Tuesday, October 11, 2011
You know kids, it's time to start making your own culture instead of sampling other people's
In what has become a kind of ritual, Beyoncé has once again been accused of plagiarizing someone else's moves - this time those of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, a Belgian choreographer (a comparison of portions of the two dances in question are above; and, yeah, it's pretty obvious Beyoncé lifted the goods).
The usual suspects, of course, have been making the same old lame excuses for the beautiful and undeniably talented singer, as well as her choreographer and director, and by extension their entire generation, who together have grown up imagining that 'sampling' counts as a valid artistic statement. So I think it's time - actually, it's well past time - to begin laying down some critical ground rules around this "technique."
First and foremost: there are only two - only two - valid reasons to "sample." The first is to truly transform the material - to translate it into a new medium/context, or improve its quality, and extend its reach. This is what a great artist like Shakespeare does with a plot, or a composer like Dvořák does with a borrowed theme.
The second is to create a dialogue with the source material in question. And creating a dialogue requires that the audience in question be aware of (and understand) the cultural provenance of the sample. If that awareness is in place, then the sample can operate as tribute, or critique, or even as a jumping-off point for the sampling artist's statement, for the new material in play. For a time, I suppose, brazen recycling in and of itself could claim some credence as that statement, or at least as a novelty; but that time is long since over. In and of itself, sampling is now a cliché.
Therefore, if no such transformation or dialogue is in the offing, then the samples in question are aesthetically suspect.
And alas, it's hard to argue Beyoncé and her choreographer are translating anything into another medium (they're basically keeping it in the same medium), much less improving on it (the two sets of moves are exactly the same). Plus they are clearly sampling from work - and a whole tradition - unknown to their audience, so it's hard to see what sort of dialogue Beyoncé has created with her sources; indeed, nor is it credible that she ever intended to create such a dialogue. But then it's hard to feel there's any real coherence to the video in question, "Countdown" (much of the rest of it is borrowed, only from more famous sources, and the song itself is an obvious pastiche, too). The inevitable conclusion from all these observations is that yeah, Beyoncé has simply shoplifted the material for her video.
Only I know, I know - how can Beyoncé be a plagiarist? Beyoncé!!!! I mean, if she's a plagiarist, then EVERYONE is a plagiarist!!!
Yep, and that's precisely the problem. This has all gone on far too long, boys and girls - this deliberate confusion between cultural quotes operating in a developing tradition and the simple, cynical stitching together of the past's greatest hits to simulate an original single, or album - or play or exhibition. I mean why, exactly, was one of the highest-paid performers in pop simply riffling through samples of choreography to copy? Why? And why do we now expect that to be the standard operating procedure? There are probably many reasons why millennial culture is so thin and forgettable, but this is certainly one of them. I have to ask the people who are so addicted to this gimmick - who do you think is going to quote from you if all you've done is quote from other people? Yet all I read from our cultural mandarins are howls of pain whenever intellectual property rights are asserted, whenever someone is prevented from appropriating someone else's work as their own.
It strikes me, however, that cultural observers should be APPLAUDING this sort of thing, every time it happens, rather than whining about it. Because if necessity is the mother of invention, then it's the parent of originality, too. And the millennials could definitely stand to be just a bit more original, I think. They should certainly be encouraged not to quote, not to reference, any more than they absolutely have to. To forge something that is truly new - that should be the goal. I have to say that I can already tell from the tone of many cultural observers that to them this is unthinkable. They have no confidence whatsoever that the current generation could ever create anything truly new. I'd like to believe they're wrong, but when faced by the pathetic discourse around obvious rip-offs like this one, I confess it's hard to hang onto that faith.