This piece is published in collaboration with writer Nick Sylvester and his blog Riff Market. For those wanting more background on how we came to write this extremely long essay together, please read Nick’s more extensive introduction here.
Gregg Gillis, a 26-year-old college graduate who likes pop music and owns a laptop, became Girl Talk in the first year of the 21st century. Taking cues from Britney Spears’ self-positioning circa 2001 — when she was famously “Not a Girl, Not Yet A Woman” — Gillis is not a DJ, but not a traditional musician either. With the aid of computer editing software, he creates danceable sound collages that often incorporate over 15-20 audio sources: namely, popular and less popular rock, rap, dance, and electronic songs, no era or genre excluded. The sources are mostly recognizable, and his songs — Gillis calls them “songs” — carry the force of nostalgia but are reconfigured and “mashed up” enough so as to sound fresh and new and free of the groan that collects when somebody insists on playing all four minutes and seventeen seconds of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” at the holiday party. With Girl Talk, we get that blissful moment of recognition without having to suffer through the next three minutes and thirty seconds remembering exactly why it hasn’t been Hammertime for more than a decade now.
Like many others before and after him, Gillis found his success after the indie music website Pitchfork Media bestowed positive reviews upon his third album, 2006’s Night Ripper. “Pittsburgh native Greg Gillis (Girl Talk) absolutely detonates the notions of mash-up,” wrote reviewer Sean Fennessey. “As an illegal art form, it’s surprising no one came along with an idea like this sooner.” The review came out on July 17 — so maybe the summer heat kept the typically spot-on Fennessey from remembering John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, the all-stolen-sample recording from 1985.
Either way, for Pitchfork and many others, Girl Talk raised the bastard-pop bar. He was not just playing two songs on top of each other like 2ManyDJs or Freelance Hellraiser, nor was he playing two songs next to each other in an anything-goes free-for-all DJ set a la Optimo or Erol Alkan. Instead Gillis is something of a surgeon, scalpeling out drum breaks from one song, vocal melodies from another, a guitar riff from another, and stitching them into some danceable semblance of a new song. These Frankensteins were emblematic of the indie-rockcentric Pitchfork’s growing appreciation for Southern rap, modern pop, and dance music too, so it was no surprise when the site took the opportunity to award Gillis’s album Best New Music, its highest honor — to celebrate Girl Talk was, in a way, to celebrate the site itself.
Around that time, Gillis hooked up with the Chicago-based Windish Agency. He quickly began touring the world with his sweaty dance parties. He had a well-blogged reputation for inviting people on stage to dance with him as he huddled over his computer, triggering his samples live, and soon he became a festival headliner. A career in music firmly established, soon Gillis quit his Pittsburgh day-job as a biomedical engineer. And now Gillis is at the point fame-wise where MTV News is more than happy to run a story about his last show, to take place on December 21, 2012. That date counts for the end of the Mayan calendar — believed by some to be the day the world will end. For a guy who plays others people’s music, more or less, Gillis is not doing so bad for himself.
I’LL BE YOUR WHATEVER YOU WANT
Girl Talk, to his immense credit, is an avatar of the most important musical-technological developments and music-industrial complications from the last decade: (illegal) music hyper-consumption in the face of record industry meltdown; the blurring of distinctions in major and indie labels; the plumbing of indie cool; an indie-rock about-face towards “selling out”; an unprecedented participatory music culture, a next-next-level fan club. (i.e.: It’s not enough just to go to the shows, or buy the t-shirts, or track down the seven-inches.) The mega-fans are remixing their favorite songs, lacing them with dance beats and synthesizer presets, posting their remixes on their blogs, commenting on those of others. Even if there were precedents for these complications, the 21st century form of mashups is a very palpable convergence: an internet-mediated, meta-pop moment.
There was a time of openly loathing but secretly loving 2 Many DJ’s blend of Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” over “Cannonball” by the Breeders. But it wasn’t clear at the time (late 2002) that this would be a New Musical Movement with artist heroes and collectives. The mashup was at best the democratization of once elite techie show-off skills. Pro Tools Free or Fruity Loops or Live (cracked or otherwise) were now widely available, and so anybody with an ounce of computer know-how was able to twist and contort their favorite songs into a seamless mixtape. Soon, an army of sixteen year-olds would surely adopt the mashup as a standard protocol in their early musical careers. They’d figure out a way to impress girls by putting Indigo Girls tracks over “Tootsie Roll.”
HE WISHES HE WAS A BALLER
A month after Night Ripper received Best New Music, Gillis told critic Ryan Dombal, “I’m trying to separate myself from other people by having songs that would be considered — technically — original things. I don’t seek out mashups. I’m associated with the whole mashup movement, and it’s too bad because I’m not a huge fan of them.” Two years later, Gillis told Robert Levine of the New York Times, straight up, “I want to be a musician and not just a party D.J. ….and like any musician I want to put out a classic album.” Then again, Gillis doesn’t need to say anything of this sort, with the militia of sycophants he has lined up to defend his work. Our favorite is Chris Bodenner, a guest blogger at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog. Bodenner not only insists Girl Talk is an artist, but believes him to be “the artist for the Age of Obama”:
[Obama]’s campaign — buoyed by young fans and volunteers — embodies that generation in so many ways, as does Girl Talk. Obama is a young, diverse, and unique politician running an innovative, grassroots campaign that thrives offs the Internet. Similarly, Girl Talk is a young, innovative, Internet-based artist whose level of sampling is unique and incredibly diverse — racially and stylistically. And both Obama and Gillis draw from the same demographics: African-Americans and young liberal whites. Plus, they both put on killer live shows.
Suffice it to say, we did not expect the glorification of mashers-up to the point of being artists — as if “talented DJ” just couldn’t suffice. Even Belgian duo 2 Many DJs kept their dark arts in the realm of the “DJ mix.” The Skee-Lo/Breeders track, for example, boasted no pretensions of song title other than a listing of its ingredients. But for some reason this Night Ripper set was an “album” rather than a “mix,” made of “songs” and not of “mashups.”
Perhaps this posing is required, however, because Night Ripper doesn’t particularly work as a straight DJ mix. There is no build; it doesn’t breathe. The genius of 2 Many DJs and some of the other first wave mashup artists was the naturalness of their blends. Without tinkering too much, the harmonic and melodic elements would align to make a sonically pleasing moment. Christina Aguilera sounded plausible singing over The Strokes in “A Stroke of Genius.” No DJ superhero could be heard pulling the strings. In the pre-Girl Talk days, the standard of judgment was the seamlessness, the beauty of a ridiculously paired, yet ironically similar set of songs.
But this is Girl Talk. Night Ripper is a “postmodern musical creation.” This posits itself as Art — challenging all prior definitions of what it means to make music.
A NITPICKY DIGRESSION B/W BEFORE THEY WERE GIRL TALKS
Technology obscures the fact, a simple one to me, that “mashing up” is the fundamental process for music making: i.e. combining and recombining different sounds into pleasing and/or at the very least hopefully-not-boring configurations. Lynyrd Skynyrd were known to mash up guitar and bass and drums into the configuration of “Sweet Home Alabama.” Weezer had a pretty good mashup called “Say It Ain’t So.” Some people/bands make terrible mashups. Other people/bands make pretty good mashups!
All’s to say, there is a context for Girl Talk’s cut-and-paste aesthetic. Technically he is working in the tradition of musique concrete, which when Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and Stockhausen and friends did it, comprised cutting up physical vinyl records and tape reels and re-pasting them together — using prerecorded sounds and reconfiguring them and then playing them as pastiche.
These were compositions but not traditional songs. And most of these compositions, to be frank, are more fun to think about than listen to. But since then, the concrete nature of recording has been exploited tremendously as part of the modern recording studio setup. Most radio pop songs are cut-and-pastes of previous takes actually, looped and warped and seamlessly woven together. And so musique concrete, one could reasonably argue, has significantly altered the path of recorded music, not necessarily with its content but as a process.
ROMAN CANDLE IN THE WIND
What’s tricky is that Gillis wants the Art-ness of musique concrete and the Popularity of Pop Music. Unlike musique concrete artists, even more popular ones like Matmos, Gillis wants, needs even, his samples to be fully recognizable. He is using well-known songs too, not field recordings of, say, a squeaky door hinge — so there is an element of junior-high level trainspotting to the album’s appeal, right down to the title: Night Ripper clearly plays on the Beatles song title “Day Tripper.” The tracklisting of the Night Ripper song “Smash Your Head” counts (at least) 17 samples, from Fall Out Boy to X-Ray-Spex to the Pharcyde, whose “Passing Me By” itself samples at least two songs. The effect is an advanced version of that game on the iPod, which challenges you to figure out what the song is from a four second random clip. It’s a game, and because Gillis keeps a steady beat, it’s technically danceable too.
It’s rarely listenable though — at least in any traditional, “I am taking pleasure in the configuration of these simultaneously occurring sounds and words” sense of pop music listening. Although Girl Talk has a few choice moments like the “Where Is My Mind” vs. “Hate Me Now” blend, he relies on pitch-shifting and time-distorting everything to fit within the same BPM — cramming all his various found elements into the same one-size-fits-all bed a la Greek villain Procrustes. He is obedient more to his process than the finished product. His most beloved blend of Biggie Smalls and Elton John pitches up “Tiny Dancer” to a ludicrous degree, and to add insult to injury, Gillis lets John’s artificially-chipmunked lyrics step all over Biggie’s rhymes. (This would surely prompt a severe drubbing if done in real life.) Gillis’ labored matching of “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” over “Friends of P” just sounds like “I Love the ‘90s” projectile vomiting.
There are also sloppy segments on Night Ripper where the songs’ keys don’t match up — like Ciara’s “Oh” over Elastica’s “Connection” — which I doubt was an intentional experiment in audience-polarizing post-modernism. Maybe we shouldn’t say that the errors are “unmusical” but they have the groove of a elementary school violin recital.
The ultimate glory of Girl Talk is supposed to reside in a brand new expression of “pop obsession” for a radically-different generation. But as it stands, Girl Talk just seems to love pop music as a sadistic steward, morphing all the hooks and cherished moments of the last forty years into devalued fodder for a long stream of time-stretched mid-range EQ mush with no peaks or dynamics.
Notice we don’t find Girl Talk offensive to copyright, “the ontology of art,” or pop music in general. We just think the relatively innovative gimmick of his style has exempted him from critical thought put towards the actual result. Are we a pop culture generation easily placated to hear our “references” bounced back to us, no matter the context or skill? Recall the Weezer video for “Pork and Beans.” Is the whole game now: “Hey, I know what that is!!”?
I’M GONNA ADD SOME BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
Late this summer, Girl Talk released his Night Ripper follow-up called Feed the Animals. (This is possibly a subtle reference to Belly’s “Feed the Trees,” but I doubt it.) Since Night Ripper, Gillis’s technical abilities improved, and there are fewer “unmusical” moments when keys don’t line up or samples seem sloppy. With fewer mistakes to distract us, the Girl Talk Thesis Statement seems more apparent, i.e. there is a Girl Talk Thesis Statement after all. Like a good crate-digging producer, Gillis aims to salvage what the past has discarded and wishes to figure out how to make worn-out songs sound good again.
A pretty clean example of that: He updates the build of “Dance To the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone, the part when Sly sings “I’m gonna add a little organ” and then the organ comes in, repeat with guitar, repeat with bass — except Girl Talk makes very simple substitutions for the original responses to Sly’s calls. If anything, it’s clever, a good party trick. Later Girl Talk rescues the one great chorus from an otherwise terrible Southern rap track (cf. Shawty Lo’s “They Know” or Cassidy’s “Drink N My 2 Step”) and finds it a better backbeat. Gillis sometimes just goes for broke and it works, combining awesome with awesome and giving us awesomer: For an all-too-brief time, Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” chorus glides over Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” instrumental. Getting paid is a forte; this is something else entirely.
Girl Talk is definitely Gillis’s Ongoing Project — and these records, as long as he keeps making them (four more years, dude!), could very well approach an Aesthetic if not a Point. From a technical standpoint, this is also a project that requires a certain degree of time and effort and patience (and an endless supply of a cappellas). He could just be combining any old songs, but he isn’t.
Obviously sometimes his combinations and sequences don’t taste good. But with music at least, the best moments are more value-indicative to me than the plethora of shitty ones. Shittiness is an inevitability. As pointed out, digital music manipulation tools have become cheaper and more available and the d-word, shudder, democratized. The ignobile vulgus doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to artmaking. Remember what happened when synthesizers became readily available in late disco, giving birth to house music: We first got Frankie Knuckles’ “Your Love,” but then we got, you know, everything else after that. Some of it was awesome. Most was terrible.
We’re not saying Girl Talk is the Frankie Knuckles of mash-ups. But compare him with the rest of what the internet has put out there for us — all the ridiculous song title puns — and you realize the extent to which he does care how he puts things together. His records have rough patches sonically, and he doesn’t have a handle on pacing, knowing only one speed (fast) and one density (brick) and one EQ setting (lots of mids). But he’s not exactly taking the piss, or the same kind of piss, as the rest of these people.
That being said, Girl Talk’s insistence on not being a pure DJ is a key to why the music sounds like it does, why it has only one speed, one timbre, and one density: if he lets a sample or phrase or loop breath on its own without some kind of additional percussion or secondary element, he is violating his own semantic scruples. Rule Number One of Girl Talk Club: Everything must be mashed at all times or otherwise the whole musique concrete / “art compounded from other art” rationale falls away, and Gillis is “just a DJ.”
This is a bar of poetic, Babel-like heights — an exciting concept, one to which Girl Talk’s execution rarely lives up. But in doing so, Girl Talk has deftly avoided the mashup label, and the musique concrete label, in favor of a brand-new artform whose result, critics be damned, has no point of comparison.
If not an outright lie, most times uniqueness is a bad excuse for Not Art. Many artists recoil at the mere suggestion that someone is doing something else just like them. To that end, these artists create new rules so that no one is on the same court. They get away with it, in no small part because most snobby music fans hate the idea of music having a “playing field” anyway, where music becomes like sports — scratch DJs or guitar soloists who have to practice, practice, practice, who try to outdo their rivals through sheer technical skill, who play at Madison Square Garden for screaming fans, who wipe the sweat with actual towels. (Except when it’s a video game, then we suddenly love it.)
Girl Talk doesn’t want to go to the Wimbledon of mash-ups, so he created his own sport. Let’s call it Speed Mashball. I don’t think he’s the best Speed Mashball player he could be (he’s definitely gotten better since the Night Ripper Tournament), but with no competition stepping to the plate to kick a “goober-ball” (we will discuss the rules and jargon of this complicated athletic metaphor later), Girl Talk is the undisputed gold medalist. And by using every sample known to man (and every a cappella downloaded from Jam Glue), he basically outmoded the entire circa 2003 mash-up sport.
We can put Girl Talk under the umbrellas of musique concrete or loop-based pop music itself, but these titles further confuse Gillis, making him out to be some kind of outsider or misunderstood auteur. Truth is, however, Girl Talk is first and foremost a campus favorite, a party rocker, that serious DJ flown in for the Kappa Alpha party who you go and ask if he has any De La Soul; he screams at you indignantly “I just played some!” and then you go back to looking for where Carrie Ann went off to. Unlike Matmos or Pierre Schaeffer or anything musique concrete, Girl Talk needs “the critics” as much as Tay “Chocolate Rain” Zonday does — which is to say, not at all. Dude’s likely got every weekend for the next year booked without all the ink spilled from the pens of eggheads.
As a second cousin, Girl Talk has that guy who sped-up all the Beatles albums to fit in a single ten minute file. But that particular music auteur gets no love from Pitchfork, no respect as “an artist.” Must be his subpar Street Team.
Can a process truly be called “repurposing” or “recontextualizing” when Repurpose and Recontext is built into the content’s genetic code? When it’s all part of the master plan? Disco and funk producers didn’t intend for their drum breaks to become the stuff of rap samples — yet with Girl Talk compositions, one wonders how much of Gillis’s ease is a testament to his technical prowess, and how much is just an articulation of the fact that pop music has become increasingly standardized, its parts more or less interchangeable. All major rap singles, for instance, come with an instrumental and a vocal a cappella; the verses are mostly all the same length, about 16 bars; the choruses are all more of less the same length of time too. It is understood within the architecture of pop and hip-hop music these days that the song is waiting, begging even, to be mashed up.
A modern audience likely won’t find anything remotely violent or controversial or confrontational to Girl Talk presenting this information either. Rock has coexisted with hip-hop has coexisted with noise. Our ears are better-than-ever equipped to handle these kinds of recombinations. Girl Talk has a moment on Feed The Animals when he puts a rap over the French disco-house track “Music Sounds Better With You,” and another one when we hear Lil Mama over Metallica’s “One.” It’s telling how little these tracks sound out of the ordinary, because ten years ago I suspect they would have. Just last year, Kanye took Daft Punk’s electro track “Harder Better Faster Stronger” and put rapping over it, called it “Stronger,” and it went to #1 on the Billboard Pop 100. Discounting the precedent of the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z’s best-selling Black Album in 2003 was filled with Lil Mama/Metallica-type moments. In the public imagination, these artistic decisions are no longer scandalous.
We’re seeing this in other situations, as the idea of user-generated content delights our commerce so — that the line between Ultimate Fan and Actual Artist is rendered the same in terms of exchange value. In 2008, Girl Talk is pop music’s Ultimate Fan. But the extent to which the music he’s working with is so portable, so building-block ready, makes it seem like he’s not making art so much as merely following industry directions: Step by step, like he’s putting together a Lego spaceship. There is no violence in this process, in other words; he’s hardly repurposing much of anything. Instead it’s like a video game in which Gillis has found the warp level — yet keep in mind, somebody somewhere had to program that warp level precisely so that it would be discovered.
THE 21ST NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER
And as the Ultimate Fan, Girl Talk exists as a mover not of music but nostalgia. He is the guy at the party who says, “Remember slap bracelets?” Dude: How about devil sticks?
Although there are things to hate about the whole “mass nostalgia” angle, who can gainsay the fact that the first major role of our new internet-based culture is to dig back in the near past and scream, “Yo, you remember this shit?” — whether it’s 1970s toy commercials on YouTube or Super Mario Bros. mycology sets on BoingBoing or funny Russian Speed Racer overdubs on Some Awful Thing. There is no way VH1 could have a “nostalgia for this week” show unless they felt the pressure to one-up the Internet where it’s all nostalgia all the time. Girl Talk fits into our national cultural mood extremely well. Gillis is the musical equivalent of “Best Week Ever.” And I am sure that even that show could be legitimized as “a perfect manifestation of what McLuhan and Warhol augured” rather than Lowest Common Denominator TV.
(A personal note from David: As someone living in the far Orient and generally ignoring recent American “popular” music to listen to David Brooks and Mark Shields battle it out on podcasts, I am either the least or most qualified person to make a judgment on Girl Talk. I had no idea Kayne West made music; I just thought he was that whiny Fauntleroy in shutter sunglasses always hanging out at colette in Paris. Forget art. The question is, without a public hungry for the references, is Feed the Animals anything at all? Does Girl Talk hold up as “music” without all the extratextual information? If you had no idea about mash-ups or hip-hop or “No Diggity” or “Epic” by Faith No More would you really be all that impressed? It would just be a long stream of unstructured pop drone. Imaginary straw-men that have lived in a underground bunker for fifty years would totally hate Girl Talk!)
To extend the earlier Lego metaphor: Just as bloggers have two basic options — write original content or become a central link warehouse — musicians now can either mold the musical blocks for other “secondary” artists or build the “spaceship” from the publicly available kit. But these are not equal options. I doubt that anyone will ever sample Kayne’s “Stronger.” It’s a dead-end, a cultural vasectomy.
A REALLY EASY WAY TO CONNECT TO PEOPLE
“The whole basis of the music is that people have these emotional attachments to these songs,” Gillis told Pitchfork. “Being able to manipulate that is a really easy way to connect with people.”
If Girl Talk has done anything, his dead-end project is a reminder of how fiercely dominant Western pop music has become. This is a capitulation, an audio essay even, of the last 25 years of American pop music: loop-based, interchangeable parts that, turns out, are more similar than maybe we’d like to admit. The “isn’t it funny how ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ sounds like that Boston song” moment is taken to its darkest, veil-lifted extreme. That we’re back in the Tin Pan Alley, and all pop music might actually be the same after all. That the difference is truly manufactured, that the concerns of each song are not interesting. Taking cues from the Grand Wizard Theodor: pop music is not art, but sound design.
Therein lies the insidiousness. Adorno pulled no punches. But Girl Talk poses as a pop optimist. He loves pop music — all pop music. It’s all so unique. It’s all just so great to him. Implicit in his project is that: It’s all so similar to him too. That it all sounds the same in the end. That listening to a bunch of songs we used to care about in his refracted, rejiggered form is, at its heart, the same exact thing, compositionally and otherwise, as listening to a brand new song by a brand new musician. Why bother, right? This project, worse than any covert corporate sponsorship, he calls a celebration of pop music. What he himself doesn’t know is we already had a name for it: la danse macabre.