Monthly Archives: January 2010

Music Mixes: Content or Context?

So I was listening to Pearl Jam’s newest album Backspacer (about which I have conflicting opinions) in the car yesterday, and the song “Supersonic” came on. Aren’t there like 15 other songs with that title out there? I wondered.

Try 208. (This does, admittedly, include lots of repeats of the same track on different compilations.) A search on allmusic.com shows notable tracks called “Supersonic” by Bad Religion, Jamiroquai, Oasis (including a version performed by the Ya Baby!!! String Quartet), and Zodiac.

I dreamed for a moment about a mix CD with every song paired up (or thriced up, or quartered up…) with another that shares the same name. Online searching and downloading of music would make this a snap.

The big question, though: do I include songs even if they’re not particularly good? Or more exactly, on a mix, does a song’s content or context provide more listening pleasure?

I admit that I’m a context junkie. I adore the CD a friend made me as part of our occasional SKAME series (Super Kick-Ass Music Exchange), in which she collected multiple pairs of songs that touched on the same theme or shared another similarity–e.g., “Songs about leaving relationships” or “Songs that use field recordings.” I dream these days of making a CD with a single symmetrical wave of content, beginning and ending with the same track (one electronic version, one acoustic/live version) and revolving around a song (yet to be discovered) that sounds the same backward and forward.

But of course, when making CDs as gifts, I’m always afraid that people will ignore the context and focus on the content. I worry that even if Pearl Jam’s “Supersonic” is surrounded by 4 other songs with the same name, listeners will say, “Wait, this is the best Pearl Jam song he could find?”

I’m going on like this partly because I think these considerations might matter in other realms of art and rhetoric. When does my video/podcast/essay fit the bill because it stands as a beautifully perfected whole, and when does its context matter more? And even more disconcertingly: who gets to decide?

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Someone Else’s Review of Copyright Criminals

The Toronto Sun published a brief piece about PBS’s new documentary, Copyright Criminals. I like this review because the reviewer is both A) opposed to the copyleftist slant of the film, and B) interested enough in it that he reviews it anyway. I’d like to see more of that kind of open dialogue attitude.

Snippets:

When the creators and supporters of Copyright Criminals appeared at the Television Critics Association tour, it got a tad testy. And full disclosure, we were in the middle of the testiness, because we felt they were being marginally condescending. . . .

OK, just wait a second. We never said it was all wrong or all right. But people who do believe it’s “all wrong” to steal music samples without permission are not automatically too stupid to grasp the marvellous complexities. . . .

To say it was an argument would be overstating it, but it certainly was a tense exchange.

It’s a tough issue. And that’s why Copyright Criminals is a worthwhile documentary.

Article here.

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My History with Music and Sound, Part 2

After blogging a couple days ago about weird things I did with recording technology while growing up, I keep thinking of more that I forgot to mention:

  • A friend and I played some of the weirder parts of a Marilyn Manson CD into the (teensy, tinny) built-in mic on my dad’s old Windows 95 laptop. Sound Recorder had/has a play-backwards function that actually helped us make some discoveries about what Manson was trying to subliminally tell us. (I don’t, of course, remember what the backward messages were. Something about chickens?)
  • We also borrowed (er, took) my brother’s Yak Back for more backwards-sound hilarity: we would say something into it, push the button, and listen carefully to our phrase backward. Then we would attempt to copy the backward sounds with our voices, recording them again into the Yak Back. It would play our jibberish backward, and, when lucky, it would sound like a bizarre version of the original phrase. In other words, we were trying to teach ourselves to actually speak backward. Our quest was a phrase that sounded the same forward and backward–the closest we got was something like “You’ve got a fruit.” Can’t remember…
  • My friends and I would sometimes start Nerf arrow fights with my brothers, defending the honor of my bedroom door to the death. Once, we strung a lapel mic under my door and into the hallway so we could hear and record everything they said out there. One brother once repeated, “Attacking the Japanese!” (because one of my friends was American Indian, and, to my brother, must have looked Japanese). We played that tape over and over.
  • I hooked up my parents’ tape recorder to the TV and made a tape of all my favorite NES and TV show theme songs. Later, I did the same to record every song I could from Final Fantasy VI, complete with manual fade-outs.

There’s more, of course, but these are the best.

What I’d really like to know is what I might have said if present-day-me had shown up with my scholar hat on, asking all kinds of questions about my “composition practices.”

“Young Kyle, tell me about your method of composing these bizarre tapes, and your opinions on using sound that you found v. using sound that you created, and what you think about intellectual property, and in what ways you are or aren’t ‘remixing.'”

[Silence.] “Old Kyle, it’s not like that. We just play around, and when something sounds cool we go with it.”

“But surely . . .”

“No, we just play.”

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My History with Music and Sound

As I’ve been reading academics talk about remixing and the use of sound in composition studies, I’ve been increasingly reminded (sometimes surprisingly so!) of how much I’ve played with music in my life. For fun, let’s remind ourselves of some of them:

  • Fifth grade: inspired by my sister, I kept a tape ready in a handheld tape recorder, just in case something cool came on the radio or if a cool theme song came on TV. I held the mic up to the speaker of the music source and went completely frozen, later yelling at anyone who made too much sound and thus ruined the recording.
  • Sixth grade: Got my first two-tape boombox, the first one in the house. Quickly found two things: 1) holding the pause button down would play the tape back at a distorty, uneven high speed (which I would record onto tape 2, sometimes until my pause-finger ached), and 2) quickly pushing the play button down halfway would make a sound like a record scratch.
  • Seventh grade: In a letter to a friend back in San Diego, I mentioned that one of the things I liked doing was “making remixes.” His response included a single-sentence paragraph: “What’s a remix?” What I meant was to take a song I had taped off the radio (I think Bell Biv DeVoe got the treatment once) and add quick clips from other songs that “responded” to various lines in the lyrics. The results were choppy, awkward, and I loved them.
  • Eighth grade: My dad gave me an old karaoke machine that his office had grown out of. It had two cassette decks, two 1/4″ mic inputs (for one handheld mic and one lapel mic), and one 1/4″ headphones output, making it the most complexly powerful machine I had had yet (or would have for years). Main application in 8th grade: recording prank calls. Here’s how: held lapel mic to phone output, turned volume of karaoke machine way up, listened through the headphones, and spoke into the phone input.
  • Ninth grade: Began using the karaoke machine to make intentionally misleading recordings of friends. E.g. would ask friends to just talk for 10 or 15 minutes while I recorded. Then I’d kick everyone out and spend an hour or two relistening for potentially damning or perverted sentences. Then I’d record myself asking a question (“How far do you like to go with your mom?”) and then splicing in a previously innocuous sentence (“All the way!”). These recordings got very popular in our group of friends, and some folks made a big deal out of recording their session so I could make them look bad later on.
  • Tenth grade: For an English project, a friend and I recorded a complex, soundtracked, multi-layered, weird as snot dialogue between Creon and his son in Antigone. I’m sure we used sound effects from airplanes crashing, women screaming, farmyard animals, and music from Star Trek: First Contact, Nine Inch Nails, one hip-hop tape or another, and the videogame Quake. High- and low-speed effects were created with the aid of my brother’s talkboy (made famous in Home Alone 2).
  • Eleventh grade: I made a couple mix tapes for friends on which I recorded favorite lines of dialogue from movies and had the end of the dialogue fade into a song I thought was appropriate. (By this time I had a list of “songs that should be in movies” pasted on my bulletin board.) This was without a computer, you remember: I hooked up my parents’ cassette deck to the TV, recorded the dialogue from VCR to the cassette tape, took it upstairs to the karaoke machine, and ran the CD music into the karaoke machine through one of the mic inputs while playing the movie dialogue on one of its cassette decks, recording in the other, all the while trying to keep the volume near normal levels.
  • Twelfth grade: My friend Matt and I created a purposefully rough and machine-like sounding 30-second clip from a woman speaking an African language recorded from the shortwave radio, a crazy guy laughing on the hidden track at the end of Better than Ezra’s first album, and the spoken phrase “I don’t want you to blow on my candle” slowed down to last 30 seconds using the talkboy to slow down, and then re-slow down, and then re-re-slow down the phrase.

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Current Projects

Starter jacketI’ve been thinking lately about how I look and sound to different people. In a lot of ways that’s nothing new–in 7th grade I wanted a Hornets Starter jacket even though I’d never seen a Hornets game–but in terms of academic projects, it’s rather new to me. That’s just what happens as you move toward academics-as-job instead of just academics-as-school: people read your stuff. And different people naturally respond differently.

So, here’s how I would describe my 3 main projects these days to different groups of people. All are true, but it’s most true when you see them all lined up together.

Agency in the Age of Peer Production

  • To friends, family: Some colleagues and I at USF are writing a book about how to help teachers feel empowered to be creative, especially by using online tools.
  • To writing program administrators: We’re interested in the ways agency can be both individual and collective, and how writing programs can structure both online and face-to-face programs that allow (and rein in, when appropriate) that agency.
  • To leaders in business, nonprofits, and other fields: We suggest practical ways to help members of a group be creatively empowered yet remain part of a group.

Fan Culture and Remix Literacies

  • To friends, family: I’m surveying and interviewing people who do cool creative work online. Like, you know people who make videos and music and games and write fan fiction? I’m asking them about what they do. Open-ended questions.
  • To scholars: I’m especially interested in the rhetorical and compositional moves that composers have in mind as they compose “derivative” (or archontic) works that they know may be remixed again by other fans. I’d also like to hear their thoughts on ownership and intellectual property, since composing of any kind (even/especially academic essay writing) brings up so many different opinions (and occasionally, harsh emotions) on that tricky subject.
  • To fans: I want to hear what you do when you create fan compositions. I don’t want to be a jerk like other fan scholars so often are! I just want to hear you describe yourself in your own words to keep me from the danger of assuming something that isn’t true.

Prospectus/Dissertation Beginnings

  • To family, friends: I want to know what students do when they do research and when they incorporate research into their essays and other college work.
  • To scholars: I’m especially interested in how students find and integrate sources in multimodal compositions, and how that is or isn’t similar to their methods when approaching more traditional academic essays. The metaphor of the remix seems especially powerful when we’re talking about multimodal compositions–and when you start down that road, all composing begins to seem like remixing.
  • To students: I don’t want to tell you that your instincts when finding sources are wrong or anything. But I want to know how you find stuff for your college work so that I can be a better teacher in the future and help others be better teachers.

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Remix Literacies Project

I’ve been working a lot these days on 2 main things: 1) getting syllabi in order (for my professional writing class and for the FYC program’s online curriculum), and 2) getting my survey/interview project together for my remix literacies project. And after typing all kinds of stuff on it, I thought, “Wait, why not just post this language on the blog? That shows I’m not dead, and it’s actually pretty interesting.”

So, here are two bits of language from my main project site: the introduction text and the FAQ text.

Introduction

This site’s primary purpose is to house four surveys I’m conducting about the ways that fans creatively remix culture. I’ve picked four fan communities that I love (see main survey page to see which), chosen especially because I know that people there engage in some variety of fan remixing. Members of those communities are invited to respond to the surveys, and some will follow up the survey with an informal interview.

You can read more about why I’m doing this on my FAQ page, but the basic idea is this: I’m a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at the University of South Florida, and I’m a fan. I want to learn more about the opinions of people who participate in fan communities that i admire, so I decided to ask them about what they do. I’ll benefit by presenting this work at academic conferences and perhaps by publishing the results–but I’ll also benefit personally through the enjoyment that comes from respectfully participating in the cool things that people are doing in fandoms that I admire. And hopefully, the fans I talk to will feel that they will benefit as well: by having a space to explain their remixing to themselves and to the outside world.

To access the surveys, you can use the links in the left menu bar or head to the main survey page.

FAQ page

What do you mean by “Remix Literacies”?
Well, when we talk about literacy, we often mean “the ability to read and write words on a page.” If you are holding a magazine and I ask you to read an article but you are unable to do so, you could be called “illiterate.”

But a number of people apply the word literacy to other contexts as well. If I show you a visual advertisement and you’re unable to “read” and understand the different strategies that the advertisers used to try to grab your attention, we could say that you’re lacking in “visual literacy.” If politics confuses you and you don’t really have any idea how it works, you’re lacking “political literacy.” You can’t read what’s going on.

Remix literacy is a term that I and lots of other people made up (just try Googling it) to describe the ability to understand and create effective remixes. (Of course, “effective” varies depending on your setting, audience, and purpose.) People are creating amazing compositions all the time that grow out of found material; these people are extremely literate in the world of remixing one object into something new. I happen to think that fans are some of the best people at these remixing activities, since they are often so well versed in the worlds of their fandom. That’s why this project is called “Fan Culture” and remix literacies.

And literacies is plural to emphasize that there’s no single kind of remix literacy–everyone does it differently, using different kinds of material and creating different kinds of compositions. And I think that’s cool.

What do you mean by remix? Wouldn’t another word be better?
Yeah, I see your point. People are right when they point out that the specific activities that make up remixing a song are different than those when, say, covering a song or altering it in other ways. But I wanted a single catch-all term that in some way encompasses the wide variety of activities that I’m surveying people about. What I’m really interested in could be called “composing from found material,” as long as you think of “composing” in a really wide sense and “found” as a metaphor for “existing in some way before you got to it to do your own thing.” But remix is shorter, catchier, etc.

Who are you?

I’m Kyle Stedman, a PhD student in rhetoric composition, focusing especially on intellectual property, fan studies, digital rhetoric, and teaching writing. I’m findable on my blog, Twitter, Delicious, and Facebook, and I occasionally go by BasementWall (because I was staring at a basement wall trying to come up with a name). I’m a fan of (in order of most well-versed to least) Lost, Star Trek, Star Wars, the various Zelda games, and various video game soundtracks.

How can I contact you?
Email is best: kstedman [at] mail [dot] usf [dot] edu.

Why are you doing this?

The idea of surveying and interviewing fan remixers was germinated by an inspiring article in the online academic journal Kairos by Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss called “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Ridolfo and DeVoss describe the concept of a writer who knows that his or her work will be remixed in some way by someone else. Their example is a press release: the writer knows that journalists will take phrases and sentences from the press release and use them verbatim, mixed all around, added to and deleted from, in the eventual news story. I started to wonder how this applied to the creative work of fans, who “remix” ideas and images and sounds from their various fandoms all the time. What happens when fans create new work that they know other fans will take and remix again in a new way? What’s going on in these artists’ minds as they create?

Why don’t scholars stay out of my business?

I definitely recognize that scholars of fans have traditionally taken an us vs. them, anthropological role. (“Ooh, look over here and see what all the funny people are doing! How strange! I will now theorize about why they are so bizarre.”) But I also know that there’s a stellar tradition of scholars who are also fans stepping in to talk about themselves, represented most famously in Henry Jenkins‘ work, but also in the amazing collection Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet and in the work of the Organization for Transformative Works and its journal, Transformative Works and Cultures.

As much as possible, I’m trying to purposefully situate my work within the camp of the latter group by highlighting my own status as a fan and treating my survey respondents and interviewees as experts who are honoring me by sharing their perspectives with me, not as objects of my distant observation. In that, I’m trying to follow the position statement, “Fan Privacy and TWC’s Editorial Philosophy,” which describes its four “central ideas” as follows:

  • Fandom is getting mainstreamed, and there is no way to avoid that mainstreaming.
  • As fans, we prefer to control and possibly direct this mainstreaming, as well as the messages that circulate about us.
  • Academic work on fandom can be part of the explication and contextualization of fandom. In fact, that’s why the journal was created.
  • We think that fans can do a better job of writing academic works about fandom than nonfans can.

With that said, I admit that my role as fan could be seen as problematic by some, in that my fandom hasn’t led me to be an active participant in any of the communities from which I’m surveying and interviewing members. In other words, I listen to lots of music on OverClocked ReMix and I vote when streaming its music at Rainwave, but I don’t read the forums. Similarly, I love Zelda games and I’ve been working my way through one of the quests at Zelda Classic for a while now, but I don’t use the forums or create my own quests. I watch Lost rather more fanatically than anyone I know personally, but that only has led me to read lots of articles and blogs and occasionally update minor details on Lostpedia; I’ve never made a fan video. And I like a lot of the fic I’ve read, but I haven’t read much. (See my main survey page for links to all of these sites.)

So there’s a degree to which I could fall into the danger of becoming too academic and not fannish enough as I do this work. But at least I can say I’m aware of the dangers and am doing my best to keep my head above water.

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