Arts & Culture

Review: Steinski’s What Does It All Mean?

The issues of our age are increasingly reissues. Many people would rather purchase their pasts than pay the price for a future worth living. We see it on the DVD shelves at the big-box stores, where television shows from the … Read More

By / May 27, 2008

The issues of our age are increasingly reissues. Many people would rather purchase their pasts than pay the price for a future worth living. We see it on the DVD shelves at the big-box stores, where television shows from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, including ones that were deemed laughable when they were on the air, take up the space formerly reserved for new material. And we see it at Starbucks, where the CDs that move are the ones featuring the same old classic rock and pop that have crowded the radio dial over the past two decades. Even in stores devoted exclusively to the sale of cultural artifacts, a species seemingly destined for the status of endangered species, a good number of each week’s “new releases” are not new at all. It’s enough to make a person seek out a hobby resistant to mass-mediation, like needlepoint or falconry.

But all is not lost. With the loss of novelty as the prime mover in sales of records, films, and books – videogames being a signal exception to the trend – comes the opportunity to tell the truth of history with a different slant. We’re so conditioned to pay attention to repackaged culture, even items that we’ve previously owned ourselves, that we are likely to stumble upon work that we missed the first time around. It is now possible to fill in the gaps in our cultural upbringing with greater precision, redeeming the past that should have been ours if only we had known better.

Leaving aside the psychological implications of this self-refashioning, perfectly suited to the obsessive profile editing that takes place on social networking sites, it gives us the chance to transform our taste for the better. This is where Steinski’s two-CD collection What Does It All Mean? (Illegal Art, 2008) comes in. The work of advertising writer, DJ, and record collector Steve Stein and various collaborators, most notably Double Dee, it hints that, if we’re bent on purchasing the past anyway, we might as well purchase one that resists conventional notions of ownership.

Filled with highly influential cut-and-paste recordings that, because of their social and legal provenance, were difficult to obtain at the time of their creation and largely out of circulation since, the first disc in this two-CD retrospective provides a passage back to a mid-1980s in which the marriage of hip-hop and rock meant more than Run-DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”, and in which tracks tailor-made for dance clubs doubled as the cutting edge for a Pop Art avant-garde (listen to tracks here).

Painstakingly assembled from tape at a time when sampling had yet to become the prosthetic limb of hip-hop and remix producers, tracks like “The Payoff Mix” and “Lesson Three (History of Hip-Hop)” recall the heyday of postmodernism in the arts, when the abandonment of minimalist aesthetics led to a flowering of collage from the lofty peaks of the gallery scene all the way to the murky bottomlands of popular culture. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more succinct distillation of the anything-goes approach that gave us everything from breadth-requirement multiculturalism to David Letterman at his edgy best.

The real revelation on the first disc of What Does It All Mean?, though, is “The Motorcade Sped On,” Steinski’s recasting of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in which archival audio is paired with synth beats to surprisingly musical effect. It’s one thing to mash up different pop songs, as “The Payoff Mix” did, and another entirely to push that aesthetic to its logical extreme, revealing the distinction between culture and politics to be a differentially regulated boundary that serves the powers that be. If the propaganda machine is going to cross that border, Steinski suggests, we might as well follow it across. That’s definitely the message of the second disc here, his 2002 “comeback” record, the album-length collage Nothing To Fear, which takes advantage of technological advances in music-making without sacrificing the lucid simplicity of his work from the 1980s.

In a sense, it’s ironic that Steinski’s achievement is coming to us in the form of a neatly contained retrospective, since he was so instrumental in helping his listeners hear past the arbitrariness of packaging. If the big-box stores were catering to his approach, the whole-season collections of The Rockford Files and Knight Rider they proffer would be replaced by a vast array of mash-ups, the experience of YouTube transferred to disc. That wouldn’t sell, though. Indeed, it couldn’t sell, given the way copyright law is enforced. The paradox of What Does It All Mean? is that we are being asked to buy something that makes us question the reactionary nature of white-market consumption. Then again, the same could be said for books like Capital or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire. It’s a contradiction inherent to revolutionary practice in a world where property relations matter more than the human beings they bind together. But it’s a contradiction we’re better off recognizing for what it is, something Steinski teaches us with brevity, wit and a good deal of soul.