Better Dead than Shred
So I'm sure people are already writing scholarly papers on this phenomena (if they aren't, they should be), but there are a few interesting things going on in Youtube-land.
First, is the 'shred' technique, where clever people take a music video and carefully (or not so carefully) alter the sound track.
For example, check out these two:
Steve Vai Shreds - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiXR9ggRdFI
Celine Dion Shreds - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNhhXmXQ_bY
Listen to the two types of alteration -- the first, the guitar playing has been replaced by someone intentially playing poorly. The second is a bit more subtle, but certain elements of the original remain, but others are detuned or replayed (poorly). The effect is somewhat unsettling, but provides a hilarious commentary. If you'd never heard Steve Vai playing, maybe you would listen to the clip and say to yourself "This guy is a terrible player," (he's not). The second...well, I don't know what to say.
At what point does the original become mutated enough to be noticeable (by the average listener) as being altered? Would just a few de-tuned notes be enough to tip off the average listener?
Enter Sandman, Gently
Some of the most brutal (but, let's face it, kind of cool) music out there is from the heavy metal/grunge scene. Heavy distortion, thick textures, and an angry groove are commonplace. What if the style is drastically changed? Check out what one enterprising musician did to these videos:
Metallica (Enter Sandman) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBmM79YadYM
Alice in Chains (Man in the box) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZS86c1dXlo
Judas Priest (You got another thing comin') - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wERlvafYVfo
AC/DC (Back in Black) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6gE46WPpPY
There's an entire world of audio engineers, DJs, and rappers out there who (possibly illegally) grab vocal source tracks and set them to their own music--and the results are, in my opinion, very interesting (see: mashups, kleptones). Lyrically, these songs haven't changed. Does the new setting affect the overall message being conveyed?
Clearly, the answer is "yes, there's a different message" in the new versions." There's obviously an element of social commentary, sarcasm, and/or irony. There's a subtle jab taking place here. The gap between the original and the "shredded" versions creates a semantic ocean, a distance between two different meanings. It's similar to nonverbal communication; we don't necessarily get the full message unless we consider all of the different dimensions of the speaker's message. This is the "tuxedo t-shirt" of genres (http://www.tuxedo-t-shirt.com/).
So the first examples, (poor Celine!) challenge our assumptions about quality and musicianship. Horrendous errors like poor playing and out-of-tune-singing should be generally obvious to a trained ear, but I wonder what those sound like to people unfamiliar with the music (or people with little interest or training in music). Are the people out there who couldn't tell the difference between the professionally crafted original and the fake? Probably. The distance between the originals and the 'shredded' versions opens up a space; a zone that asks us, "What's wrong with the shred? What's wrong with the original? Why don't you like Celine Dion?"
The second group shows us what happens when the performance is of good quality, but the musical message changes significantly. Is music 'neutral' in these examples? I would have to say that it isn't--comparing these to the originals provides proof. Contrast the light, bossa-nova styles presented here with the distorted, plodding, and foreboding arrangements of the originals. Ask the question, "Why didn't Metallica use a smooth jazz setting in the first place? What message were they trying to convey by the arrangement they did choose?"
Moving into the church, I ask: Could we take the text of a Canticle and effectively set it to a heavy metal? Definitely not--the effect would be just as ironic (and some would say, tasteless) as the 'shredding' examples above. Surprisingly, church musicians attempt such Frankenstein-like experiments every Sunday, but again, they create a semantic tension between the message (the text) and the medium (the music). For the non-trained listeners, oblivious to technical errors, perhaps we can make excuses, but the musicians responsible for should know better!