“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”
BY CHRIS KOHLER
Part 2 of 3: Things you might like to know about remixes in general
Just what IS a remix, anyway?
The simplest answer is: someone’s reinterpretation of someone else’s idea that came before, using the original ingredients in some other way.
One can remix nearly anything: scientific theories, recipes, automobiles, the written word, and famously, music…
Musical remixes cover the whole spectrum, from simple efforts to slip a faster or stronger tempo or more bass or beat under the existing song, to really musically complex and carefully thought-out manipulations, to interesting and thought-provoking “mash-ups” (that is, combining two or more of MJ’s own songs or combining his with somebody else’s). Some sound incredibly polished, some have their rocky moments.
Frankly, I have not heard a remix done on Michael Jackson yet (official or not) that wasn’t done respectfully.
As with anything else, the beauty of remixes definitely resides in the “eyes of the beholder” – the ears of the listener.
Some work very well, some are awkward; some make you crazy with repetition of some phrase or riff that the mixer fell in love with; some make you laugh out loud; some cause sudden tears to flow…
Your reaction will be individual to you, if you allow the experience.
(Just like the original song – to which the remix takes you back, like a mini time machine.)
Personally, I love being surprised. Remixes are surprising.
When I listen to any album first time I purposely don’t read the playlist or the liner notes.
I want to be grabbed. Startled. Amused. Perplexed. I want to wonder.
Since I already know most of MJ’s songs, that isn’t easy, but remixes can do it, and they force me to listen to the song with fresh ears… sometimes in an entirely different way!
By highlighting a certain lyric or phrase, or changing the order of lyrics I already know, the remix can also cause me to concentrate on the song as if it were new again (which it is) – take nothing for granted – really listen to it – and the new mix can even (by use of blending techniques) cause the final result to be a much more abstract experience than MJ’s original song, almost like a classical or jazz piece rather than a pop song. As I love all those forms of music, this to me is amazing and intriguing. His voice becomes another instrument because it IS his instrument. What once was a specific genre vocal track thus may become part of something way larger than itself. Truly a fascinating transformation.
Just because MJ didn’t do it that way himself doesn’t make it invalid or wrong – just different. Diversity in action.
Occasionally I’ll listen to the first bars of a remix and I can’t honestly predict which MJ song I’m going to get!
To me, that echoes his own work because all his original songs were so very different; no two were the same, and nobody could say “Ho hum, the same old MJ song again…”
Remixes can actually energize a song in a different way.
(For example – though technically a cover, MJ’s version of “Come Together” gave the song a completely different energetic attitude, one so comprehensive that I can’t really consider it just a cover! Remixes can do exactly that too.)
I don’t react to music in an intellectual manner – rather I have always been taken by music in a very visceral, organic way…
I react emotionally as much to the music as I do to lyrics, and most especially to the vocal inflections and delivery or level of involvement offered by the artist – singing or talking or scatting or beat-boxing or breathing or whatever he/she is doing. It’s part of the art – like brush-strokes on a painting. Sound-strokes! MJ gave us all the strokes he could manage, and remixers are intrigued by them. Great art, see, inspires in different ways.
Leaving the abstract and embracing the technical, I often think of remixes as “reverse engineering” – the remixer disassembles the song into its component parts, sees how it works and how it’s put together, examines the individual parts, keeps or discards, adds, tweaks and tunes, and then reassembles those original parts with the energy of his or her own inspiration as part of the new song.
Remixers of MJ songs have even provided little unexpected gifts in their efforts – like stripping away some of MJ’s relentless (and relentlessly wonderful) multi-tracking and layering to suddenly allow clarity on a lyric I never connected with before, or on the beauty of his unadorned voice, or focusing on a background layer more prominently to let it be heard more strongly – this has happened a number of times. I love these gifts! They are spice and frosting on a winning recipe.
Remixing means making a thing more complex than the sum of its parts, and while perhaps not precisely the man in the mirror, it remains a living, breathing piece of art that honors its ancestry back to the original.
And please remember – remixing the music of someone else is not easy.
To do it properly, effectively, one needs to at least think like a musician (or ideally be one) because one is addressing so many properties of the song.
Questions a remixer asks:
- Am I putting a new rhythm inside the original tempo?
- What would that do to the vocal pitch and clarity? The lyrics?
- Am I introducing another instrumental or vocal line in a different key?
- Will it matter if the lead vocal sounds sharp or flat because of that?
- What am I trying to say in the changes I’m making?
- Am I combining it with another song composed in a different style and will that affect the way the original is perceived?
(This is an actual criticism directed at an OFFICIAL MJJ Productions remix of “They Don’t Care About Us”, a song in which MJ expresses anger, disgust, strong emotion, and controversial language – which was remixed with a lighter instrumental and struck many listeners as having trivialized the intended message of the song!)
- Is there another mashed-up vocal line that competes or obscures?
- Should the lead vocal be more “up front” or more blended?
- How do I get the listener into and out of the remixed song? (MJ was a master at those…)
- And how will the listener react to the new hybrid? What do I expect?
All these philosophical considerations are piled on top of the essential mechanical exercises of changing the song’s structure, and add to the task’s complexity.
Editing! Ah, editing.
Sometimes the remixes contain pinpoint, extra-precise editing that just leaves me in awe…
In addition to the melody, harmony and lyrics, MJ provided a vast library of sounds and vocal comments from which to choose.
Sometimes the mixers drill completely down to a single phrase, syllable, note, or breath – to present the listener with a small gem, in sound.
That takes talent… and I really admire talent.
Why DO remixes and mash-ups even work, and also the so-called “megamixes”?
(Well —– not all of them do!)
But what makes them even possible is the time signature.
Most “popular” music is written in the common or simple time signature, known as 4/4 time or four-four time. Meaning there are four beats to a measure, and a quarter-note gets one full beat.
So – in theory – this large-scale “standardization” of sorts means that most of MJ‘s songs could be strung together in one huge mondo song, back to back – without missing a beat. This is also why they can be remixed and mashed up with other pop songs without exceptional difficulty, barring enormous rhythmic or stylistic differences.
Rhythm and key are the next big considerations; a good remixer takes the rhythm issue into account immediately when deciding how to mix or mash the songs, and also of course the key (major, minor, dominant note) in which the song is written. Even if you don’t know what this lingo means, your ears will catch on quickly.
Rhythm can be altered directly on the original song or altered indirectly by combination with another existing track. Mixes that “play” with rhythm add complexity. Changing one variable means the likely need to change others.
Trickiest of all is the issue of the key signature of the song in relation to the changes made by a remixer.
Major key instrumental added to minor key vocal? Vice versa? A mix of both?
No problem for those with the ability to adjust key by some electronic means. But if this is not addressed, the result may be what I refer to as a “key collision” or “key-lision” – which may or may not matter to the remixer, who may be comfortable with a certain level of incompatibility in the ears of the listener in order to make a statement with another aspect of the song.
However, this condition may also escalate to what I call a “key-tastrophe” where the difference in key is so blatant and unpleasant that it cannot be enjoyed on any level by most reasonably sensitive faculties, usually resulting in severe facial distortion and some profanity. This doesn’t happen often but it does occur. Remixers who cause a key-tastrophe should probably be ashamed of themselves and should seriously rethink their motives. (As a listener, it may help in this case to be an admirer of the music style referred to as “atonal” or even “cacophony”. A stiff drink and total teeth-clenching focus on MJ’s vocal may also help endure it.)
Yes, they can occasionally get away with it: I forgave one key-tastrophic remix simply because the mixer ended the song with an unexpected comment from Homer Simpson!
MJ had his favorite keys in which he preferred singing, so that is an additional help to remixers if they want a starting point. He expected his audience to want his songs exactly as first recorded. However, I never could quite see the sense of this, because lower keys would have been much more comfortable for his adult voice and his fans I think would not mind (or maybe not even notice) a transposition downwards, most people don’t…. But that was MJ. He had his ways and very solid instincts, honed by years of performing. However, “mix masters” may challenge his ways even if he did not.
And we have no way of knowing if, or how, his musical exploration would evolve had he lived longer…
(For a unique and much more detailed discussion of the mixer’s art, see author Simon Langford’s 2009 three-part series written from the remixer’s perspective, touching on some historical influences on remixing music and expanding on some of the mechanical issues I have mentioned, at the following Internet link: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun09/articles/worldoftheremixerpt1.htm
This article continues in THE REMIX MANIFESTO Part 3.
The following is Part One of a three-part guest post by Chris Kohler, who previously allowed me to feature her excellent reconsideration of Michael Jackson’s oft-overlooked Invincible album for its 10th anniversary on this website. This is her passionately (and persuasively) articulated case for the value of remixes. Feel free to discuss further in the comments!
by CHRIS KOHLER
Part 1 of 3: Things you may not know about Michael Jackson and remixes
Once upon a time, a patient person, identity unknown, began to compile a list of the “Official” Michael Jackson remixes of his own songs, and posted the list on the Internet.
This list came to my attention in 2011.
Compiling it was a big task and I can tell you it isn’t even a complete list.
BUT – even incomplete, this list includes — are you ready? — 349 — yes, three hundred and forty-nine – official remixes that were released by MJ’s own label, MJJ Productions, on various albums around the world, at various times in his career!
This person’s list included instrumental versions, 7” or 12” edits for radio, extended versions, French and Spanish versions (“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”), the “Thriller 25” release, and some – but oddly, not all – of his acapella versions.
These were remixed by other artists and deejays who presumably were chosen and had their creations approved by the Executive Producer himself, Michael Jackson: Tony Moran, Moby, Roger, Teddy Riley/New Jack, Silky Soul, Clivilles & Cole, Love to Infinity, Track Masters, Basement Boys, Hani, Tee, Dallas, Todd Terry, Tommy Musto, 3 Boyz from Newark, Maurice, Jon B., Ummah, Mark, Refugee Camp, Mousse T, Deep Dish, R. Kelly, Jam and Lewis, Frankie Knuckles (RIP, Frankie…), and a whole slew of other individuals.
The earliest remixed song listed was “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”; the most recent was “This Is It”. (J5 and Jacksons songs were not included, though remixes exist.)
The listed song remixed officially the most times was “Jam” with twenty-seven, followed by “Stranger In Moscow” and “This Time Around” (yup) with twenty-four each, “They Don’t Care About Us” with twenty, “Who Is It” with eighteen, and “Scream” and “In The Closet” with sixteen each.
Why do I mention this list?
It reflects the biggest value of remixes I can think of: Michael Jackson himself allowed the practice and judging by quantity and quality, supported it.
Michael Jackson wasn’t the only artist to use remixes, or even the first – but his output is prolific by any standards, and I think he realized early on how valuable remixes could be to expanding his audience and record sales.
Indeed, by 1997 they took his stats to new heights, as Joe Vogel reminds us in a particularly pithy chapter of his book Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson: “In spite of its relatively low profile, Blood on the Dance Floor became the best-selling ‘remix album’ of all time, with an estimated eleven million records sold.” Even if not entirely MJ’s original intention, as some have suggested, the album ironically contained more remixes than it did new tracks.
But what might have caused MJ to first entertain the idea of a remix of his own work, decades earlier?
As a matter of fact, the iconic disco where MJ spent many evenings in the public eye, Studio 54 in New York City, had a regular staff of high-quality professional DJs which included a fabled remixer who, according to songwriter/producer/remixer Simon Langford, eventually also became a legend in the trade:
To many, the godfather of the modern remix is Tom Moulton, whose career started out by making ‘mix tapes’ for a Fire Island nightclub in the late ’60s. Eventually, he progressed to being an adviser on the nightclub-oriented recordings of the time: his skills were called upon to make sure that the records were club-friendly prior to release. Finally, he began to specialize in actually doing remixes, specifically for the nightclubs. He is said to be the inventor of the ‘breakdown’ and the 12-inch single format.
In the 70’s Moulton had become the most sought-after remixer in the world, and was said to hand-deliver his custom dance mixes to the Studio 54 dj’s – his reputation and high standards becoming a benchmark for dance music as we know it today. Artists whose work he mixed (such as Grace Jones and the O’Jays) were most assuredly part of the Jackson music collection, and MJ most assuredly shook his body down to the ground to some of Moulton’s mixes at Studio 54.
What better atmosphere for a latter-day king of dance music to get exposure to remixes and learn how the process works? Knowing how eagerly MJ embraced new ideas and always sought out industry professionals who helped him to formulate his own eponymous production style, who knows what interesting conversations might have occurred at Studio 54 other than the usual celeb headline-grabbers? His creative curiosity was always in operation.
The dance clubs that flourished all over the world during his long career wanted Michael Jackson music in danceable form, even the ballads and the “angry” songs; and he was, after all, known as the king of dance music internationally so it was logical and practical to provide for their needs. Once heard and enjoyed in the clubs, his songs would sell more recordings. Very $mart!
While MJ’s music is still instantly filling dance floors today, since the 80’s remixes have evolved in many directions from the original consideration of simply making songs more danceable: they have become an identifiable art form themselves and may represent a personal artistic musical statement by the mixer, or perhaps a social or cultural or even political statement. The original recording may be the point – or the artist who recorded it – or the philosophy of the artist or the mixer. An influential and talented subject like Michael Jackson invites a multitude of interpretation.
Where Michael Jackson really steps into the realm of the extraordinary, I think, is in the release of so many acapella versions – in other words, his songs with only the lead vocal extracted, plus perhaps some limited portion of his own harmony or percussion.
Wikipedia’s treatment of the acapella genre separates the recorded herd in this fashion:
A cappella can also describe the isolated vocal track(s) from a multitrack recording that originally included instrumentation. These vocal tracks may be remixed or put onto vinyl records for DJs, or released to the public so that fans can remix them. One such example is the a cappella release of Jay-Z‘s Black Album, which Danger Mouse mixed with The Beatles‘ White Album to create The Grey Album.
(That’s about as black and white as it gets. But Jay-Z was following the leader in this respect…)
I saw my first Michael Jackson acapella LP on EBay shortly after his death. A look through the discography of the Cadman/Halstead publication Michael Jackson For The Record, 2nd Edition Revised & Expanded shows an acapella release on a 12” single as early as 1988 in the U.S.; though not able yet to confirm the original MJJ Productions release dates, I also saw several “DJ edits” on EBay at various times which had subsequently been transferred to compact disc. More vinyl versions were to have been released in honor of the concert series “This Is It” opening in London.
The first time I listened to a Jackson acapella track, I was blown away by what a breathtaking statement of confidence on his part it was – to assume that his fans would want his songs with only his voice and no or little musical accompaniment! (And we did!)
What an intimate experience he gave us to share: hearing him create his signature sound, the listener now right there with him in the studio, practically inside his head, listening to him listen to himself playing back on his own headset! Brilliant and, I think, unprecedented at his level of success and popularity.
Beyond that, the acapella versions were another very practical provision from him that allowed for ease of remixes, because the stripped version would be so much easier to lay over a different or altered musical track or to change tempo, rhythm, meter, style, whatever – and now, with electronic synthesizers and computer mixing software available, even to manipulate pitch and tone, add audio effects, and tinker with any part of the vocal or musical sound.
By releasing so many official remixes and acapellas, Michael Jackson made remixing easier – he made it customary – he made it further acceptable in his industry – he made it enticing by his sheer popularity – and I honestly believe he knew that the creative world would have the desire to work with his music for a long time to come. (I don’t think he’d want it any other way…)
But – why remix Michael Jackson?
Okay – why climb Mount Everest?!
Lest my position regarding ANY remix of his songs be misunderstood, I say this:
- The original songs are brilliant in their own right, as released by Michael Jackson.
- They are as perfect as he could get them, in his estimation.
- There is no “need” to change a thing about them.
- There isn’t a thing wrong with them, nor do they need updating or reinterpretation, nor do they need any censorship!
- That they CAN be contemporized or reinterpreted is a constant testimony to their intrinsic quality.
The original material is SO GOOD – and that’s exactly what attracts so many people to tackle his songs, that and an honest desire to pay tribute musically; to connect and create with the very best.
BUT – I also assert that nothing that anyone does in a remix can destroy the quality of MJ’s original creations, or diminish them in any way. I believe the universal rules of physics are in control here.
For a fascinating taste of Michael Jackson’s relationship with Studio 54, check out blog authors Dancing with the Elephant and guest blogger Eleanor Bowman’s article, The Magic of Studio 54, at: http://www.dancingwiththeelephant.wordpress.com/?s=studio+54
This article continues in THE REMIX MANIFESTO Part 2.