Wayne Marshall and Brave New World Music

The Berkman Center’s lunch talk today centered on what ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall terms ‘brave new world music’; Marshall calls it the “reimagining of what the world of music is all about” – rather than the old trope of ‘ the West and the rest,’ Marshall’s work focuses on cultural interplay in the digital music world.

He starts by introducing us to the world of jerkin – an urban dance style originating in California that’s become popular across the country and beyond thanks to various digital platforms that make it easy for musicians to share and remix music online.  Jerkin’s rise to popularity was enabled specifically by various video platforms that allowed young people to upload videos of themselves dancing to popular songs, in this case, namely a track called “You’re a Jerk” by the New Boyz.  The young group made their own beats, using Fruity Loops, relatively simple digital audio software, and recorded the track on a low budget.

Then, Marshall explains, the group uploaded their track to MySpace, where it exploded, inspiring other kids to upload videos of themselves dancing to the track, eventually securing themselves a record deal and a top video (below). The New York Times caught on to jerkin as well, calling it “hip hop’s new steps” (to this, Marshall notes a potential decline in cultural vibrancy when things go too mainstream – an excellent point).

After the song became a hit, however, YouTube  — where many of the dancing videos were hosted — began taking down the earlier videos.  Their audio-recognition software, Marshall explains, recognizes unauthorized music and sends takedown notices to the folks who’ve uploaded the videos (another effect of this, Marshall notes, is the takedown of music blogs).

Nevertheless, the jerkin style, and particularly the New Boyz track, has gone globally viral in a sense.  Remixes abound, such as this one from Panama, which not only samples the original track but also “copies” aspects of the video:

And this is where the “brave new world of music” comes in — Marshall sees it a reimagining of what world music is all about, and I agree. I don’t have any real new thoughts to add to his, and frankly, this was one of the more engaging Berkman talks I’ve been to in recent months (though to be fair, that’s probably because I was raised by musicians), but I do think that — while music is obviously on a level all its own — that there are parallels in cross-cultural communications: Memes, for example, make a great one, and visual arts too. ‘Ethnomusicology’ and ‘world music’ — both terms to which Marshall admits unease — are becoming, if they’re not already, a thing of the past…we’re moving toward a more distributed world. No longer is culture viewed primarily through the lens of the West, and if you ask me, it’s about damn time.

David Weinberger also blogged the talk, as did (I think!) Ethan Zuckerman.

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