Many have commented on this “mashup” saying it ruins or improves the original song, but let’s be honest, that can’t possibly have been the sole motivation for creating this meme. These critiques point to an often overlooked question, what motivates a mash-up?
Though I am no expert in the modus operandi of mash-up makers, I find it hard to believe the purpose of combining these two songs is to improve or ruin either. Punctuating the Reading Rainbow theme song with DMX’s perennial, unanswered question – “WHAT?!” – along with his ceaseless reaffirmations that the listener is his n-word point to a subtle and essential quandary embedded in the millennial psyche.
Reading Rainbow, according to the show’s Wikipedia entry, ran from June 6, 1983 to November 10, 2006; an astonishingly long lifespan for a television show, though perhaps less remarkable for a public television show with the raison d’être of improving children’s literacy (albeit via television). This timeline puts millennials, (or generation y, or the more chillingly dystopian moniker, Gen-Y) in contact with Reading Rainbow wherever they fall within the generation’s ill-defined time frame, between the early 1980’s and the 2000’s.
This intro was apparently used until 1999, and even when the video changed to some live-action space-themed business after that they still used the original song, which, I’ll mention for the sake of trivia, was sung by Chaka Kahn. In it, an animated butterfly – the titular “butterfly in the sky” – changes otherwise boring real-life situations such as solo seashell listening, late night stoop-sitting, and reflective brook-watching into whimsical variations of the same scene. The introduction’s message was ostensibly to illustrate that the insertion of reading to any situation could transform it into a surprisingly fluid world two-dimensional dragons, space travel, and transatlantic exploration. Alternatively, this introduction may also be warning children that butterflies can unexpectedly and radically change the situation they are in and should be avoided. I find this latter reading to be less plausible given that the show’s content does not touch on strategies to avoid coming into contact with butterflies or lepidopterans generally.
The show’s mission, to broaden the appeal of reading as a pastime activity among children, presumably extended beyond this purpose alone. Childhood literacy continues to be considered a means of improving society. Its advocates emphasize that literacy’s positive impact on childhood development outweighs heredity for improved socialization. Higher literacy rates also correlate with better employment rates and less reliance on public assistance. This leads advocates to conclude that improved childhood literacy is a quantifiable investment in the future, creating independent, employable citizens who are less likely to require social programs. Thus, transforming your dull afternoon of brook-watching into a tale of colonial exploitation is the gateway to an improved humanity, though this time, the colonialism is only imagined. This seems to be a log in the fire of the Reagan- and post-Reagan-era Morning in America and late to post-Cold War optimism.
This is why the butterfly in the sky is a millennial shibboleth. This confidence that we had it right all along, considering the future of society in economic terms as something that needs to be invested in with a projected rate of return, and that the power is in our hands to make the change we want to see in the world is our generation’s a priori dial-tone, our starting point, the nihilo from which we got ex’d. The simplicity and innocence of this message may be contingent on the early age at which my generation and I absorbed it, but whatever fractured version of the message that was received was indelible.
Soon, this message would be distilled into “We Are the World” – and Canada’s somewhat less embarrassing response, “Tears Are Not Enough”. It’s hard to say how and when the zeitgeist’s self-cannibalism began, but often cloying distillations like these are indeed harbingers of the end. What seems most likely is that, like “We Are the World”, everyone’s saw through the message to its underlying egoism and exploitative aspects. It seemed like a shell of modernity’s confidence that the world’s problems were fundamentally surmountable through rational evaluation and scientific discovery and that this is the promethean duty, or perhaps destiny, of Western Europeans. I imagine everyone suddenly realized how caught up they were in self-congratulation and returned to the comfortingly cold distance of cynicism. The damage had already been done.
A few years later, the same generation would fall under DMX’s spell. DMX is best known as a hardcore rapper with aggressive style and lyrics depicting graphic violence as well as growling, barking, and repeatedly demanding to know “WHAT?”. His third and best-selling album “…And Then There Was X” featured the more mainstream “Party Up (Up in Here)”, which was the rapper’s first R&B Top Ten Chart hit. The story of his career is one of remarkable success peppered with legal troubles and brief jail sentences. In a biographical profile, Allmusic summarizes DMX’s persona as one oscillating between spiritual anguish and the sins of the street, “sort of like a hip-hop Johnny Cash.”
At the surface, these generational touchstones may seem contradictory. How can the generation brought up to appreciate the internal worlds offered by children’s literature and thus become independent, innovation-ready citizens also eat up a rapper best known for growling and barking at his audience, perpetually demanding they “COME ON”, and adamantly insisting the fundamental choice is “RIDE OR DIE”? DMX’s aggressive interruption of Chaka Kahn’s theme song may initially seem incongruous, but the contrast may not be so stark.
Much of hip hop is based on storytelling, and gangsta rap often features stories about crime, often to the point of sensationalization. These stories put the listener in this world. Much like the butterfly from the Reading Rainbow theme, I can picture my own version of brook staring on the school bus listening to “…And Then There Was X” when DMX flutters by to transform my surroundings into a drug deal gone wrong in the Baltimore hood. I was transported, and the danger was my whimsy.
What is being “mash”ed “-up” here is our collective identities. Reading Rainbow’s ambition to create a generation of informed citizens, thoughtful and confident enough to easily take on the world’s challenges because they had been introduced to “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain” at age six may or may not have actualized. I don’t know if the show’s primary, more modest goal of introducing children to literature changed childhood literacy rates. What is clear to me, however, is that the purpose of the show that can be gleaned from the introduction alone – to transform boring situations in everyday live into adventures through imagination – certainly did work out, though maybe not as the show had intended.
I imagine what inspired this “mash-up” creator to “mash” the Reading Rainbow theme songs “up” with some of DMX’s signature and most recognizable lines was the initial realization that the tone of one would contradict the other. Then this “mash-up” artist quickly realized that, while the tones would be in conflict, the Venn Diagram of the demographic touched by the Reading Rainbow theme song and DMX more or less completely overlaps, and indeed, both artists had a similar effect on this group of people.
“What’cha really want?” DMX asks, and this question is poignant. The truth is, we have both.