Let’s Do the Mash

The Who Boys, the Beastles, and the Bible.

This article originally appeared in Books & Culture, vol. 11, no. 4 (September/October 2005), p. 35–37.

The first swift kick to my youthful idealism was delivered—not so surprisingly, in retrospect—by the Beastie Boys.

In the late 1980s I took a year off from college to work at a retreat center in the mountains of north Georgia, hosting youth groups that drove up from the Atlanta suburbs. They would tumble off church buses dressed in Hard Rock T-shirts, well-scrubbed teenagers steeped in the New South’s blend of genteel religiosity and upward mobility. In those days before the iPod, they came laden with Walkmans and bulging pouches of cassette tapes. These were mainline Protestant kids, mostly Methodists and Presbyterians, and their musical choices seemed largely to have escaped parental oversight. No self-respecting Baptist would allow their child to go off to church camp with a box full of Black Sabbath and AC/DC tapes, but these youth showed up with unapologetically secular collections—heavy metal for some, Celine Dion for others. They spent their free hours in the still, green Georgia mountains sitting on the porches of the cabins, plugged in to the sounds of home.

It takes a DJ with a keen ear and a sharp hand on the mouse to show us that no matter how much they would have hated to admit it, the Beasties were always grown-ups.

Youth ministry in America, at least since the rise of youth culture (which is to say, since the invention of youth ministry), requires continual recalibration of the axiom “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Popular culture is hard to beat. After a few months of watching groups while away their hours praying along with popular music (as the crocheted wall hanging in our staff quarters said, “To sing is to pray”), I decided I couldn’t convince kids to put away their Walkmans. But maybe I could get them to think about what they were hearing. The Pop Music Workshop was born.

The Pop Music Workshop would probe the deeper meanings of the music kids already had in their Walkmans. It would encourage youth to critically examine the music they were hearing, and yet it would do so not in a spirit of condemnation but of sympathetic attention to the yearnings and fragmentary solutions offered by the artists of the day. (I would later learn an evangelical phrase for this—“engaging the culture.”) Until each group showed up in the conference room at the appointed hour, where I was waiting with a tape deck and a sound system, I had no idea what music they would bring. We’d pop in a tape, listen to the song, and then, aided by a whiteboard and some notes I had scribbled while listening, talk about what it meant.

At first, the workshop was a success. It was an exhilarating kind of speaking, interactive and improvisational, and I took delight in seeing youth pay attention to the lyrics of popular music, often apparently for the first time, and correlate them with the gospel. Critics of contemporary worship music sometimes gripe that Christians have simply borrowed and baptized the language of pop romance, and there’s something to that, but it always seemed to me that pop songs were borrowing from religion more than the other way around. “I’m forever yours, faithfully,” Steve Perry sang during one memorable slow dance of my high school years; even then, with my arms around a girl who consumed every ounce of my attention and desire and whose name I cannot now recall, I had an inkling that eternal love was too much to promise or expect from another mortal, and that the longings I felt could only be satisfied somewhere else.

Such were the conversations I had with church kids from all over Georgia for the better part of the year, and more often than not, unpredictable and risky as the format was, there were small and large epiphanies, kindled by the tinder of popular music in teenage hearts.

But at least one time every session, a teenager would hand me a cassette that made me blanch. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” maddening not so much because of its sexual innuendo but because of the crass commercialism of the same. Anything by the later Depèche Mode, whose lead singer sang all too convincingly, and seductively, about depression and addiction. I think it was after a particularly difficult segment trying to tease out, and implicitly refute, the lure of suicide in Depèche Mode’s synth-laden netherworld that a smirking twelve-year-old in an Oliver North for President t-shirt handed me a cassette of License to Ill, by the Beastie Boys.

Sigh. The Beastie Boys. Somehow I had never got around to listening to the Beastie Boys. Well, how bad could it be? I fast-forwarded the tape to the requested song—“Fight for Your Right to Party.” My whiteboard was ready. Marker in hand, I pressed play.

Noise filled the room. Not just musical noise—semantic noise. The lyrics, declaimed in the rudest possible white-boy hip-hop fashion, made the astonishingly stale and puerile claim that adult hypocrisy and authoritarianism were stifling the youth of America. “You’ve got to Fight—for your Right—to Par—ty!” It was Holden Caulfield after several tokes of weed. It was Kerouac on crack. It was stupid. It was useless. I pressed stop. The twelve-year-old and his buddies grinned nervously.

“Why do you listen to this?” I said. I did not succeed in softening the edge in my voice.

” ‘Cause it sounds cool,” one of them offered.

“Do you have any idea what they’re saying?”

“Naw, we just like the beat.” The beat could best be described as hip-hop-metal-thrash. It was kind of cool. But the words—there was nothing there but stupidity. The Beastie Boys were stupid. Kids who would listen to music like this were stupid.

The premise of the Pop Music Workshop, you must understand, was that we would not prejudge the music. We would allow it to speak to us. We would assume that every human endeavor, no matter how cut off from relationship with the Creator, had some quality that could be redeemed.

In the harangue that followed I violated every premise of the Pop Music Workshop.

The adult leaders politely requested that I not join the group for the remaining sessions that weekend. I did apologize to the youth the next day, but the damage was done. The twelve-year-old flinched when he saw me in the dining room.

I led the Pop Music Workshop once or twice after that, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was a surprisingly short trip from seeing pop as laden with meaning, however misplaced, to seeing it as the crassest form of cynical exploitation. Soon I left Georgia and the world of youth group retreats. My musical diet reverted to Bach and Bruce Cockburn. Grunge came and went. Hip-hop swept across America. Madonna revived her career two or three times. I ignored most of it. It was junk.

A few months ago, my friend Charlie Park sent me a link to a website called “The Beastles.” “You might want to write an article about this,” he said. The Beastles, the work of a Boston DJ who goes by the moniker dj BC, was the latest example of the growing musical genre called mashups. Rooted in the beat-mixing skills of dance club culture and inconceivable before the digital age, mashups take advantage of audio editing software like Pro Tools and Apple’s Garage Band to remix familiar (or unfamiliar) songs into new musical works.

Mashup artists place a premium on unlikely combinations: the Who Boys combine British hard-rockers the Who and California surf-poppers the Beach Boys. The most celebrated mashup, DJ Dangermouse’s 2004 The Grey Album, layers the spoken-word lyrics of rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album over instrumental riffs from the Beatles’ The White Album. The Beastles follow in the footsteps of The Grey Album, but this time the rappers are the Beastie Boys. Their white-trash lyrics, as brash and shallow as I remembered, are juxtaposed with lyrical snippets of Paul McCartney’s piano, George Harrison’s guitars, and Ringo Starr’s laid-back beats. After one track I was entranced; after two tracks I had started downloading all seven songs. The Beastles have been in heavy rotation on my iPod ever since.

Take the mashup “Mother Nature’s Rump,” which begins with the placid, chorused guitars of the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son.” The hip-hop drums of the Beastie Boys fade in and take the center of the sound stage, but the guitars continue to play under the Beastie Boys’ strutting and preening (“Got more rhymes than Jamaica got mango!”). At intervals the Beastie Boys’ show is interrupted altogether by John Lennon’s meditative humming. The juxtaposition is just startling enough, and just funny enough, to underline the humor in anticlimactic boasts like, “Running from the law, the press, and the parents.” The Beatles are the quintessential parents’ music, yet here the Beastie Boys are under their supervision—and the perfect alignment of the Beasties’ beats with the Beatles’ suggests that the Boys are still driving their parents’ car. Suitably deflated, their music becomes just plain fun—and the more you listen, it becomes clear that it was never as stupid as they wanted you to think it was.

In one sense mashups simply continue the eternal musical tradition of quotation and imitation. Hip-hop was built on samples, whether of beats or riffs or melodic snatches, from revered musicians past and present. What distinguishes the mashup from hip-hop sampling is the extent to which it is an extended meditation on the underlying songs. The best mashups reflect a painstaking attention to the tunes they are mashing.

So the beginning of dj BC’s “Hold It Together Now” includes a clip of Tonight Show host Jack Paar introducing “a feature taped for us in England by”—and here he pronounces each name with a precision tinged by now inconceivable unfamiliarity—“Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison.” Between each Beatle’s name, dj bc interposes clips from “Hold It Now—Hit It” of the Beastie Boys introducing themselves, rap-star fashion (“Mike D!” “King-Ad Rock!” “MC Adam Yauch!”), and throws in his own name, sampled from who knows where, for good measure. Underneath runs a loop of McCartney’s bass hook from “Come Together.” The result is a short course on the suddenness of fame, the evolving nature of celebrity (measured in the distance from Paar’s measured, almost stentorian introduction to the Beasties’ in-your-face party crashing), the genealogy of pop, and the totemic power of five sliding bass notes that are indelibly imprinted on the memory of anyone under sixty. Not bad for seventeen seconds.

The mashups from the Who Boys are equally if not more ambitious, mixing the Who and the Beach Boys into a mind-bending (and often pitch-bending) electronica that’s one crucial step short of soup. The Who Boys’ blender is set to a considerably higher speed than dj BC’s—rarely do we get more than a snatch of a phrase or a riff—but the result is compelling, if less appealing in large doses. “Who Vibration” plucks Brian Wilson’s single word “I” from the beginning of “Good Vibrations”—its falling, lilting quality evocative of adolescent desire and laid-back surf culture—and that song’s reverb-laden, pizzicato-like Hammond B3 tones. Into the mix go early synthesizer arpeggiations and stutter-step drum beats from the Who. Stripped from their conventional context, the samples locate both the Beach Boys and the Who in a longer story of sonic experimentation. The Who were rapping and scratching before those words were invented (“talking ’bout my g-g-g-generation”); the Beach Boys were looping and sampling back when that meant cutting tape. Suddenly the history of pop seems tighter, less random, and we realize that behind the snarl of the Who and the grin of the Beach Boys was musicianship of considerable seriousness.

Indeed, this is one of the paradoxes of the mashup: as the mashup artist busily deconstructs pop’s history, plundering beats and verses from hither and yon, somehow he is putting that history together. After you listen to a few mashups you start to feel not so much that the music has been stolen from its original place as reunited with its story, rescued from the atomized world of pop singles and the segregated landscape of decades-based radio (“Oldies of the ’50s and ’60s!” “Today’s hot hits!”). The Beatles and the Beastie Boys get to play together. How cool is that?

Well, some might reply, it’s rather humiliating for the melodious, harmonious Beatles to be forced to play backup for the Beastie Boys. It’s easy to write the history of popular music as a one-way devolution, a cultural meltdown that moves inexorably from talent to posturing, harmony to cacophony, music to noise. Such a history has to ignore the anthemic harmonies of the world’s current biggest and arguably greatest band, U2, as well as the lyrical wonders of hip-hop, not to mention the counter-currents of influential bands, from Wilco to Radiohead, that offer as much beauty and complexity as has ever been heard in popular music. But no one can fully discount the rising tide of distortion, both literal and figurative, that has twisted rock’s original promise of a hard-edged, redemptive encounter with reality into mere fetishization of the ugly. And if you’re looking for culprits, as I discovered in that fateful session of the Pop Music Workshop, the Beastie Boys are the self-proclaimed poster boys, with their fuzzed-up, perpetually haranguing vocals and their stunted lyrics that never stray from the geography of immaturity.

And yet this is exactly what makes the Beastles such a revelation. By reuniting the Beastie Boys with their musical past, dj BC rescues them from their own trash heap. By showing how thoroughly they fit in a long musical tradition, he suggests that they were always smarter than they let on. Today, with their youngest member 38 years old, the Beastie Boys are looking less boyish and less beastly than in their heyday, but it takes a DJ with a keen ear and a sharp hand on the mouse to show us that no matter how much they would have hated to admit it, the Beasties were always grown-ups. As any 38-year-old, even a Beastie, knows, you can run from your parents, you can run from history—you can even run from music—but ultimately you can’t hide. The music is too deep inside. Even trash tells a story.

Mashups at their best may be redemptive remixes that bring popular music to its senses, but there is one little problem: they are illegal. Every time dj BC samples Paul McCartney’s bass hook for the “Hold It Together Now” mashup—which I estimate he does seventy times in under five minutes—he is borrowing McCartney’s musical genius, and benefiting from the vast and not inexpensive industry that brought that genius to a worldwide audience, without paying a cent. The mashup, almost by definition, is a work of art consisting entirely of stolen goods.

Thanks to copyright law’s exemption for fair use, this is not a problem for the legions of teenagers creating mashups in their bedrooms, if they purchased the source material legally. (That is a huge if—a latter-day Pop Music Workshop would have to account for the likelihood that most of the music kids have on their iPods is stolen. And not just kids. I once shared a car ride with a fellow participant at a conference for “emerging Christian leaders” who passed around his iPod packed with an eclectic, intelligent collection of music from Stravinsky to Sinatra to Snoop Dogg. All illegally downloaded, he cheerfully admitted.) Once you have purchased a recording, courts have sensibly ruled, it is yours to do with as you like—play it, alter it, mash it—as long as you do not redistribute it. In practice the music industry has even extended the principle to include “mix tapes” shared among friends; exactly how many “friends” you are allowed to have is a bit of a gray area.

But the moment you make a mashup public—by, say, making it available for download by anyone on the Internet—you leave the gray area of fair use. dj Dangermouse’s Grey Album, 3,000 copies of which were actually pressed, was legally speaking not gray at all, as lawyers for EMI soon made abundantly clear. In early 2004 it was available on dozens of websites, before “cease & desist” letters began arriving. To find it in June of 2005 I had to resort to one of the Internet’s less reputable protocols, BitTorrent, the mere use of which can be enough to bring admonishing letters from the cable company. Most mashups are available for download from obscure websites where they cannot easily be traced to their original producers, who in any case delight in their pseudonymity. Surprisingly, the Beastles site is an exception, linked directly from Bob Cronin’s webpage, with a legal disclaimer (“These mash-ups were made for fun, and as a demonstration of my remixing abilities . . .”) that would deter determined lawyers for about as long as a picket fence would deter a Sherman tank.

Consequently, the low-voltage thrill of participating in an underground movement has become integral to the mashup culture. Mashups circulate on file-sharing sites and irc channels (an even more disreputable venue than BitTorrent) like musical samizdat. When EMI’s lawyers started cracking down on The Grey Album, more than 400 websites participated in “Grey Tuesday,” a day of protest slathered in the rhetoric of free speech. (Organizers claim that 100,000 copies of The Grey Album were downloaded from participating websites that day, cease and desist letters notwithstanding.) Hip academics have lauded mashups as harbingers of the rise of “semiotic democracy” and, in the words of one scholar, “a newly emergent field of resistance to the dominating, centralized, bureaucratic control that is characteristic of the oligopolistic recorded music industry.” Try mashing that.

Musicians are more ambivalent. But some are giving their blessing to the mashup culture. The Grey Album was made possible, or at least much easier, by the authorized release of an a capella version of The Black Album—and unlike the Beatles, Jay-Z, who can also afford plenty of lawyers, has done nothing to stop its use in mashups. David Bowie has solicited mashups of his songs from fans. Last year Wired magazine distributed an entire CD of tracks, including one from the Beastie Boys, explicitly designed for mashing.

Where exactly the legal dust will settle is unclear, as with many questions related to intellectual property in the digital world. As a practical matter, it seems likely that the Lilliputian ingenuity of the mashup artists will overwhelm the Gullivers of the music industry and mashups will flourish, as long as they remain noncommercial. DJs who want to sell their mashups, like hip-hop artists who want to use samples, will have to negotiate with the owners of the original recordings. Since some of the best source material—like the Beatles—will almost certainly never be licensed (often because, as with the Beatles’ recordings, the owners are no longer the musicians themselves but corporations with an ironclad responsibility to make money), the best mashups will be free. And this raises the possibility that one of the most creative movements in popular music will be sustained by amateurs, even if they are borrowing the talent of professional musicians and using Pro Tools. Created by amateurs, circulated freely and anonymously, eventually, perhaps, massaged and remixed and remashed themselves—mashups could be the 21st century’s technological folk music.

In the days of the Pop Music Workshop, it disturbed me that teenagers could listen to so much music and think so little about its meaning—could say they “just liked the beat” and never consider the message the songs were delivering. I had an unreflective suspicion of music without a message, even though I was trained as an instrumental musician. I certainly couldn’t imagine that music itself—the sonata form, jazz chord structure, the twelve-tone scale, or the two-verse, chorus, bridge form of the pop song—had something to say. The clue was there in that disastrous encounter with “Fight for Your Right to Party”—there was something primally compelling about the music, even though the words were utter folly—but it wasn’t until I read Jeremy Begbie’s masterful book Theology, Music and Time that I began to pay attention. Begbie, an oboist and conductor of some distinction as well as a systematic theologian, has done more than anyone to awaken Christians to the theological resources provided by the practice of music. In Theology, Music and Time he considers two major musical phenomena (and comments perceptively on many more along the way): the way that much Western music moves through a directional sequence of tension and resolution, and the practice of improvisation found in jazz (and once practiced, now all but lost, in classical music as well). Though I am not aware that he ever puts it this way, Begbie’s is a theology of natural law, grounded in the physical realities that condition the eminently physical activity of music-making. By examining the way that music structures time, he suggests, we may find our way out of knotty problems conceptualizing time. By examining the way improvisational musicians both respect and play with the cantus firmus, we can work out ways of understanding the role of tradition, innovation, and authority in Christian faith. Reading Begbie forever changed the way I listen to music. Without reading Begbie, even the discovery of the delightful Beastles might never have caused me to notice that “Fight for Your Right to Party,” for all its protestations of revolution and resistance, stays compliantly within the song structure of pop music (not to mention the rhyme structure of conventional English poetry): verse, chorus, verse, chorus, all in eight-bar chunks. The form speaks louder than the shouted words—the Beastie Boys are meeting their listeners more than halfway, granting them the same tension and resolution that you’d find in a classical sonata, acquiescing to their expectations of a popular song. They are loud, distorted, raucous conformists. And the more I listen to them, with the assistance of dj BC, the more I think they knew that all along. Do mashups have something to contribute to theology? What Begbie does for theology, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat seek to do for biblical interpretation in their recent book Colossians Remixed. “There is a sense in which this book is an ‘anti-commentary,’ ” they observe. Although the authors are scholars, Colossians Remixed has some of the underground vibe of a bootleg tape, and not just because of the frequent references to edgy pop music. Walsh and Keesmaat provide a provocative reading of the book of Colossians: following N. T. Wright and others, they see it as an extended effort in subverting the dominant narrative of the Roman Empire and, by extension, more insidious forms of empire in our day. But they also introduce a skeptical reader who regularly interrupts their exegesis with questions. “I guess I’m just a little hung up on the liberties that you take with Scripture,” this reader objects after Walsh and Keesmaat have offered up a paraphrase of Colossians 1:1–14 that includes a reference to “this monolithic culture of McWorld globalization.” Like the Beastie Boys in the Beastles, Walsh and Keesmaat, with their boisterous rereading of Colossians, ultimately get more airtime than the polite, Beatles-like traditionalist. But the introduction of a less-than-compliant reader is a brilliant device that enables us to hear Walsh and Keesmaat’s claims more clearly. So are the “targums” throughout the book that retell Colossians’ argument in contemporary language, “McWorld” and all, and the imagined “Epistle from Onesimus the Slave to Paul the Apostle” near the book’s end. Far from detracting from the authors’ argument, the multiple voices—sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant—strengthen it. Not every reader will be comfortable with this mashup—Walsh and Keesmaat’s riffs on globalization can be as facile as the Beastie Boys’ rhymes—but with any luck, neither Colossians nor ponderous old commentaries will ever seem quite the same. Remixed or unmixed, the Scriptures have been on my mind as I listen to the Beastles, the Who Boys, and DJ Dangermouse. Snatching sources from the grasp of powerful interests that seek to limit their use, mixing genres with abandon, taking apart and putting together a long history, correlating the most familiar with the most surprising, redeeming chaos by remixing it with harmony—this is not just what happens in a DJ’s basement studio. It’s the story of the Bible, especially the dramatic reinterpretation of the Old Testament that takes place in the books of the New. Matthew does it, with his astonishing claims that events in the life of Jesus “fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet”—cutting, pasting, and sampling from prophetic passages about young virgins, weeping in Ramah, donkeys and colts. Paul does it, remixing audaciously in Ephesians 4:7. In that mashup of a verse, Psalm 68:18’s “You ascended the high mount, leading captives in your train and receiving gifts from people” becomes “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people,” leading into a poetic riff on Christ’s ascension and the nature of spiritual gifts. In Colossians, Paul does it with pagan sources too, taking the songs of the Empire, the language of supremacy and pax Romana and even the word “gospel” itself (the gospel, or euangelion, being the message of imperial success in battle), and deconstructing them to the beat of Christ crucified and risen. The writer to the Hebrews does it, with his catena of scriptures in Hebrews 1 and his mashup about faith in Hebrews 11. John the Revelator does it, sampling the weirdest tracks from Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel and more, punctuated over and over by the one word that sums up the Psalms: “Hallelujah!” The mashed up quality of Scripture, so easy for us to miss after twenty centuries of reverence for its inspiration, was obvious to the Jewish authorities, custodians of the texts being appropriated by the Jesus movement, who cast that movement’s members out of the synagogue. It was obvious to the Roman authorities who saw just how subversive it would be—so subversive they labeled it “atheism.” It became obvious to me as a third-year student of classical Greek when I first read the gospel of Mark in the original language. Written by an author who had not had the benefit of an Athenian education, it sounded as ugly in comparison to Homer or Herodotus as the Beastie Boys do in comparison to the Beatles—and yet it overwhelmed me with its power in a way that lovely Homer never did. And the genius of the Christian movement is that thanks to writers like Walsh and Keesmaat, the mashups continue, drawing the myths of our time into the groove of the ancient text, pitilessly and mercifully revealing their folly and their beauty, inviting our age to sing along. It is possible to pray along with the Beastie Boys—maybe even with Celine Dion. You just have to mash it up with the gospel, mash it up good. This is the good news of the mashup: It will all be taken apart. It will all be put together. Even the trash will tell a story.