The Importance of Year-End Mashups, and What They Say About Us
BYT Staff | Dec 11, 2012 | 9:00AM |

All words by Molly Beauchemin.

In an information age where content seems to infiltrate and then bleed from the national consciousness in a matter of mere seconds, the “End of the Year Mashup Mix” is an interesting cultural phenomenon.

The tradition began in late 2007, when Jordan Roseman, a San Francisco-based mashup artist known as DJ Earworm, assembled Billboard’s Top 25 Pop Songs of the year into a single, technologically sophisticated music video, featuring layers of remixed sound clips playing in continuum with accurately sequenced video clips from the featured artists’ real music videos. Early on, the concept felt like internet pastiche: Earworm was creating loops of cultural detritus collected from the preceeding year of Popular music, which made for a unique but recognizable piece of art that sounded itself like another Top 40 hit. But the decision to create the “United States of Pop” was much bigger than that, with further-reaching implications: DJ Earworm’s mashups were orientation towards songwriting, and represented a sampling of cultural currency– an ample year-end overview of everything that happened to popular culture in the last 365 days. This summary was birthed in the form of a video that lasted for only as long as he could keep the Internet’s attention: less than five minutes.

“The United Stats of Pop 2007” opens with a set of Jay-Z’s signature introductory throat clearing: the ah-huh’s that open Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, which reached #1 on Billboard’s Top 100 list on June 9th, 2007, where it remained for 14 weeks. Lending an instrumental undercurrent to the song’s patchwork sampling, the intro song gives the mashup a sense of preamble, into which suddenly bursts a snarling guitar riff from Daughtry’s less snarly single, “Home”, which then gives way to Travie McCoy’s heroically gym-class “ba-ba-da-da!”, the iconic baby coo garble from that years’ radio hit, “Take A Look At My Girlfriend”. Recognizable hooks proceed to fade in and out, well-worn drum beats make repeat appearances, and listeners are left with the enduring impression that every pop song, as the old adage goes, does in fact use “the same four chords”— after all, the songs fit together seamlessly, as if they were pieces of a shimmering synth puzzle that had simply never before been assembled. This was Earworm’s genius. Instead of traditionally mashing two songs together, like cult-favorites Norwegian Recycling and Girl Talk so often do, his one song packed a year’s worth of Pop. More than four basslines were playing interchangeably when suddenly, Mims was driving up in a Cadillac, announcing to viewers of the YouTube video that “This is Why I’m Hot”; before Beyonce could usher us and our boxes twice “to the left”, Fergie had already gotten “Clumsy”, T-Pain bought everyone a “drank”, and Adam Levine started to cry in a hotel lobby. Maroon 5, alas, needed “something to believe in”, and it seems that DJ Earworm delivered on that promise with a brand new form of cultural cotton candy, spun from the sweet crystals of mindless radio ambrosia.

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Since 2007, Roseman has been creating the year-end pop mashups that listeners have now come to accept as an annual, chart topping “tradition”— a concept that has become increasingly more novel in an Internet Age where ideas move quickly and sentimentality moves even faster. There was 2008’s “Viva la Pop”, 2009’s “Blame It on the Pop”, 2010’s “Don’t Stop the Pop”, and 2011’s “World Go Boom”. Who knew that a concise way to reflect on a year’s worth of bubblegum would be so culturally salient?

Perhaps it is because the mashups represent a trite way to sum-up the vapid world of popular quotables, returning to the viewer some sense of control over a year’s worth of music and information that they inevitably struggled to keep up with. We exist in an age where there is never any time set aside for us to reflect on popular culture with any sense of resonance— even if its simply to reflect on its superficiality. To do so would be to miss out on the next big thing. The Year End Mashup song, however, implies a reason to do just that, because it is the “next” thing; it gives us a reason to codify nostalgia into one big, melodic exhale. Viewing and recognizing different choruses within the miasmatic whole gives youth a way to internalize the memories that they accrued over the past year. The soundtrack may remind them of a period of personal growth and development over the course of said year—that, or it reminds them of many sloppy, drunk nights, a poorly executed school dance, their summer playlist, weeks of daily commutes with Casey Kasem, or all of the above. Either way, there’s a certain sense of sentimentality that comes with seeing the year in review through a piece of music that still feels toe-tappingly fresh. And the fact that we’ve now come to anticipate it each year makes its arrival all the more novel and intriguing.

In the process of making these mashups, many artists since Earworm have managed to capture a bit of culture and to freeze it in time and in relation to other cultural happenings from the same year: listening to the 2007 mix, I recall my then-17 year-old self, a new driver, with homecoming dances at which they played “Fergalicious”, varsity sports team theme-songs courtesy of Jim Jones, AP Biology projects with “Rehab” stuck in my head, and promiscuity behind the bleachers (not me, other people). Listening to the 2010 mashup reminds me of late night Lady Gaga dance parties in college, the summer I worked in South America, and “California Gurls” still played everywhere, and regrettable Frat parties (not me, other people). In the same fashion, 2012’s video is sure to remind people of the future that 2012 was the year of “Call Me, Maybe”-– the same year that Adele soundtracked the Bond movie, Psy taught us how to dance, One Direction ruined America, and the Biebs went through puberty (and so did I!).

There is, however, also something to be said for the fact that music culture, like fashion, moves in cycles: Adam Levine, who so woefully laments an enigmatic other in the 2007 mashup, is still chasing his interloper in the 2012 video, where he stands trying to call her “at a payphone”. Enrique Iglesias, far from retirement, is still crooning into shadowy corners and looking dead-eyed at nobody in particular. Christina Aguilera joins him in that pursuit, “The Voice” newly stamped on her aging resume. Even Madonna refuses to be put down, although this time she’s got the support of two hip, young cheerleaders that lend her their increasing street credit: M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj.

Even for people who don’t listen to pop music, the mashup is instantly familiar sounding, which is why its “relevance” cannot be overlooked as an important meditation on culture. In 2012, it is virtually impossible to avoid witnessing the brand partnerships (commercials, television soundtracks) that come prepackaged with pop music, even if you try to avoid either. Have you seen an IPod ad? Do you watch sports clips? Have you ever, in your life, seen a car commercial? Beats by Dre. Lana del Rey for H&M. Katy Perry for Pop Chips. 50 Cent drinks your Vitamin Water. Taylor Swift wears your lipstick, eats your pizza, and uses my bank, apparently. Yeah, music sells. But what are we buying?

And do we want it?

One may embrace this reality or choose to deny it, but culture feeds on sonic marketing strategies that seem to wantonly permeate even the most actively sheltered of earlobes, such that even a staunch NPR listener could recognize the croons and aural wallops featured in this years’ mix. A mashup like this is always thorough, and tends to span the year’s airtime ubiquity both democratically and sequentially. In the 2012 rendition, there are elements from multiple pop-leaning genres, like hip hop (Flo Rida’s “Whistle”), electronica (Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”), and alternative music (Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”), and as ever, the transitions are seamless.

Right now, the 2012 mashup is making the rounds on the internet circuit where it, too, will eventually perish under the weight of a million+ hits, it’s progeny destined for reincarnation around this same time in 2013. But even if that unique blend of future songs ends up sounding the same as this one– and listening to the mashups from 2007 to 2012, I can assure you that they all eventually sound the same-– the song will still, then as now, be heralded as a brief moment in musical time when everyone can stop and reflect on superficiality before it passes. And maybe we need that. In an era where nothing is new and new means nothing, it’s nice to know that even if we have to wait a year for it, one thing is certain: popular culture always comes back around.