The Reconfigurable Culture of Contemporary Music: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part Two)

Throughout, you suggest that the DJ is a particularly contested figure in contemporary music culture. Why? How does the DJ’s performance straddle some of the categories by which we’ve historically organized discussions of music-making?

I chose to interview DJs for this book because they were among the first people to cope with the destabilizing influence of configurability on our understanding of culture and society. They can’t help but break the rules, and they do it with such style!

Our understanding of music within the modern framework is characterized by stark black-and-white dichotomies, none of which existed recognizeably before a few centuries ago. Artist and audience are treated as separate classes of individual, architecturally divided by stage, pit, proscenium, and so forth. Performance and composition are understood to be entirely different roles in music production, with the intellectual, “white collar” labor of composition preceding and trumping the more physical, “blue collar” labor of performance. The difference between original and copy is key to our judgment of artistic merit, market viability and property rights. From a formalistic standpoint, figure and ground are fundamental to both musical meaning and copyright enforcement–the melody is generally far more highly prized than the mere “arrangement” that supports it. And the distinction between materials and tools is fundamental to our understanding of music as a commercial, industrial process–like any other product, music is understood to be mined, refined, packaged and sold.

Clearly, DJ music–in its many forms–challenges each of these dichotomies. The DJ is located firmly in the grey area between artist and audience. The acts of sampling, cutting, scratching and remixing can’t be easily categorized as performance or composition, at least not by the old definitions. While technically every sample is a copy of the work it was taken from, the resulting work couldn’t exist without original creative input from the DJ. The foreground of a sampled song may become the background of the remix, and vice-versa. And if we inspect a DJ’s laptop, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to say on the face of it which sound files and applications are materials, which are tools, and which are finished products.

The interesting thing is that, unlike the rest of configurable culture, DJs have already dealt with most of these inconsistencies, and developed ethical and aesthetic systems that take them into account. They haven’t thrown out the modern framework entirely, but neither have they given up on doing stuff that violates its basic principles. Their solutions to these problems, which range from elegant to kludgey to paradoxical, give us an interesting glimpse into how our society at large might solve the larger metaphorical and definitional problems it faces from configurability.

The DJ is also an interesting figure because it’s used, both linguistically and taxonomically, as kind of a negative category. Over and over, my interviewees would tell me: “oh, that’s not composition, it’s just DJing,” “that isn’t performance, it’s DJing,” “he’s more than a fan, he’s a DJ,” and “he’s not a musician, he’s a DJ.” And yet these same interviewees would often self-apply the term, using a nom-du-laptop like DJ Drama, DJ Food, DJ Axel, and so forth. In other words, they were self-identifying as “other than.”

Similarly, my interviewees often used a strawman they referred to as “some kid in his bedroom” (or a variation on that theme) to discuss a hypothetical music maker that didn’t rise to a requisite level of musicianship, artistry, or any given stratum of legitimacy. This was especially true of the music industry execs I spoke to, but also quite common among DJs themselves. It’s almost as though they needed the strawman to acknowledge that their methodologies are inherently suspect, thereby validating themselves in contrast to the proverbial “kid.” And yet, these same interviewees would often extol the virtues of “bedroom producing.” I challenge you to find a published interview with Danger Mouse (of Grey Album and Gnarls Barkley fame) in which he doesn’t use the word “bedroom” at least once.

To me, this strange admixture of pride and deprecation, otherness and selfness, is astoundingly reminiscent of the “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois described as the cornerstone of the African American experience–and, in fact, I’ve borrowed and mashed the term up in my book. To me, configurable culture is marked by “DJ consciousness,” a state in which we are all now required to see (and hear) ourselves simultaneously from within and without, as both subject and object. This has its benefits and drawbacks; gone is the privilege of pure subjectivity that once characterized the American (white) middle class experience. But what we are gaining in exchange is a broader set of communicative tools, a more modular creative economy, and, ultimately, a way out of the confining, atomistic vision of the individual that characterized modernity.

You note that the remix practices associated with music and technology are heavily coded as male. What would we learn if we examined them alongside characteristically female forms of remix, such as fanvids?

That’s a very interesting question. In our society, both musical production and computer hacking are traditionally coded as male, so configurable music comes to the table with a double-helping of sexist privilege. And, though I tried to develop a balanced methodology, nearly all of the DJs I was able to interview were men (although Mysterious D, one of the two women I spoke to, pulled far more than her weight in terms of pithy insight!).

In my book, I take this enduring disjunction as a sign that, although configurable culture may be changing our social expectations and parameters, it doesn’t wipe the slate clean. We will lurch into our collective future with many of our old biases and stereotypes intact, and maybe even pick up some others along the way (for instance, we have an ugly new stereotype in the form of the “booth bitch,” the woman who tags along and interferes with her DJ boyfriend at the club).

Yet, as you point out, many newer forms of digital fan culture and participatory culture are either coded female (e.g. slash, fanfic, fanvids) or are more balanced (e.g. AMVs, fansubbing, wikis). So there’s nothing inherently male-coded or sexist about configurability. If anything, I think that the challenges configurable culture poses to our traditional understanding of what’s known as the “modern individual” will undermine the male/female gender identity dichotomy much as it has opened grey areas between artist and audience, production and consumption, and so forth. If the mechanism by which we construct and perform our identity is becoming more multifaceted, plastic and permutable than it was in the past, it seems likely that our identities themselves will soon follow suit.

As Mysterious D told me, this blending of identity is, for her, one of the most important facets of mash-up culture. She sees her global mash-up dance club, Bootie, as one of the few places where people “that would never hang out together” can “have something in common.” And this covers the entire spectrum of party people: “gay, straight, alternative, mainstream, you know, the whole everything.”

I’m currently fielding a follow-up to the 2006 survey on configurable culture that provided some of the data in my book. When the results are in, my coauthors and I will definitely publish some findings surrounding gender, identity and emerging technologies. Among other things, we’ll test Mysterious D’s “whole everything” proposition against actual data trends. In the meantime, researchers like Mimi Ito, Nancy Baym, Eszter Hargittai and Steven Shafer have done some of the best existing work in this area, and I encourage any interested readers to seek them out.

Aram Sinnreich is a writer, speaker and analyst covering the media and entertainment industries, with a special focus on music. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Rutger’s School of Communications and Information. Named an “Innovator and Influencer” by InformationWeek, Sinnreich as written about music and the media industry for publications including The New York Times, Billboard, and Wired News, as well as academic journal American Quarterly. Sinnreich is the co-founder, with Marissa Gluck, of Radar Research LLC, a Los Angeles-based consultancy firm aimed at the nexus of media, technology and culture. As a Senior Analyst at Jupiter Research in New York for over five years (1997-2002), he produced research reports covering the online music and media industries and provided hands-on strategic consulting to companies ranging from Time Warner to Microsoft to Heineken. Sinnreich also writes and performs music, as bassist for groups including seminal ska-punk band Agent 99 (Shanachie Records) and dancehall reggae queen Ari Up (former lead singer of The Slits), and as a co-founder of NYC soul group Brave New Girl, jazz band MK4, and LA dub-and-bass band Dubistry. Sinnreich earned his B.A. in English at Wesleyan University, an M.S. in Journalism at Columbia University, and an M.A.and Ph.D in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles.

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