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January 21, 2003

Appropriation Takes It Up a Notch


I was quite intrigued to read Jennifer Ordonez’ story in the Wall Street Journal of January 21 about a music producer known as 7 Aurelius. Mr. Aurelius (who started out in life as Marcus Vest) is a hot producer who co-wrote and co-produced songs that were No. 1 on Billboard’s singles chart for 23 weeks in 2002. He is now attempting to cut a $10 million deal with a record company to create his own label, and to raise his profile, has embarked on a publicity campaign featuring, oddly enough, himself. As Ms. Ordonez remarks:

Not too long ago, musicians were the stars of the music business. Producers, with rare exceptions, labored behind the scenes. But these days a new breed of producer has learned to spin hit-making acumen into fame, fortune and influence, sometimes rivaling the performer at the microphone. Part of the reason is that the music industry is desperate for hits…producers who consistently please fickle audiences get supersized deals from hit-hungry record companies and often command hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few days work. And a few days is often all it takes. Producers create songs at warp speeds using advanced digital technology. Lots of songs are driven by “beats,” or electronic riffs, and are based on recordings of old hits, interpreted anew in part to avoid having to make certain royalty payments.

I had heard of the concept of “appropriation” in the visual arts, but I hadn’t quite realized how far the music industry had taken it:

Although Mr. Aurelius is a musician, some of his writing is derivative. He sometimes holes up in the studio and uses other artists’ recordings to help him conceive new songs. On a recent evening, he popped discs by Prince, Phil Collins and Norah Jones into a CD player before settling on “Cherish the Day,” a song by pop vocalist Sade. His fingers moved across the keyboards composing a melody that was similar, but different—the key, he says, to creating hits that will resonate with listeners. Twenty minutes later, it was a “beat.”

Maybe someday soon we’ll have discussions of how 7 Aurelius has produced a significant social comment by recycling and “draining the meaning” out of previous pop songs. (Hey, it worked for those visual art guys.) But you kind of wonder if this very trend doesn’t have something to do with the declining fortunes of the music industry these days.



posted by Friedrich at January 21, 2003


I long for music these days that tells a story. We have a wealth of new moods, new backgrounds, new ambience in music, and while these might create the perfect setting for dancing or drug use, the semantic content is so lacking that the music fails to enrich in that way that art is supposed to do. In the context of today's post, it fails to help us "get in touch in an almost tactile way with that thing that's always there waiting for us."

Oddly enough, my young niece has turned me onto the "goth" scene, with sounds that may be droning and not all that creative, but whose musicians are actually attempting to convey some message or at least tell a (typically morbid, often mythological) story. There is a goth musician named "Voltaire" who mixes dark humour and strings into his music with wonderfully moving results.

Any other musicians, or obscure genres of music, that readers have enjoyed in this way?

Posted by: Nate on January 22, 2003 12:15 PM

Anyway, to put that more in the context of your post, my observation is that this appropriation and resampling seems to bleed the narrative out of music. If you take bits of other people's song and story you may keep their mood and put a new spin on it, but it's not going to make any sense in terms of conveying a message. I would love to see some artists actually take the time to create something original that even attempted to touch us in some way, rather than just remix for money.

Posted by: Nate on January 22, 2003 12:32 PM

"Marcus" and "Aurelius"? Who's dreaming up this guy's names? Gibbon?

When I hear the occasional minute or two of new pop (about all I ever do hear), I'm often struck by how much it has become a producer's medium. And occasionally too by how virtuosic the producers have become. I don't like 'em myself, but some rap tracks are pretty amazing sonic experiences.

I love Nate's argument that the mix 'n' match, sampling techniques destroy one's sense of narrative in music. Couldn't be more true! It'll be fascinating to see if and how someone somewhere pieces a sense of narrative back together again.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2003 12:37 AM

Great observation, Nate.

Michael, I know you are (as I am) fascinated by the mystery of what generates comments and what doesn't on our blog. I think Nate's remark (which I mentally ran right past at 100 miles per hour the first time I read it) illustrates a key principle: original thinking doesn't generate much response because it doesn't kick off any of our stored mental observations. Original thought means you have to slow down and try to think your way into it. Perhaps we all just lack the time for that on a regular basis. Anyway, for what its worth, I've noticed that the 2 or 3 ideas I've kicked out on this blog which I think come closest to being original intellectual contributions to culture, however modest, have all sank quietly without a comment. C'est la vie, non?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 24, 2003 12:02 PM

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