The Greatest Mashup Ever: Why it Works
I love transformation, taking an existing thing and making something new out of it. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it adds nothing to the original, and sometimes it’s a freakish horror that should never have seen the light of day.
But when it works, it can be gorgeous. Earth Wind and Fire’s “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.
Mashups take it to another level as two or more existing songs are slammed together. And again, the results vary from terrible to pointless to good to THE GREATEST THING I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED EVER OMG.
Let’s look at that one.
The Greatest Mashup Ever Created, End of Conversation™ brings two hideously different songs together: Taylor Swift’s caffeinated pop-tart “Shake It Off,” and the gothic shadow-world of “The Perfect Drug” by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
First the originals. For maximum appreciation of the mash, I suggest watching both of them first, but I am not the boss of you.
And now…Taylor Swift vs. Nine Inch Nails, by mashup artist Isosine.
Why It Works
The Lucky Coincidence: The two originals are not only close in tempo and key, but “Drug” is both a little slower than “Shake” (150 vs. 160 beats per minute) and a little lower in key (F major vs. G major). So by slightly speeding up “Drug” and slightly slowing down “Shake,” he brings both tempo and pitch into sync. The mashup is right smack in the middle of the two, 155 bpm and F# major. If they were further apart in pitch or tempo, at least one of the originals would have to be sped up or slowed down too far to work as well.
The New Story: The most common comment on the mashup is that “This shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.” There is no somehow. The opposition is a big part of why it works. There’s nothing new about contrasting light and dark, happy and grim. But this mashup combines the moods and themes of the two songs to create a third scenario. “Perfect Drug” is about an unnamed second-person obsession — You are the perfect drug. In the mashup, Swift becomes the “you,” the subject. The resulting narrative is instantly recognizable: She is the pretty, popular girl, the center of a cloud of beautiful people who move and dress and exist effortlessly at the top of the social pyramid. He’s the brooding obsessive loner, his attention fixed solely on her. She sings and dances, oblivious to his fixation, and his frustration grows.
At one point (1:15) she maddeningly seems to dance to his music as he sings The arrow goes straight to my heart/Without you everything just falls apart. At another, Swift’s trademark look of shocked surprise (1:37) is no longer about the row of jiggling butts behind her, but about his repeated line, And I want you. And yes, in this narrative, the icicle-dagger at 1:44 is especially creepy.
(As an antidote, there’s a nice comic touch when she sings “the fella over there with the hella good hair” (2:40) and it flashes to a greasy, glum Reznor.)
The Music. “Perfect Drug” is conveniently non-tonal for long stretches — it doesn’t get a tonal center at all for the first 50 seconds as he chants lyrics tunelessly against that cool, unsettling microtonal string thing. That allows Isosine to lay it over the Swift without worrying about pitch for about the first minute.
But they connect in other ways. Compare the rhythm in Reznor’s lyric to the rhythm in Swift’s bari sax (7 sec):
For the first 30 seconds of the mash, those two insanely well-matched rhythmic motives knit the two songs together musically, sounding as if they were made to be together.
With a slight nudge of the fader, Isosine creates another jigsaw fit in the next 12 seconds: Swift’s melody lays in the first and third bars of each phrase, while Reznor’s lyrics are in the second and fourth bars, reiterating his obsession four times with increasing intensity (13 sec):
And when “Perfect Drug” finally does go tonal in the refrain You are the perfect drug, the perfect drug, it works seamlessly with the bass and harmony of the Swift.
There’s more — there’s always more — but I’ll turn it over to you.
Trivia Bonus: The music videos for “Perfect Drug” and “Shake It Off” were (oddly) both directed by the same guy — filmmaker Mark Romanek.
Serious thanks to Paul Fidalgo, who first brought this mashup to my attention on his excellent blog iMortal.