William Safire‘s “On Language” columns have gotten a lot more enjoyable since he stopped writing op-eds for The New York Times, but when he steps into a field with which he is not entirely familiar, the results cross that fine line between charming and cringey. Of course, it’s also hard to tell when he’s kidding—he self-consciously begins one sentence here with “I recall a letter written to Gov. William Scranton…”—but, well, he’s writing about “mashup.” And “remix.” You can probably tell where this is going.
Certainly he takes a different view of the medium than most of us would, though since we are not William Safire, I suppose we would be in the wrong. He attributes the genesis of mashups to “the hip-hop world in the mid-’90s,” while I would be more likely to say it started with Plunderphonics and caught on with 2 Many DJs. Maybe Bill is thinking of “freestyle”? He also does an odd skip over the very precise technical origins of “remix,” saying that it “began in 1969 as a variant of ‘re-recording’.” Er, isn’t it a variant of “mixing”? As in, it’s been mixed and finalized once and then someone mixes it again?
It seems to me there is a very simple difference between “mashup” and “remix,” one which informs all their non-musical uses. A mashup takes parts of two or more existing things and combines them without substantially altering the originals. A remix takes parts of a single thing and rearranges it. So something that combines, say, Google Maps with a set of data is a mashup, whereas something like The Wind Done Gone that takes an existing novel and rewrites it from the perspective of a different character could be called a remix. It’s nice that Safire took things outside the usual story, but if his column was aimed at people unfamiliar with the concepts, I’m not sure how much it helped.
On the bright side, it didn’t mention Girl Talk.