“These guys are from England and who gives a shit?” Casey Kasem exhorts after flubbing the name of Irish rock group U2. That’s just one of the sounds—sampled, found, manipulated, re-composed—heard on Negativland’s U2 EP. Some others: the Saturday morning countdown host angrily yelling about a sad dedication to a dead dog right after “an uptempo fucking record,” random expletives from Kasem woven into the song’s instrumental bed, the familiar strains of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” picked apart, overlaid with video game sounds, and that longing-filled melody performed on budget synthesizers and a kazoo.
With all that willy-nilly sampling and the U2 EP‘s CD art (the name U2 taking up most of the cover, the word Negativland hiding at the bottom), the rock group’s label, Island Records sued Negativland and SST Records (who released the EP) for copyright infringement. The lawsuit, which maybe had a shot in court under the argument of “fair use,” never got that far because SST agreed to Island’s demands immediately. Part of those terms: The legal onus would mostly fall on the Bay Area sound pranksters themselves and not SST.
This misadventure in sampling and copyright violation is the basis for Craig Baldwin’s Sonic Outlaws. In addition to Negativland, Baldwin profiles irreverent video and audio collage creators The Tape Beatles; The Barbie Liberation Front, who switch the voice boxes in talking Barbie dolls (so that Ken says what Barbie should say and vice versa) and then place them back on store shelves, and The Emergency Broadcast Network, proto video mash-up artists who ultimately end up working on U2’s lamestream culture-jamming approximation, the ZOO TV Tour.
Yes, at the same time that Island records sues Negativland, Emergency Broadcast Network is hired by U2 to conceptualize their live show which is based around the concept of manipulating live satellite footage (read: other peoples’ copyrighted material). The Negativland vs. U2 tale though, grows even more absurd when two members of the group contrive to interview U2’s The Edge for a magazine and politely but aggressively confront the guitarist about the lawsuit. The Edge, pretty much railroaded here but affable and reasonable, admits the the law suit seems pretty silly, but adds that by the time the band was aware of it, the wheels were already in motion.
The debacle lends credence to Sonic Outlaws‘ larger point: copyright law doesn’t protect all creative types, only those with the money to battle the courts. And so, U2 and their hired subversives, all under the umbrella of Island Records, were big enough to get away with copyright infringement because they could fight it (if anyone were to even attempt to sue them), while Negativland, who weren’t generating very much income at all, were nearly ruined.
Since 1995, this culture-jamming impulse has only increased. Leaps in technology have made what Negativland do more easily accessible and mash-up culture is no longer “underground” but well, everywhere. The desire to “go viral” dominates advertisers and artists alike, and sampling isn’t relegated to hip-hop and the avant-garde but another tool of pop radio. That Casey Kasem freak-out tape is played on morning zoo radio shows when they go to commercial. A street artist like Banksy makes millions. Indeed his film Exit Through The Gift Shop owes a great deal to Sonic Outlaws in how the shared topic of DIY creativity informs their own making, and in the shared feeling that the lunatics are now running the asylum.
Most of us now behave like the members of Negativland. The Internet has democratized creative expression, providing everyone the chance to become mash-up artists. At times, even the most naïve are confronted with the absurdities of copyright. YouTube is a wildly popular website founded and still mostly fueled by copyrighted material posted without consent. But the site is beholden to the whims and demands of the film and record industry: footage of a child’s birthday party with some pop song blasting in the background, if the fidelity’s clear enough, could be picked up by You Tube’s bots and tagged as a violation. One of the most fascinating responses to this take-no-prisoners approach is that often, people who upload say, a favorite song, along with a poignant still image or brief video clip will pitch-shift the song ever-so-slightly to avoid bot detection.
Head on over to Tumblr.Com, an armpit of teenaged over-sharing, but also a place of genuine creative expression. Within seconds, you’ll be overwhelmed by manipulated images from the news, ridiculous juxtapositions (recent favorite: Pairing Queen Elizabeth’s all-yellow royal wedding outfit next to Jim Carrey’s banana-colored “Cuban Pete” suit from The Mask), and hundreds of animated GIFs, which capture a series of images from media, shoddily animate them and free them of their context. Other Tumblr users see these GIFs and then post them on their own Tumblr, and the GIF expands, re-post by re-post, sometimes attached with an observation or another image. From the start, the GIF is separated from it’s broader context, but even the animator slowly loses control of their little “creation.” Negativland and Craig Baldwin would be proud.
Brandon Soderberg is a critic and writer based in Baltimore, MD. He writes a weekly hip-hop column for Spin.com and has contributed to The Village Voice, Pitchfork, Baltimore City Paper, and the Independent Weekly.
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