I was going to start by saying that I didn't even want to concede that “mashup” is a legitimate term for a piece of music, but after further reflection, I think it’s actually the perfect word to describe this song-combining phenomenon. The word “mashup," like the vast majority of such arrangements, is clumsy and it sounds ridiculous, so I guess the label works.
There are, of course, some historical examples of composers tastefully and artistically combining two or more tunes within one piece (the Renaissance parody masses, the quintet from West Side Story, etc.). But the mashups I’m talking about are the kind currently popular in the contemporary choral community, both on the popular side (pop a cappella groups, show choir, etc.), and in sacred music (new, accessible settings for church choirs).
Here are the problems with mashups:
1. They aren't as impressive as they seem
As Adam Neely demonstrates in this video, mashups aren’t hard to create. They have the appearance of being very clever, but once you transpose a melody from one song and a chord progression from another song into the same key, many of them will fit together, more or less. This is especially true if the two songs aren’t particularly interesting (which they usually aren’t).
2. Most mashups use awful songs
The songs we see involved in these arrangements are generally bland and essentially musically interchangeable, which allows them to be combined more easily. If you successfully mash up two boring, unimaginative songs, who cares? Why are we messing around with dumb music? If a song isn’t interesting enough to perform in its entirety, we should be ignoring it.
3. When the songs aren’t bad, it’s even worse
More offensive than mashing up two dumb songs is when someone tries to combine two excellent, lovingly-crafted songs, and they screw them both up. Good songs tend to have lyrics that mean something, and characteristic melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and textural ideas working together to serve those lyrics. The songwriter has painstakingly constructed this musical and lyrical material into a unified whole. When an arranger comes along and takes out a knife and cuts up the song into its parts, and transplants some of it into a completely different musical context, it destroys the world the songwriter created.
4. It's a bad look for the arranger
It takes a composer with strong ears and creative ideas to arrange an entire song so that each section maintains its distinctiveness, yet feels like part of the same musical work. Mashups make it sound like the arranger said "I give up! I don't have enough good ideas to sustain one song through an entire arrangement.”
5. Mashups kill musical flow
What I appreciate most about a great song is deliberate, purposeful compositional pacing. A serious songwriter works hard to make musical events unfold in a way that sounds inevitable over the length of the whole song. I can’t think of a more effective way to ruin this than by cutting and splicing different songs together for the sake of cleverness, or to satisfy the short attention spans of the performers or the audience.
When choral directors buy these arrangements, they are telling publishers and arrangers that this is what they want. “I will spend my resources on this type of music. Please continue to publish these and market them to me.”
And the arrangers keep writing them.
And publishers keep pushing them.
And we all lose.
Medleys are similar to mashups, and they are also bad (for many of the same reasons), as I’ve told Facebook at least twice:
Full disclosure, I guess I did arrange one mashup. Opening Day 2015.
DSO didn’t respond [sad face].