As we laze around on the first day of the new decade, nursing our hangovers from our epic Bootie New Years Eve party the night before, we find ourselves getting a little reflective. Looking back on not only the past year, but the past decade, we think about where we’ve been, where we are now, and how we got here. And in regards to Bootie, much of our trajectory can be traced back to one brilliant flashpoint of a mashup.
That mashup is called “A Stroke of Genius,” and it was created in 2001 by a bootlegger who went by the name of Freelance Hellraiser. It was one of the first mashups we ever heard, and its importance was paid homage to last night as Bootie SF house band Smash-Up Derby covered it just before midnight, calling it “the mashup of the decade.”
But we’re not the only ones who have called out this landmark track. Bootie LA’s DJ Paul V. said the same thing in his weekly “Mashup of the Week” blog on PopBytes.
But perhaps, most importantly, the UK’s influential Guardian newspaper called “A Stroke of Genius” “the song that defines the decade.” Although the article’s viewpoint is obviously written from an extremely trendy UK perspective – “A Stroke of Genius” never got the kind of massive attention and radio airplay here in the States that it did in the U.K., and as a consequence, the bootleg scene in that country exploded and burnt itself out rather quickly – hence, the writer’s erroneous comment that “the musical mashup has waned,” which is not only patently not true, but from our experience is quite the opposite! Still, the writer is pretty insightful on many points, which you can read in its entirety here:
When Christina met the Strokes: the song that defines the decade
Looking back at the noughties, Dorian Lynskey examines how a bootleg song, A Stroke of Genius, that never got a legitimate release prefigured all the significant pop trends of the decade
When you’re sifting through the ashes of a decade in pop, it’s very tempting to search for the Important Statement, the song that best sums up The Way We Live Now. (Here’s a drinking game for anyone reading end-of-the-00s round-ups: take a shot every time a record is tenuously related to 9/11.) But the most important records are often the ones that don’t know they’re important. They flare like Roman candles and burn out quickly and, in that brief window of incandescence, they vividly illuminate a moment in time. So the song that seems to tell me most about the decade just ending is not something off Kid A or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but the Freelancer Hellraiser’s A Stroke of Genius.
In the autumn of 2001 (wait, don’t take that shot), a British producer called Roy Kerr, aka the Freelance Hellraiser, spliced together the music from the Strokes’ Hard to Explain with the vocal from Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle and named it A Stroke of Genius – even the title seemed magically serendipitous. In the 1980s and 90s, art-minded mashups by the likes of John Oswald and the Evolution Control Committee tended to highlight the smash-and-grab nature of combining well-known songs, producing satire and subversion from the mismatch. They brokered shotgun marriages; Kerr, however, was more of a benign matchmaker, showing two disparate artists how much they really had in common.
Fittingly, the record plays out like a seduction. In her original song, Aguilera is coquettish and controlled, keeping her sexuality on a tight leash until the right guy comes along, and the music reinforces her restraint by maintaining a slow simmer. “My body’s saying let’s go,” she breathes. “But my heart is saying no.” In Julian Casablancas’s vocal on Hard to Explain there’s another inner battle (“I say the right thing/ But act the wrong way”) but, stripped of their singer’s hesitancy, the band’s itchy sexual energy becomes a “let’s go” too strong to resist and Aguilera sounds like she’s being swept towards a rendezvous that’s both dangerous and delicious.
It’s as if the Strokes had heard her line about “hormones racing at the speed of light” and written the music around it. Just before the chorus, her “oh-oh-oh”s swoon into the oncoming embrace of the rising guitars, and the pampered pop princess hooks up with the scruffy hipster from the wrong side of the tracks (never mind that Casablancas was definitely born on the right side: this is pop fantasy, not reality). The combination is so perfect that both original songs, excellent in their own right, suddenly sound incomplete, like two works in progress needing someone to complete them: two genies in different bottles waiting to be rubbed the right way. “Come, come, come and let me out.”
As three minutes and 36 seconds of endlessly listenable and danceable pop brilliance, A Stroke of Genius is up there with OutKast’s Hey Ya! in the 00s hall of fame (in fact, the two songs can be mixed together with ease) but it also says a lot about what has happened to pop over the past decade. First, there’s the means of distribution. A few hundred one-sided seven-inches of Stroke of Genius were independently released, which was enough to provoke a cease-and-desist order from RCA, home to both Aguilera and the Strokes, but almost everyone who heard and acquired the song did so online. Ten years earlier, Kerr’s creation would have been a samizdat artefact and you’d probably only have heard it via a tape of a tape of a tape, like copyright-flaunting records by Steinski or the JAMMs, but in 2001 it coincided with an explosion in MP3 blogs and filesharing software. Kerr got a career out of A Stroke of Genius, becoming Paul McCartney’s tour DJ and remixer for, among others, Aguilera, but after that initial vinyl run, it didn’t directly earn him a penny. Its gratis nature was part of its charm. It showed that illegal downloading could be an outlet for creativity and not just a means of taking for free music that already existed.
Mark Vidier, who made some of the very best mashups under the name Go Home Productions, told the New Yorker: “You don’t need a distributor, because your distribution is the internet. You don’t need a record label, because it’s your bedroom, and you don’t need a recording studio, because that’s your computer. You do it all yourself.” During the early 00s mashup boom, fostered by Eddy Temple-Morris’s Xfm show The Remix and blogs such as Boomselection, there were thousands of examples, some so bad they made you doubt the creator’s sense of hearing, others so good they were stepping stones to fruitful legitimate careers.
Danger Mouse made his name with 2004′s Jay-Z/Beatles soundclash The Grey Album before working with Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley and Beck. Minor Belgian indie band Soulwax earned themselves a second act via the thrilling mashups they played as their alter ego, 2 Many DJs. And there were dozens of wondrous one-offs. All you needed was one good idea, some freely available software and a basic understanding of how music works and 15 minutes of mashup glory could be yours.
A Stroke of Genius also spoke to a new breed of listener: the voracious hyper-consumer, with MP3s of every song ever recorded at his or her fingertips, whose loyalty is not to a particular scene or style but to the endless quest for the next hit of pleasure, from whatever source. Twenty years ago, there was always one friend who, when asked what he was into, said “a little bit of everything”. Now, at least if you’re under 35, that friend is you and everyone you know. If the old model of music consumption was the categorised-by-genre record collection, the new one is the iPod shuffle, where old and new, hip and cheesy, rub along just fine.
A Stroke of Genius came out when many indie fans still believed that manufactured pop stank of evil and death, and the idea of Christina Aguilera and the Strokes in perfect harmony was strange. These days there’s no contradiction between loving Arcade Fire and loving Britney. In fact, mainstream hits like the Sugababes’ About You Now and Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Be Gone, blurred the margins,in the style of A Stroke of Genius, by marrying an R&B-trained vocal to a Strokesian metronomic chug.
While Sean Rowley’s Guilty Pleasures night was busy rescuing Wings and ELO from years of ignominy, a similar process was taking place on a massive scale with new releases. “Do I like this?” superseded “Should I like this?” as the music fan’s automatic response to new music. As Jody Rosen wrote in Slate, “Maybe the real guilty pleasure in [the 00s] is gluttony.” This utopia of open-minded listening comes at a price – the old tribal tug-of-war that once made the top 40 a gripping battleground of rival factions with occasional guerrilla forays from leftfield; the sense that liking a certain kind of music was crucial to your cultural identity – but most of us now inhabit it, for good or ill.
The third crucial thing that A Stroke of Genius and its ilk did was to forge musical alliances so blatantly. Mashup pioneer John Oswald insisted 20 years ago that “the plundering has to be blatant.” His foe was copyright, which he considered a cage around creativity, but the mashup producers applied the same principle to apolitical ends. As pop’s history becomes more overwhelming (and, thanks to the internet and reunion tours, ever-present), originality gets harder with every passing year. So instead of copying old bands and hoping the audience either doesn’t know or doesn’t care who’s being imitated, the mashup producers played games with pop’s back catalogue, often with more wit and ingenuity: you could argue that Richard X’s mashup of Gary Numan and Adina Howard, released legitimately as the Sugababes’ 2002 hit Freak Like Me, made more imaginative use of early 80s synth-pop than anything on La Roux’s album.
The form reached its manic apex, or perhaps reductio ad absurdum, with the work of Pennsylvanian DJ Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, whose albums suggest the view from a bullet-train window as it speeds past countless pop landmarks. Much of the listener’s pleasure derives from recognising the source material and seeing pop as a fluid continuum, teeming with potential connections. Even though the musical mashup has waned, the YouTube equivalent thrives (just ask Oliver Hirschbiegel, the director of Downfall), and recently produced its own answer to Girl Talk with Rev Diva Schematic’s The Golden Age of Video, which cuts up famous movie dialogue to form a rhyming lyric.
But, as with Girl Talk, it’s both a remarkable achievement and a dead end. Both projects rely on a set of shared reference points, largely from an era when certain cultural artefacts were unifyingly successful, and consume them like a reckless oil driller bleeding a well dry. Pop, and pop culture, can only eat itself for so long before all you’re left with is bones.
Little, if any, of this was going through Roy Kerr’s head when he thought it would be a cool idea to match up two songs he liked but, in retrospect, they are all threads waiting to be unpicked. A Stroke of Genius is an accidental prophecy, a signpost pointing in an unforeseen direction. It came out during the first throes of enormous changes in the way music is heard and consumed, not all of them entirely welcome or boding well for the future, which makes it all the sweeter that the song is about velocity, ambivalence and the potential danger of surrendering to pleasure. Looking back, it feels like digital music was the genie in the bottle and, now that it’s been let out, nobody can put it back in.