by Chris Bodenner
Many people consider my favorite musician, Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk), no musician at all. In fact, certain stuffed shirts want to prosecute him for what he does. That's because Girl Talk creates mash-ups: tracks that blend samples from other artists, usually without permission. Mash-ups began as novelties, and most are just clever combinations of two songs. But on his last album alone, Girl Talk sampled nearly 300 different songs (up to 26/track), spanning hip hop, indie rock, dance pop, and dozens of subgenres. His more creative combinations include: the lyrics of Notorious B.I.G. over Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," rapper Drama over Roy Orbison's "You Got It," hip-hop duo Clipse over Grizzly Bears' indie hit "The Knife." His albums are a seamless string of frenzied dance tracks. At his live shows, the skinny, pasty, ex-engineer flails around with his fans and ultimately leaves in boxers. (For a fuller profile, see this piece I wrote last year.)
Girl Talk just released his newest album, Feed The Animals. In the spirit of open source (and following the lead of Radiohead's Rainbows), he put the album online as a "pay what you can" download. It's not quite the masterpiece of its predecessor, Night Ripper, but pretty damn close. Recently, fans have started to adapt Girl Talk tracks into music videos, splicing together snippets from sampled originals found on YouTube. This one is truly brilliant (the intro blends '60s British prog rock and Dirty South rap, and you can't miss the scenes from "Footloose" at 3:25):
("Still Here," featuring 50 Cent, Kenny Loggins, Salt-n-Pepa, Beck, Cat Stevens, etc.)
Girl Talk embodies the Millennial Generation like no other artist. An archaeologist from the future could find no greater musical artifact than Night Ripper or Feed The Animals, which feature music from the 80s (new wave, gangsta rap), 90s (grunge, Dirty South) and 00s (emo, crunk). Much of the fun is recognizing songs you haven't heard since middle school. But his albums aren't just nostalgic soundtracks; their ingenuous genre-blending makes them far greater than the sum of their parts. And Girl Talk would hardly have been possible without the generation-defining Internet. Online file-sharing allowed him to get almost any song for free. Editing software on his laptop (which he uses at live shows) allowed him to splice and dice music without the need for expensive studio equipment. And of course blogs and websites made word-of-mouth and distribution far easier for an amateur with a day job.
Also, I can't help but notice parallels between his music and the cultural atmosphere surrounding Obama. At age 46, Obama certainly isn't a Millennial. But his 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. (Incidentally, nearly half of the songs on Obama's iPod – including Jay-Z, Elton John, and the Stones – are sampled on the last two Girl Talk albums.)
Finally, I can't help but recall a great essay Reihan wrote on "rickrolling" – when someone booby-traps a link directed to the music video for Rick Astley's 1987 hit song, "Never Gonna Give You Up." In a critique of that video, he wrote:
His skin is a ghostly white…. And although he is pale and British, he sounds … black and American. … Astley could be condemned for appropriating a primarily black form of musical expression. But not only was he not condemned — he was embraced by music-lovers of all colors…. The earnestness and lack of self-consciousness contrasts with the paralyzing cynicism of our own time. What we're seeing is the promise of a post-racial future, in which color distinctions melt away in the white heat (so to speak) of Astley's soulful vocals. Could it be that Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up' is the soundtrack for the Age of Obama?
Not to totally ape Reihan, but could it be that Girl Talk is the artist for the Age of Obama? Like Astley, Gillis is a pale, geeky white guy (Gillis was a biomedical engineer, after all). Yet his grasp on hip-hop – the genre that dominates his sound – and his ability to weave it through disparate subgenres – namely indie rock – is remarkable. Oh, and "Never Gonna Give You Up" is featured on the 7th track of Feed The Animals, so you get RickRolled every time you listen.