The first time I heard M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes", I was really put off by the fact that the basis for the song was "Straight To Hell" by the Clash. Not that it was sampled, not that there was a reference, but if you removed the Clash from that song, there'd be very little left other than the vocal melody and some sound effects. The person who played it for me had never heard the original, and was a little defensive about it, ultimately claiming that it didn't matter, and the M.I.A. track was so brilliant.
It ain't bad, it was one of my favorite songs of last summer's hit parade, but it's existience brings up a lot of questions that I'm not sure of my feelings on. It would be easy to take the "old man" standpoint and grouse about the kids and their thievery, but I'm not so certain.
My first concern was that it would kill the power of the original. Now, I don't know if anything can do that, in this particular case. If it were something like "Footloose", maybe it would be a different story, but the original "Straight To Hell" was a wildly impressionistic view of the effects of the Vietnam war and culturual imperialism that was spreading faster and faster in a pre-Internet age. As a product of the British punk and post-punk culture, M.I.A. certainly understood this when she used the song, in my opinion, turning the sample into a soundtrack for the lyrics to be set to... her tales of young thugs, when set to the backing that has a pre-existing context of the poor and destroyed villages of Vietnam, conjures up images of herself as a third-world outlaw, swaggering Robin Hood-like through the slums, a self made queenpin of the ghetto, like Ivan in The Harder They Come. It's a starkly vivid image - for someone who knows the context of the original. Since I've known that Clash song for ages, I find myself wondering if people who DON'T know "Straight To Hell" would have the same response to it. In essence, does this song suffer for the fact that a large portion of it's intended audience doesn't get the message?
The flipside to this is the question of whether or not there is any potential loss of impact and meaning in the original song. The Clash will always be important to me, but by their very nature I don't hold their music sacred. Their records, I feel, will stand up to anything, so I don't need to champion them. However, is there a chance that if "Straight To Hell" is heard in a movie or on TV (because let's forget the radio), will it then be seen by post-M.I.A. listeners as "that song she sampled"? Sure, the song is powerful, but it has to be LISTENED to to retain that power. If it's summarily dismissed before it's even listened to, how can it retain the same impact?
Of course, this is all just a microcosm of the post-modern sample effect. Not that I hold too many sacred cows, but isn't there a danger that if everything is just a sound to be sampled, will there be any meaning left to anything when the dust settles? I've often claimed that by trendspotting and jumping from whatever is trendy to the next big thing, hipsters tend to hold everything at arm's length and never connect to anything. I firmly believe that the marketplace for creativity will ultimately prevail, but if there's no context for anything, how can anything have any emotional impact? If Puff Daddy sampling the Police didn't call to mind the melancholy of the original song, wouldn't his tribute to Biggie have just been augmented by a weird guitar line?
In my view, the point of sampling is to recontextualize a moment, which means placing the original moment, meaning and all, into another context, thereby transforming the new work's sentiment based around the original's subtext. Without that grounding, or something like it, everything becomes meaningless, just so much sound to be manipulated coldly, never intending to allow the context of the original moment through, merely creating an infinte digital cache of notes to be rearranged ad nauseum.
Is everything just sound? Does the concept of "purpose" have any place in the Digital Age? I don't know. I'm too old. But I think there is a major shift happening, when teen-idol pop stars can create "new" songs simply by putting a new melody and lyrics over a Beatles backing track. M.I.A. was most certainly aware of what she was doing, and while I guess she hit a nerve with my love of the Clash, she did a good job by using the original song's original meaning to enhance her new concept. It's just a shame that some of her audience isn't as well-informed as she is - they're only getting half the picture.