Girl Talk is the darling of the copyleft movement, having been made a hero in a number of online documentaries, including RIP: A Remix Manifesto and Good Copy Bad Copy.* However, to paraphrase curmudgeon and village atheist Steve Albini, though sampling shouldn’t involve the law, we should still ask if it is art. I’m not talking here of sampling across the board, but about the music of Girl Talk.
To recap, GirlTalk (Gregg Gillis) is a likable Pittsburg native who works (worked?) as a scientist by day but is motivational remixologist by night. He mashes-up familiar and recognizable samples from across the frequency spectrum, using top 40 G-rated pop as a backdrop for hip hop MCs who deploy all kinds of R-rated words that would make suburbanites blush. Unfortunately, such a juxtaposition feels a bit like cultural imperialism, for the mixes appropriate the appropriators and lack the reverence that crate diggers have for musical tradition. To me Girl Talk is like snacking on an all you can eat bar at Sizzler. Yeah, it tastes relatively good (high in salt!), it’s cheap (or in this case, free), it can be fun if you are doing it with people you like, and it’s appealing to a wide audience. No harm, no foul.
Yet, why does listening to it make me mad?
I recently downloaded All Day after an initial burst of Twitter hype. As the soundtrack for my commute on the bus, I found it digestible and easy on my ears, but annoyingly simplistic and unartful. The opening track to All Day is a very long sample of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” It is so long that it might as well be a track from a Sabbath album with a few embellishments. It’s a fun listen, but where is the artistry of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad which makes sampling an act of hermeneutics? PE’s music is not just ear candy but rich, layered, dense and cryptic. Or DJ Shadow who builds with an amazingly eclectic palette to create something entirely new? Or what about the innovative push of DJ technology by artists like Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck, and Janek Schaefer? The great hip hop artists were always reverent to their sources by drawing on a sophisticated knowledge of jazz, soul, or funk. Girl Talk is more map than territory, like surfing the Internet without deep listening.
One of the questions pondered in RIP is whether Girl Talk’s music is piracy or something entirely unique, and whether or not it is creative. Well, I don’t want to side with the record companies to argue that he shouldn’t make the music he is creating, but I think calling it new or “creative” is almost an indefensible position considering the lack of innovation and novelty of the mixes. I agree that the sheer number of samples and their seamless editing is definitely part of the craft of DJing, but I think a DJ and musician do different things. I know because I have done both. Nonetheless, DJing can be high art. Watching turntablists like DJ Q-Bert, DJ Quest, or DJ Krush in action is a sublime experience. Editing this shit together on a laptop at home just isn’t the same. I’m guessing Girl Talk’s popularity is based on his live shows, which look really fun and intoxicating. I’m down with that. Certainly it’s a skill, I just don’t want to call it art nor do I feel like dancing with his big fan Paris Hilton.
Being “illegal” gives Girl Talk’s albums a veneer of legitimacy and rebelliousness. But this is hardly punk or anything avant-garde. Rather, it’s white middle class folk music. Again, I don’t mean to speak ill of something that gives a lot of people pleasure. I also know I’m coming off as a bit conservative, but I just wish our cultural heros were more interesting and cutting edge.
OK, bring on the noise!
* By the by, other great documentaries on the topic include Steal This Film and Copyright Criminals .