You know a grassroots phenomenon has hit critical mass when massive soft drink companies are hip to it: Any garden-variety consumer can now cool down with a Sprite Remix, which adds cherry, berry or tropical fruit flavors to ... whatever Sprite is supposed to taste like in the first place.
The concept of the remix is so deeply entrenched in our popular culture that even people who listen to Jon Secada on 8-track cartridges and don't know how to work the Internet are familiar with the term, if not all of its specifics. Lately, even indie rock—a genre that has long bypassed the remix—wants some of the action.
The remix has traditionally been distinct from the cover because it involves editing existing instrumentation instead of playing and adding new instruments. But now that the use of electronic tools in rock music is rampant, as is pop songwriting by electronic musicians, the line is blurred. The remix is now less like a cousin to the cover than the result of its natural evolution, just like the mash-up (a breed of remix that blends different songs, most famously and recently associated with the producer Girl Talk) is an evolution of the medley. It's an old idea reincarnated through relatively new technologies.
Remixing has long been de rigeur in most electronic/ dance genres and hip-hop. It's been embraced by mainstream rock bands, too, especially electronically inclined ones: Radiohead, Bjork and Nine Inch Nails all have extensive remixes in their catalogs, many of them by amateurs and fans. Indeed, the remix is often seen as a way not only to sell more records or iTunes singles but also to increase fans' sense of investment in a band. Many bands offer contests between fans. Deliver the best remix, for instance, and win free tickets. In that, the remix form is just about the most populist genre imaginable, which raises the question: Why did it take indie rock, a nominally populist genre, so long to catch up with it?
The story of the modern remix arguably begins in Jamaica circa 1970 with the ascendance of "versions," dancehall tracks stripped of vocals and smeared with reverb and delay. These "dub plates" became so popular over the course of the '70s that they spawned their own independent genre. During the same period in New York, a similar re-evaluation of the sanctity of the recorded artifact was in the offing, in cultural spheres as diverse as the disco of Tom Moulton and the electro of DJ Kool Herc. This was no coincidence. Both forms were examples of alluring technological possibilities expressing themselves in different cultures.
A big part of indie rock's reticence involves lingering ideology: Built into indie rock's DNA is the idea that it's an alternative to "fake" music like techno, rap, electronica—basically anything that 20-something college kids don't play on traditional rock instruments. A quick trawl through popular indie rock message boards proves that this reactionary stance is far from dead, but in the Internet age of less Balkanized tastes, it has significantly diminished. Now indie bands freely pillage from disco, techno and even rap, and it isn't uncommon for people who love The Arcade Fire to have a bit of Lil' Wayne or Justin Timberlake on their iPod or in their Pitchfork. The appeal of the remix increases proportionately to the loosening of genre biases, it seems.
A related block between indie rock and remixes has been indie rock's general bias toward auteurs. It values direct personal expression by people who write and play their own songs (particularly the solitary, troubled genius), preferably recorded straight to a four-track. In this mindset, authenticity is prized, and it decreases with every layer of electronic interference between musician and audience. But as the Internet breaks down conceptual as well as physical and cultural boundaries—in this great cesspool, wildly different genres seem much more similar than they do when sectioned off into different radio stations, clubs and scenes—the idea that playing an organic tool with strings is more authentic than playing a digital tool with knobs also seems to be on the wane.
Perhaps the biggest impediment has been a practical one, though. The remix had a long gestation amid beat-driven genres before it infiltrated indie rock. The form became somewhat ossified around drum breaks and house beats, while a lot of indie rock favors loose, sloppy playing that is ill-suited to such electronic precision. Those clean beats worked great on Sweet Beats, Troubled Sleep, which featured remixes of Raleigh's The Rosebuds' album Night of the Furies, as the original songs were already steeped in disco and New Wave. Other indie rock bands have to find ways to make the form suit their music: A new remix album of songs by Chapel Hill band The Old Ceremony recognizes that the band's "pop-noir" would be incredibly cheesy as straight techno. Instead, band member Matt Brandau recasts "God Said" as A Tribe Called Quest-style jazz-hop, "Carry the One" as spacey electro-funk.
But why does it matter if indie rock is amenable to remixes or not? The answer is a bit of a paradox: This electronic genre is actually the most literally organic in existence today, especially as genres like indie rock head more and more for the mainstream. The remix breaks the stranglehold of corporate monoculture, restoring to music the communally narrative quality that is its ancient function, which commerce threatens to stifle. It also breaks down the performer/ spectator divide, turning a monologue into a conversation. It represents a culture that is always talking to and revising itself, in which musical information moves freely, unrestricted by selfish hoarding. It tears down the concertina wire we string around the things we make, and tacitly argues that music belongs to all of us and none of us. It fosters the kind of growth and change that make an artistic culture feel robust and alive.
If indie rock has felt, at times, unnervingly like a museum, its slow but increasing embrace of the remix is making it feel how it should—like a playground.
The Old Ceremony releases its remix record with a dance party hosted by L in Japanese at Mansion 462 in Chapel Hill Saturday, Sept. 6. Admission is $5. The band itself plays Cat's Cradle Friday, Sept. 5, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10, and the Modern Skirts open.