RIP: A Manifesto (Canada, 2009, Brett Gaylor)
I liked this film a lot. So did Max. It is entertaining, engaging, provocative. There's a healthy punk attitude informing the whole thing. But unlike the punk of yesteryear, a feeling of optimism pervades RIP: A Remix Manifesto. The digital technologies of the cyberverse are once again promoted as the tools of the revolution. The captains of industry cannot copyright the informational ether of the culture, so the people are free to do with it what they want. Just download a few iTunes and then create your own beats with it. Everyone will be dancing the dance of socialism in no time.
If only. Alas, when you remix capitalism, it's still capitalism. I take this film as seriously as it tells me to. After all, it declares itself to be a "manifesto," so it is reasonable for me to assess it as such. Just so happens, I am prepared to do so with the original Manifesto in mind, Capital actually. As much as I appreciate the anarcho-democratic redistribution ethic advanced by RIP, this sort of critique of political-economy attempts to overturn certain forms of private property on behalf of re-establishing a commons or public domain without transforming the social relations of production themselves. Capital is actually never located in the sights of the gun because it is always pointed at how property is held and not how it is produced in the first place. But capital is not so much a property owned as the way in which value produced by labour is appropriated, a mode of exploitation.
RIP does not even begin to enter into capital as this process, instead skimming the surface of the legal designations of this form of private property and that from of private property. For all of it's radical opposition to the colonization and monopolization of culture by capital, RIP is unfortunately too aptly named; for it comes to the problem well after the fact; i.e., when the commodity it already in the world as a commodity and all that remains is to keep circulating it for the realization of more value. In the end, the argument is simply that the Goliath-scale corporation should just be satisfied with its Goliath-sized profits up to now and henceforth let the David-sized artist eke out a meager living with these goods that have been in circulation for so long anyway.
Clearly, this fails to adequately enter into the exploitation at the centre of the capital accumulation process. Or should I merely point out that as Girl Talk, the fellow samples as he pleases in order to make mash-up music and stick it to the man, but as Gregg Micheal Gillis, the fellow did not for a second dare to mess in any way with the tissue samples of the biomedical engineering firm that employed him - because in addition to the tissue samples, the firm owned whatever work Gillis' labour-power did with them.
Moving away from the critique of political economy and turning to the issue of collage music, I tend to be an old fuddy-duddy. I recognize that all kinds of interesting combinations can be discovered by assembling previously disparate chunks of music. But I feel that this mechanistic stacking by way of multi-tracking existing bits of sound entirely misses the essence of music, the very quality about it that gives it its name. The inspiration of the heavenly Muse has to do with an organic social interaction in real time. Musicians listen to each other and respond to what they hear as they play. This is especially true in group performance featuring improvisation, but it also pertains to the solo performance of previously composed music as the individual player listens to himself attempt to speak on behalf of the composer.
The film sets up an analogy between Led Zeppelin ripping off Muddy Waters and Girl Talk ripping off Led Zeppelin. Now, you can talk about ripping off Warner-Chappell all you want but the fact remains that what Page and Plant did to McKinley Morganfield economically was truly unjust, to say nothing of the larger racist ramifications in the society that facilitated this commercial crime. But what they did with his blues artistically, this was a dialectic of the highest aesthetic order; simultaneously an imitative tribute and an inventive departure. I don't know in what economic relation Gillis stands to Page and Plant, and Morganfield's estate, for that matter. But I do know that his stance in relation to them artistically is definitely not analogous to Zeppelin's relation to Muddy Waters.
And please set aside the impression that my personal taste is making the argument here. The case rests rather on my analytical definition of music to begin with, which is as Platonic as I get, by the way. I am attending to the difference between musicians listening in real time - across generations - and engineers layering samples in virtual time... with no historical location of their own in the ongoing evolution of the music. Much of the appeal of a pop mash-up is, ironically, not that something brand new is being created. Rather, a lot of the attraction is to recognize the old elements that are being recycled through a techno-box. Fun for the kids to hop around to at a rave this week. But what perseveres is the riff itself from Whole Lotta Love. Or does anyone honestly believe that Girl Talk's latest ring-tone usage of it will be around 50 years from now?