Command-C Composing

My attention has recently been absorbed to an unhealthy degree by this video. It’s difficult to encapsulate in any crude human language what’s going on, but if you’re reading this on a BlackBerry or something (presumably because you simply can’t be without NewMusicBox content, even for a moment) and aren’t able to view the video now, I’ll try. Someone has programmed an animatronic, anthropomorphic animal band from a pizza place to play Usher’s new single, “Love In This Club.” Each of the parts is “given”—the adaptation is relatively loose, a function of the animatronic’s limited articulation—to one of the band’s robot mammals/birds/celestial bodies. Assigning Young Jeezy’s typically guttural verse to a cat puppet operated by a wolf was an especially inspired move.

Thanks to several other YouTube videos, however, it quickly came to my attention that there’s more to “Love In This Club” than meets the ear—or, depending on your perspective, less. It seems that you can construct a perfect replica of “Love In This Club” using prefabricated loops from Apple’s GarageBand software. Having promptly deleted GarageBand as soon as I got my newest MacBook (to make room for my Style Council boxed set, natch), I can’t confirm this myself, but this video seems to offer strong evidence. Usher’s producer on this track, Polow da Don, has responded with some acrimony to these allegations.

What’s the big deal? To my knowledge, making a commercial track in GarageBand is not a violation of Apple’s terms of use. The loops Polow may or may not have employed are, I believe, royalty-free. So if it’s not illegal, is it just, you know, lame? Usher’s brand of R&B is only a skip and a jump from hip-hop, a musical context where appropriation of existing recorded material (for an example that raises hackles even among hip-hop literati, witness Kanye West’s “Stronger,” which avails itself quite transparently of highly characteristic and a virtually intact Daft Punk sample, as well as the original’s textual matter (!)).

The problem, I think, is that Polow’s use of a pre-packaged loop isn’t an investment of cultural capital, whereas a sample from existing music is. The use of a sample carries assurances that the producer knows the literature of sampleable music well enough to choose an appropriate one and can make use of the intertextual possibilities implicit in sampling to reinforce, problematize, or comment on the tune’s verbal content. On the other hand, fabricating one’s own beat from “scratch”—an admittedly artificial spectrum whose endpoints might be a) recording original music with acoustic instruments, à la The Roots, and b) making new pitch/rhythm/timbre combinations in a software synth like Reason—carries assurance of craft and originality. Using a loop from GarageBand carries only the assurance that you own an Apple computer, and if owning an Apple computer made you a talented, high-integrity artist, the world would be much richer in great art.

Like a hapless fly, poor Polow is stuck in a dense, complicated web of perceived authenticity values and cannibalistic production techniques. Fortunately, none of this should trouble you while watching a friendly gorilla pound out “Love In This Club” on an organ that flashes multicolored lights.

Bonus video: Speaking of appropriating Daft Punk, here’s Kevin Rowland from Dexys Midnight Runners singing over “One More Time” in a tent. Somebody write a thesis on this!

5 thoughts on “Command-C Composing

  1. Lisa X

    Strange to me that anyone cares, probably the same kind of folks who get all wrapped up in copyright issues, generally people who have never pushed on their fragile ideas about creative authenticity.

    A related video about Led Zeppelin’s habit of borrowing ideas:
    Rip-off Arists

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    Strange to me that anyone cares, probably the same kind of folks who get all wrapped up in copyright issues, generally people who have never pushed on their fragile ideas about creative authenticity.

    I’m not sure what you mean. Do you think there are no grounds for excoriating Polow, or do you think that whether or not he “stole,” in any legal sense, he should have at least gone through the motions of professional-level production? My feeling is that the standards of production authenticity against which someone like Polow is judged are thoroughly artificial and arbitrary, in case I didn’t make that clear.

    Also, for reals: Is that a genuine email address or something you cooked up just to register?

    Reply
  3. colin holter

    I Am Beary Sorry
    By the way, the above is a functional email address (unlike the one above my earlier messages). I will feel very sheepish if you or anyone else has tried unsuccessfully to contact me using my defunct UIUC address.

    Reply
  4. Lisa X

    Yeah, I think we agree, but what I’m saying might be broader. Musicians use all kinds of tools to make music. Some are crude and some are refined. Some are common and some are unusual. I’m almost sure we all agree that it is not necessary to use unusual and refined tools in order to make wonderful music. GarageBand is a crude tool. It shouldn’t be surprising that famous musicians often times like working with crude tools.

    Also, we might even think about the preset loops and sounds on GarageBand the same way we think about common rhythmic patters in allot of traditional percussion music, or typical chord changes in punk, or the instrumentation of a string quartet. They are absolutely predictable and banal but in no way condemn the music. Maybe the presets on GarageBand represent some sort of general consensus on a vaguely defined but real common practice.

    I can’t believe they haven’t made some sort of GarageBand/Guitar Hero hybrid yet. It could be for music what the printing press was for story telling.

    Reply
  5. philmusic

    One of the subtexts of commercial music is that:

    cheaper and faster = better!

    Phil Fried still trying to sell out–any offers?

    Reply

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