|Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) performs a crazed live show at UCSB.|
Image from BeachBoy90 via Wiki Media Commons.
Nearly two months after the fact, I can still remember standing in line with a group of friends at 2:00 AM for a goldfish burger (a late night institution of the Buckhead bar scene in Atlanta), reeking of second hand smoke and hoarse from shouting conversation all night, when a friend, let's call him Andy the Mets Fan, said the following: "I can do what that Girl Talk guy does. It's easy. Give me two laptops and y'all can pay me to ruin two songs at a time."
For those uninitiated, Girl Talk (real name Gregg Gillis) is a mash up artist that combines rap acapella with a wide range of pop music from the last four decades such as Ludacris rapping over Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," or Biggie rapping over Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." Gillis burst onto the national music scene in 2006 when the indie music site Pitchfork gave a surprise, glowing review of his third album, Night Ripper. His live house-party style shows as well as his albums are dedicated to the singular goal of having fun. His fifth album, All Day, released in November of 2010 is 71 minutes with 373 unique samples (hear/see the annotated album here).
While Andy's negative comments adhere to the universal truth, "Opinions can't be wrong but they can be stupid," (Gillis told New York Magazine that creating one minute of a mix takes twelve hours of work), they do mirror the sentiment of idiots who stare at a Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock painting and utter, "I could do that." Although critics have given the pop/rap revelry artist high mark reviews, run profile pieces, and conducted fawning interviews, their description of the artist has been all over the map. Gillis's work has been categorized as Andy Warhol pop art; post modern; the Baroque period to the Renaissance of mash up music in 2005; MTV nostalgia; and I just referenced Abstract Expressionist painters.
So, is there one label that aptly captures Girl Talk's expertly crafted, frenetic, dance worthy, mash up music? Yes, I think so. Is this exercise a bit like English majors stretching the limits objective reasoning and inventing meanings for novels that were never intended? Probably. Is clicking through worth your time? You're here already... how bad could it be?
What Girl Talk is Not
Andy Warhol used common images from pop culture to celebrate fame, celebrity, and consumer culture. Gregg Gillis uses popular samples of songs to create a mix of music. Postmodernism celebrates relativism. The New York Times Magazine Zachary Lazar describes Gillis' music as sounding "ironic to the ironically inclined and like pure joy to the joyfully inclined." Abstract Expressionism abandoned traditional notions of style to the point where paintings looked elementary in the creation to the untrained eye. Gillis' mixes abandon the single mp3 style of mash ups created by Eurpean artists (like 2 Many DJ's) at the turn of the 21st century.
Pop art, postmodernism, and abstract expressionism have deep philosophical roots. Their themes are a reaction to contemporary trends, an expression of the artists' understanding of the world and his or her place in it. However, Girl Talk albums don't feel like an expression of deep seated values or an outpouring from some philosophical belief. New cultural movements are always a reaction to a some baseline of current culture. Yet, Gillis' music is created from that baseline, pulling songs from the evolving stream of pop music over the last forty years. Simply put, his music feels exactly like what most pop music aspires to be: fun in the now.
What Girl Talk Is
Every critic, interviewer, reviewer, concert goer, and even Gillis himself mentions the word fun when describing Girl Talk's music. Last I checked, fun in not a tenet of any philosophy or artistic movement. Sure, any discussion of the ethereal (and capitalized!) Art typically includes the word pleasure, but the main thrust of any "-ism" is usually expression. Medium of expression. Inspiration for expression. Clarity of expression. Intensity of expression.
Gillis doesn't espouse anything other than a good time. There may be some inside jokes with the combination of certain songs, but ultimately, Gillis wants the listener to move and enjoy the mixture of tracks. The closest artistic movement that matches Girl Talk's aesthetic is that of the American Colorists. Painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Richard Diebenkorn, moved away from themes of spirituality and deep meaning. Instead, they focused on the optical experience of the interplay of colors. The renown art historian Sister Mary Beckett describes the American Colorists as follows:
"The painters that followed the Abstract Expressionist movement were less intense in their concentration but wider and more diverse in the effects they sought. The Abstract Expressionists were profoundly serious- tragedy was their theme- while the Colorists, or "Stainers," used color to express joy rather than sorrow. They stained canvases with paint or created large areas of color to communicate visually the wonder of human existence. Color has an effect on us all; it communicates meaning in its very being, irrespective of image or theme. It was this elementary power that the Colorists relied upon, bypassing the intellect to appeal to a deeper self." -Sister Wendy Beckett The Story of Painting (pg 691)
|Fittingly, a non-color photo of Girl Talk in concert.|
Photo by Moses Namkunk via WikiMedia Commons
Clearly, Girl Talk is not for everyone. Some fans of rap, pop, and rock, including Andy the Mets Fan, may not enjoy combining their favorite songs with another that they deem unworthy (Juicy J's "Twerk" rapped over ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" anyone?). But critics and fans that enjoy the music of the high energy DJ need to categorize Gregg Gillis correctly: a genuine and skillful artist that creates mixes that highlight songs with the simple goal of creating fun... An American Colorist of Sound.