PRINT March 2003


I don’t recall that the vogue lasted for more than a few years, but one of the things many of us did in the 1980s was to put a music sample on our answering machines. The most socially confident simply replaced their entire voice message with a snatch of sound that summed up their mood for that day or week. Callers could interpret the morsel as they saw fit. It was a virtuoso way of customizing a new technology that offered an impersonal, and often awkward, resolution to a communication problem. Before it was widely accepted, the answering machine—like call waiting some years later—was considered an uncivil medium. Callers felt belittled or put off by their blunt encounters with mechanized greetings. Putting your own voice on the outgoing message, even if it was witty or self-mocking, seemed only to reinforce the breach of decorum. The music sample was a less complicit endorsement of the technology, and it gave callers something to savor. Genre-wise, it belonged to the baroque lineage of personalized stationery, and it presaged the widespread use of quotations in our e-mail signature files.

It would be careless to overlook the relevance of the answering-machine sample to its moment in time. We were living through the salad days of music sampling, before a legal chill descended on this warm and lustrous craft. Sampling was, arguably, the most representative aesthetic of a decade that wanted to put everything in quotation marks. It gave a vernacular spin to highbrow tactics like appropriation, collage, and creative copying, which had played starring roles in the debates about postmodernism. In the art world, these tactics had often been used for what was called institutional critique. They challenged modernist credos—such as the notion of an originary author or one-of-a-kind production—on which a vast and lucrative edifice of art appreciation and evaluation had been built. By contrast, sampling had hard-knock origins, in impromptu Bronx house parties and street jams thrown by

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