Mouth Moods mashups mix laughter with nostalgia

“One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies is, frankly, not profound. Sure, it’s emblematic of the ‘90s and (almost obnoxiously) catchy, but for most people, that’s where its value ends: nostalgia. But on Mouth Moods, Neil Cicierega’s January 2016 addition to his line of mashup mixtapes, “One Week” becomes something different. Mixed with Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and Santana’s “Smooth,” the song transforms into a funk-inspired earworm. One track later, it accompanies the backing track of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and shifts into something strangely poignant. Among so many bizarre unions of music, the BNL track not only stands out, but is held in such high esteem that it becomes a crucial part of what makes the album great.

None of this is new territory for Cicierega. He previously released two other Mouth albums in 2014, each packed with mashups, some strikingly clever, others outright ridiculous. While they operate on nostalgia and comedic timing, Cicierega’s role in internet culture leaves his audience with the impression he knows exactly what he’s doing when he combines John Lennon and Smash Mouth. He is the man behind phenomena like Potter Puppet Pals and Brodyquest, viral YouTube videos that leave their viewers puzzled, yet gratified. That oddness shines through in all the Mouth albums—it’s difficult to come away from them without feeling like you’ve briefly toured some other planet. The motive behind mixing a song with Smash Mouth’s “All Star” or the Quad City DJ’s “Space Jam” is the kind of eccentric brilliance the internet is famous for—the joke is initially self-referential, focused on the limits to this idea. Traditional samples are not usually the focus of a track, and some smaller artists deliberately seek out obscure clips to avoid paying licensing fees.

But with mashups, there is no way to avoid putting the spotlight on the tracks you used—that’s all there is to share. The name of the piece on YouTube or the thumbnail will often state who the individual artists are. If not, the comments section right below the video likely has answers

Copyright for these mashups, particularly the concept of “fair use,” has always been contentious—determining whether or not a sample is transformed enough in the song to be acceptable is inherently subjective, But these pieces and their popularity raise a larger question about sampling. Aside from some original instrumental segments, all of the Mouth albums are sewn together from old popular tracks. Simpler mashups, ones that don’t move lyrics around, are built upon full components from other music. Using a sound-bite is one thing, but even if these remixes don’t reach as wide of an audience, is it right to build a song entirely on the work of other people?

The idea of sampling—taking a segment of a song and repurposing it for your own work—is nothing new. Hip-hop artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, brought it into popular use, but the popularity of mashups in the digital age raises new questions about being able to own certain sounds.

By nature, samples juxtapose the original clip—and thus, the original song—with underlying instrumental track. Sometimes, an artist can use a excerpt from other media to add additional context to their work, even if it’s as simple as making a pop culture reference. By bringing that snippet back into conversation, musicians have the power to introduce their audience to bands and genres they may never have enjoyed otherwise. Even if a mashup is made from a great deal of different sources, the novelty of that idea drives people to compile comprehensive lists of samples: every track on Mouth Moods has the songs it borrows listed on the album’s Wikipedia page, including “The Starting Line,” which features 16 different works.

With mashups aiming to expand our pop culture bubble, “One Week” might actually be a genius piece for Cicierega to sample. The lyrics to the original song inundate the audience with references to other media, from LeAnn Rimes to Sailor Moon, that give a song about an apology a lighthearted tone. It isn’t taking itself seriously in the slightest, and that makes it ideal for use in Mouth Moods, which at various points features Brian Johnson of AC/DC screaming over Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” and a woman on a shopping channel raving about a 300 megabyte hard drive as “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers plays in the background. The clips of “One Week” set the tone of the album, but it also gives us the chance to appreciate the other samples for what they originally were—if a song so dedicated to being blithe can be transformed by a new backing track, it removes some reservations we might hold about putting together two wildly different clips. Because it is built upon popular music from the ‘80s to the early 21st century, Mouth Moods inherently draws upon nostalgia; and if that’s what it aims for, the value of “One Week” might not be something so superficial after all.

The nature of mashups is always fleeting. “One Week” is just now getting time in the spotlight, but it may never catch on for people besides Cicierega. Even if it does, it will more likely than not fade into the background as new trends take hold. As funny as “All Star” mixes may be, there’s no telling whether or not it will stick around, and popular music mashers are always updating their libraries as their favorite artists release new songs. That may initially be discouraging, but the nature of Youtube and the internet might actually make all this work. Nostalgia for the samples is one thing, but for the people involved in these fads, nostalgia for a time in their lives is a powerful thing—a time where they could be delighted by something as simple as slamming to the jam.