potentials of sound, and therefore encourage cross-genre collaborations between artists.  While copyright infringement cases are the norm these days, shouldn’t we be encouraging the sharing of talent and information between creative parties as long as both are respectful?  Remixing can bring together the original artist and the remixer, opening up a dialogue of creativity, and leading to epic collaborations.  Some artists are even taking this a step further by letting fans remix their work for free by supervising legal digital downloads of songs; Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Brian Eno, and David Byrne all at one point offered songs to fans for remixing purposes, as long as there was no intent to profit from the remixing.  These artists simply wanted to promote an exchange of ideas and sounds, seeing how people who know and love their music would take a crack at reinterpreting their original.  Obviously, where we run into trouble is when we try to profit off another’s work or plagiarize.  While we would like to believe that our favorite artists are 100% original, perfect, and creative in every way, almost every single artist acknowledges the influence of the musicians that came beforehand.  Our muses influence our style, creativity, and behaviors, so in theory, no one begins by being original.  Even Hunter S. Thompson re-typed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to get a feel for what writing an excellent, classic novel was like.  As the documentary points out, most, if not all, inventions are simply combinations of other inventions— parts put together to complete the whole.  Look at filmmaking: 74 out of 100 of the top grossing films are sequels, adaptations, or remakes.  Remixing is an inherent part of our culture, yet we either embrace it or condemn it.  We attack remixers for lacking creativity, but the documentary asserts: “Creativity isn’t magic.  It happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials.”  Obviously, remixing takes skill.  We know this because there are truly horrible remixes out there, and there are truly excellent remixes out there.  Being able to skillfully piece together an audio collage takes time, and an ear for quality.  In his article, “Remix Culture: Rethinking What We Call Original Content,” Matt Jessell claims, “Not only is remixing content equal to other processes of creation, but it can also have the added benefit of drawing on emotions and associations to enrich a message or point of view.” Jessell hits upon a valid point: remixing is its own type of creation, although it borrows from other source material— it can bring a point home even further.  If we combine Jessell’s comment with the ideas discussed in the “Everything is a Remix” documentary, we can reach the conclusion that while everything may be  borrowed, there certainly is skill in how you interpret it.  Creativity, therefore, lies within the reimagining.

So where do you stand?  Does remixing ruin songs or enhance them (or neither or both)?  While the anti-remix vs. pro-remix argument isn’t so cut and dry, perhaps we can learn to accept the notion that people will always want to make old things new again, and skillful remixing is an integral part of modern progress.

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