When I was a masters student at Fordham University, Professor Lance Strate assigned a book called “Remediation: Understanding New Media” by Jay David Bolter of Georgia Tech and Richard Grusin of Wayne State. The book was honored twice by the Media Ecology Association in 2001 with both the Lewis Mumford Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Technics and the Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology. The authors pose several interesting theories that play along the lines of McLuhan’s work, including the idea that new electronic technologies, particularly based on the web, follow a historical line of media evolution in which each new form emerges as a refashioned and improved version of some prior form. McLuhan suggested that all new forms of technology contain as their content prior forms, where, for example, the content of writing is speech and the content of the telegraph is print. Bolter and Grusin’s interest is in the ways that this process occurs, the effects of this process on both old and new forms, and the way that we perceive experiences with new forms as real, immediate, or seamless.
For my part, it occurred to me as I browsed YouTube for reggae postings that a particular form of remediation was taking place. Reggae, for anyone who enjoys the sound, is rarely if ever on the radio, television, or anywhere else for that matter. At least in the United States. It’s not that reggae artists have ceased to produce records. Quite to the contrary. Reggae records are big business. Most reggae records get airplay in specific locations with specific demographics, but the biggest splash has always been made in the dancehall. Dancehall DJs put on a show by playing the latest cuts and locals come out to dance and peacock around to be seen. Sound systems put on the biggest dancehall shows and there’s a long history of friendly rivalries between the crews. Artists cut special ‘versions’ on behalf of the sound systems to help the crews puff out their chests.
YouTube has developed an interesting niche for reggae fans, where international sound systems, DJs, and everyday fans post music from live concerts, recording sessions, and the like, making reggae available to audiences everywhere, where it simply was not possible before. The power of new media and such. As a fan, YouTube has been a real blessing. There’s always a lot of great new music, versions, and ‘riddims’ out there to browse and new artists as well. Remediation could be discussed with respect to any number of the things I’ve mentioned here, with YouTube offering a lot of intriguing research possibilities. However, the most fascinating remediation example I’ve come across is the phenomenon whereby individuals turn their video cameras on their turntables and simply record a 45 record spinning a tune. Here’s the late, great Desmond Dekker‘s “007 – Shanty Town”.
The content of the 45 record, of course, is live music performed by an artist and a band. Prior to recording, music was experienced collectively and in a participatory fashion. Recording music, just as writing did for speech, removed the audience from the artist and created an isolation of sorts. Playing records in a dancehall returned the artist to the audience, but only in mediated form. Playing a record for a video camera, once again removes the record from the dancehall, isolating the audience from the DJ. The audience is potentially much larger and more diverse, but the immediacy of the experience is lost.
Still, it’s fascinating that video technology is used to represent the physical form of the record, turntable, needle, and DJ in a way that quite immediately retrieves an old environment. Did you sit and watch the record spin while you listened to the music? What subtle physical reaction did you experience when you watched the DJ place the record on the spinning turntable and drop the needle? If you’re old enough to have actually used a turntable, or attend parties with actual record-playing DJs, what did the little hiss from the record bring to the experience? If you don’t listen to records, how obvious was the hiss and how did it make you feel?
Playing 45 records via YouTube is something new altogether. The new form retrieves something old, and yet represents something emergent. Who ever thought you’d watch a record spinning on television? The old form no longer represents the spark of the dancehall in this environment, but creates a dancehall of every room with a computer connected to the Internet. One more for your listening (viewing) pleasure. Dance away to the sounds of Michael Prophet’s “Let Jah Be Praised”…fyah!!