“Dedicated to All Human Beings”: Remix Culture, Fandom, and the Case of Radiohead’s “Reckoner” - The Avid Listener

October 31, 2016

“Dedicated to All Human Beings”: Remix Culture, Fandom, and the Case of Radiohead’s “Reckoner”

Reba A. Wissner, Montclair State University

 

Radiohead’s video for “Reckoner.”

 

A remix is the digital reinterpretation of a song by adding, removing, or altering its constituent parts such as beat, tempo, and instrumentation. Many artists remix their own songs, and DJs often remix the songs of other musicians. More and more frequently, artists are encouraging fans to make their own remixes by making the components of their music available online as a bundle of tracks, with each track isolating a single instrument or group of instruments. Fans are then free to manipulate and recombine these individual tracks in programs like GarageBand to create a new version of the song. The results can be astonishing in their variety and creativity. One of the best examples of fan-based remixing via Internet comes from the 2007 album In Rainbows by Radiohead, a group based in Oxford, UK.  

Radiohead was by no means the first band to invite fans to interact with their music; Peter Gabriel and David Byrne, for example, ran remix contests for their music in 2006, as did Christina Aguilera with the release of her 2012 single, “Your Body.” Nor were they the only band to release isolated tracks of their songs to make it easier for fans to create remixes; alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails also did so, calling these uploads “multitracks” or “song masters.” What makes Radiohead so remarkable is the unprecedented degree of engagement their remix competitions have been able to generate among their fan base, due in part to the robust online interface they provided for sharing and discussing remixes.

Shortly after the release of In Rainbows, Radiohead decided to release separate “stem” tracks—individual tracks of each instrument channel—for two songs, “Nude” and “Reckoner.” (The band defines “stems” on their website as “the component parts of the song.”) For “Reckoner,” the band released six stems in a DRM-free format, meaning that the files could be copied and edited without technical restrictions.  The stems broke the songs into six tracks—backing vocals, bass, drums and percussion, guitars, lead vocals, and piano and strings—and lasted as long as the original track so that they could be easily overlaid with one another. If a customer purchased these stems within the first two weeks of their availability, the website would generate an access code for the full GarageBand version of the song complete with all of the downloadable stems.

After downloading, remixers could use any or all of the stems provided to create their remixes and could also add material of their own. Because the entrances of the instruments or voices used in each stem are isolated, not all of the stems begin at the opening of the track; in these cases there is silence before and after those instruments or voices enter or exit. For example, the piano and strings stem is silent until the instruments enter at 1:21 and the backing vocals stem is silent until the 1:30 mark. Remixers frequently overlaid other tracks from either the “Reckoner” stems or from other sources in order to eliminate the tacet (silent) sections of the stem tracks. These delayed-entrance stems provided seemingly endless creative opportunities for re-mixers and made it easier for them to overlay additional stems as desired.

To encourage fan submissions, the band asked two well-known remixing artists, Diplo and James Holden, to create the first of the song’s remixes. These remixes differed drastically from the original track and gave fans a taste of the many possibilities remixing could present. The James Holden remix, which combines elements of progressive house and trance music, incorporates a repeating melody line as part of the beat. The lead vocal track, which is in a different meter than the melody and beat, is superimposed over the new melody, creating metric dissonance. Fans may not have immediately considered creating remixes with such unusual features, but these remixes allowed them to see and hear new possibilities. By September 28, 2008—only a single day after Radiohead released the stems for download—130 remixes of “Reckoner” were uploaded to the website. Fans also created their own graphics, and some remixes on YouTube include videos created by the remixer to go with the song.

Fans have produced remixes of almost endless variety. Some of the new mixes are only remotely related to the original track, while others differ just slightly from it. Some mix meters and keys using the beat of one song and the stems of another, and some splice the stems from the two songs, often combining them in a different order. In terms of style, the remixes that resulted are also richly varied, both from one another and from the original. They range from dance and electronica tracks to heavy metal and easy listening. The majority of the remixes are at least two minutes longer than the original version, lasting five minutes or more.

The Flying Lotus Remix, for example, uses a Bhangra beat. It incorporates many new tone colors and instruments that were not in the original, such as the dhol and computer generated sounds. At the 1:50 mark, the words “in rainbows” is easily audible but with added reverberation. By using this stem, the words “in rainbows” (the name of the album’s title track) are much more audible than in the original. The background vocals of this section are soon juxtaposed with the opening lead vocals at 2:15, turning into electronica style at 2:21, using the beat of another one of Radiohead’s songs from the album, “15 Step.” At this point, the mixture of electronica and Bhangra styles with the original stems make the remix sound as if three different songs are playing simultaneously.

In the Paul Keeley Remix, the music is faster and has a dance beat, reminiscent of 90s electronica but with trance-style synthesizer pads and drum and bass breakbeats. The stems have been manipulated so that their tempo matches the tempo of the other added tracks. This metric unity makes the remix sound very different from remixes such as James Holden’s. The Cathartic Mix adds in elements of MIDI technology with new beats while keeping the lead vocal track. The computerized music creates a futuristic sound that distinguishes it from many of the other remixes. The central part of the remix, 3:12-4:08 corresponds exactly to the midpoint of the original song and remains unaltered.  Parts of the remix also contain metric dissonance, creating a sense of rhythmic clashing. In The Cubicolor Remix, the original vocal and piano stems, beginning at 1:25, are placed above a new beat. The remix is given a new tempo and a different meter, both of which create the impression that “Reckoner” and another song are being played simultaneously.

Remixers were able to show off their work by posting their new mixes online. The website provided downloadable widgets that allowed remixers to post their creations on their own social media pages and vote for their favorites. The remixes were then ranked in a league table, though no contest was technically running. Fans could listen to each other’s remixes—which, inevitably, also wound up on YouTube, which is where most of them reside today—and participate in message board discussions.

After the success of In Rainbows, remixing became readily accessible to fans, allowing them to participate directly in the band’s music-making, and providing them with an additional means by which to understand the music they know and love. Through remixing, fans—and listeners—are able to examine each piece of a song, see how the pieces fit together in the original work, and experiment with new interplays among the piece’s components. Thanks in part to Radiohead, remixes have become an important component of fandom and have even been likened to fanfiction.

While there remains a definitive version of “Reckoner” by Radiohead, the remixes have allowed Radiohead fans to experience the music from a new perspective and has provided a meaningful way to connect with the rest of the fan community. By encouraging their fans’ creativity, you might say that Radiohead is living up to the lyrics of “Reckoner,” proving that their music is “dedicated to all human beings.”

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Besides remixing, how else might fans actively engage with the music of their favorite bands?
  2. In 2012, Christina Aguilera promoted her new album by organizing a remix contest for her single “Your Body.” In what ways was doing so effective marketing? In what was was it not effective?

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