And sometimes it uncovers interesting parallels between different songs, resulting in a completely new composite message.
Consider the "State of Pop" mix by DJ Earworm for 2009:
What's particularly interesting about this mix is the fact that the original lyrics are compiled into a whole new set of lyrics. And these new lyrics make coherent sense, in a pop music sort of way, despite being from so many different sources. What the venerable Earworm has done here is he's pulled together a bunch of parts of other works to create something new.
This isn't a crazy 21st century trick, though. No, they were doing it way back at the turn of the last century as well. In fact, in literature there's a whole term for this sort of thing.
We call it... "allusion."
Well, not exactly. Usually what "allusion" means is that an author takes a previous work and deliberately makes reference to, or quotes bits of, that work in order to make their own creating a little bit deeper, or more rewarding for the dedicated reader. So, when you've got a serpent in something, that tends to hint at a biblical allusion--it's alluding to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Or, a character in a vampire story proclaiming whether or not they drink wine would be an allusion to the classic line from Dracula. It's a bit different than something like a full-out borrowed character, or a retelling of another story, because it tends to rely on smaller references, structural similarities, and symbolic parallels. And, of course, as with anything dealing with symbolism, there is always plenty of room for interpretation.
DJ Earworm's mix, then, is basically Allusion On Steroids. It's all allusion--all snippets of other works composed into a new work. There's no original work--it's all other source material. This is a weird concept, and it sounds like a very modern kind of thing, but it's older than you might think. T.S. Eliot was doing this sort of thing back in the 1920s. Check out this passage from his sprawling, chaotic epic The Waste Land:
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
The beginning bit there is one of the most famous chunks of The Waste Land. It's an incredibly evocative passage, alluded to (are you starting to see how this works?) rather famously by Stephen King in his Dark Tower series.
But then the poem sort of clatters off the rails into four lines of German, of all things.
What's going on here?
Well, Eliot is sampling. First of all, all of that babbling about handfuls of dust? That shows up in a John Donne poem. The German bits? That's a sample from the famous Tristan und Isolde (or, The Romeo and Juliet Alpha Test). And the bits about the shadow? All of that's a sample too, of Eliot's own work! A big swath of the first part of The Waste Land actually comes from an earlier poem--"The Death of Saint Narcissus". Everything has been tweaked a bit to fit the structure of Eliot's new poem--maybe it's been autotuned or manipulated so that the key matches up--but ultimately this evocative, powerful passage is a mashup, just like Earworm's "State of Pop".
Eliot even plays games with the audience by including a bunch of notes (as in footnotes, not musical notes) that supposedly clear up all of his allusions. Spoiler alert: they do not. In fact, even he described his notes as a masterpiece of "bogus scholarship". He'll do things like reference a particular passage to a narrative about an arctic expedition when, as other scholars have pointed out, it's just as likely that he was thinking of passages from the New Testament. Sometimes he ends up sampling other people's samples. It's a mess.
It's a complex game Eliot is playing, and the end result is that the major theme of the poem is reinforced. That theme, of course, is fragmentation and collapse, reinforced by this confusing jumble of references. DJ Earworm has created a song that emphasizes the unity of its component parts, and while it can be argued that this is possible because pop music has basically three or four subjects (Sex, Dancing, More Sex, Lack Of Sex and How Lame That Is) that it never swerves from, ultimately the result is that the structure reinforces the theme of people coming together. In fact, the end message of the song is that pop music does have the power to bring us joy and comfort, even when life knocks us down. It's an incredibly optimistic message that is full of a belief in the ultimate power of art. In The Waste Land, the sense is only that people are dividing ever further and further apart, and this optimism is constantly denied. The places where the sampling is heaviest create not a sense of unity but a sense of disorder and the uselessness of our artistic traditions.
Two different works.
Two very different ways of using sampling as a tool for the generation of meaning.
The DJs of today are, in short, the Modernist Poets of our generation, spinning meaning out of the fractured images of the past. And call it sampling or call it allusion, the technique isn't going away any time soon. Because I agree with DJ Earworm: art has power, and we can find meaning amongst the fractured images shored against our ruins.
As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at email@example.com . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days. ALSO, I'm calling in favors. I'm living in The Week From Hell at the moment, and I'm going to need a guest article for Friday. Anyone have something they want to share? Let me know.