What’s music got to do with it?

A few weeks ago, I was searching the Web for an infamous video, a 30-second clip a mother (Stephanie Lenz) posted of her little boy bopping around the kitchen to a barely-audible Prince song.  I was going to be teaching about the history of copyright and about current wrangles over intellectual property and knew that this example would be a good one, since the case went on for over three years, with Universal complaining of infringement, YouTube taking down the video, and Lenz suing Universal, etc., etc., etc.  (You can read a fairly recent update on the case—and see the video—here:  http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-20031782-261.html).

But on the day I was looking for the video, I couldn’t remember the name of the mother or even of the Prince song, and as so often happens when I’m browsing around looking for something or other, I entered a few words (in this case, “dancing baby”)  into Google just to see what would turn up.  I did find lots of references to the Mom vs. Universal case, but I also stumbled on another YouTube piece labeled “Baby Dancing to Beyonce.”  So I clicked to see a little tot, in nothing but droopy diapers, watching the “All the Single Ladies” video and absolutely, positively rocking out, while the parents cracked up in the background.  You gotta see it:


            The next week I was in North Carolina visiting my great nieces Audrey and Lila and we watched the dancing baby video together.  They thought it was “really cute” and they declared undying love for Beyonce.  But what really struck me was that they could not sit still during the video:  instead, they bobbed up and down, keeping time and moving with the music.  Later when Audrey was telling her Dad about the video, she said “music is the best; you just have to dance.” 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Audrey said and about the adorable and hilarious dancing baby.  Music is, after all, a universal language that we all can share in.

            Well, it is and it isn’t.  If you know the work of DJ Earworm, you know of his mashups that mix the work of many artists into a “new” production.  (His United State of Pop 2012 is at http://djearworm.com/.)  In a 2010 TED talk, DJ identifies his mashups as “music from the crowd,” that is bits and pieces of other people’s music that comes from a crowd, is spread by a crowd, and reflects the crowd.  In his talk (which you can see/hear at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMURALKbtjc) , DJ argues that music is “natural to all of us,” that throughout history people have been, well, musical, participating in music with no restrictions.  Then, he notes, when music “got written down,” everything changed: music became not a participatory practice but an object, something that could be commodified, owned, and hedged round with all kinds of restrictions. 

I had heard a similar argument made several decades ago by a fabulous slide pianist who had learned to play New Orleans jazz “by ear,” that is by listening to the old-time players.  He had never seen the music “written down,” and he spoke passionately about the difference between what he called “oral” playing and “written” playing: he even did a demonstration for one of my classes of “Pretty Baby” as it is played in the “oral tradition” and “Pretty Baby” as it is played sticking to the printed sheet music.  The first version was full of life; the second a flat, deadened parody of its former self.

I think we writing teachers can take some tips from my slide pianist friend and from DJ Earworm by paying more attention to the music in language and by inviting our students to play with language the way Earworm is playing with music.  Let’s have more mashups, more remixes, more FUN with language.  When we do, we will find ourselves attending closely to style and stylistic choices since they are instrumental to the effects students can create.  In this case, style is a key musical component of language, one we should savor—and one we should teach.  But as we do so, we need to allow our students to participate in what my friend called the “oral tradition”:  we need to let them find their own voices through mixing, remixing, and mashing up the voices of others.  Thank you DJ Earworm!