[22 June 2008]
We live in an age of miracles and wonders, or so the song goes. This morning I had no idea there was even a new Girl Talk album on the horizon, but now it’s early afternoon and I’ve already bought and paid for an official download of said album, with a hard copy promised to be delivered to my house early in the fall. According to recent reports, Greg Gillis finished mastering Feed the Animals last weekend, and it was available for sale Thursday. He’s following the In Rainbows model of allowing fans to pay what they want—or nothing at all—in exchange for an immediate download.
For all the hype over In Rainbows—some of it deserved, some of it probably a bit hyperbolic—the album has certainly made good on its implied promise of delivering immediate change to certain quarters of a moribund music industry. Those artists who can deliver their music directly to their audience are doing so, and they’re doing it immediately, no more waiting six months for a major corporation to slot an album into a crowded release schedule. Are you done recording, mixing and mastering your album? Well, put it up on the server and set up a PayPal account. If I were Axl Rose, I know how I’d release Chinese Democracy...
If you heard Girl Talk’s 2006 masterpiece Night Ripper, well, Feed the Animals is more of the same. That sounds dismissive, but it’s not. Night Ripper is one of the most consistently entertaining and downright revolutionary records I’ve ever heard, certainly every bit as essential as Coldcut’s 70 Minutes of Madness or any of Richie Hawtin’s microhouse DE9 mixes. (Or, hell, any of the KLF’s classic copyright-smashing rave tracks, or Paul’s Boutique, or Negativland.) Saying “more of the same” is pretty remarkable considering how good Night Ripper was in the first place. Gillis could have been forgiven for backing off and making something more like a “proper” album for his follow up—you know, like with actual songs and original production and stuff. I’m sure that’s in the cards somewhere down the line, but not now.
I was skeptical, I admit. Even when I praised Night Ripper back in 2006, I had no idea how it was going to hold up, if at all. Remember mash-ups? Remember how fun they were for about six months back there? And remember how they fell off the radar just as quickly? They were a gimmick, and even the most inspired mash-ups rarely did more than capitalize on the novelty of hearing two unlike things forced into close proximity. A few did, it’s true—Richard X released a great album at the height of the mash-up fad called Richard X Presents His X-Factor Vol. 1, that’s worth seeking out if you haven’t heard it. But if you’ve got Z-Trip’s Uneasy Listening and 2 Many DJ’s As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2, that’s probably all you need. But in between these few interesting and memorable experiments there was a whole lot of crap, not necessarily bad but simply unmemorable tracks that wouldn’t last a week on an iPod Shuffle, once the initial gimmick outlasted its appeal.
That’s the beauty of Girl Talk: it’s not just a gimmick. Totally by coincidence, just last week I happened to be listening to Night Ripper for the first time in a while, and I realized that the album was still as good as the first time I’d heard it, if not better. It wasn’t just the surprise of hearing all the familiar hits rubbing up against each other—that wears off quickly. On the contrary, the canny musicality that I had detected on first blush shone through even after the gimmick had faded. Girl Talk’s collages are so effective because they work with the music itself, highlighting the best or most effective bits from hundreds of songs without bothering to keep any of the dross. Sometimes he steals the hook outright—early on Feed the Animals he puts an extended portion of Sinead O’Connor’s cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” under a Lil Wayne rhyme—but sometimes his swipes are more subtle. Instead of grabbing the hook from Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, he merely grabs the stark snare-snap of the drum.
The point is that the mix is much more than the sum of its “gotcha!” moments, it’s a collage of hooks and samples that collectively add up to something else entirely. Pop songwriting is by nature a highly emotional, some might even say tawdry form. An artist has three-to-five minutes to get in, make their point, and get out—exaggeration it encouraged, melodramatic shorthand is mandatory. By plucking all the best, or even some of the underplayed moments from these famous tracks, something is being communicated on the nature of pop music itself. These hooks, even the most inane hooks like Tag Team’s ” Whoomp! (There It Is)”, carry a weight and retain an appeal.
If I were a Jungian (which I’m not) I’d almost be tempted to say that pop songs are like buoys floating through our collective unconscious. The “classic rock” moments that pop up throughout Feed the Animals provide an interesting counterpoint to the likes of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” (yeah, it’s got “Lollipop”): we know tracks like “Purple Haze” and “The Weight” like we know the back of our hands, and they carry an appropriate heft for their cultural familiarity. Juxtaposing them against undeniably ephemeral tracks like Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” forces the listener to examine the tracks as nothing more than the sum of their songwriting DNA, separate from any reputation or pedigree, concise units of musical information created with the sole Darwinian purpose of imparting their hooks onto another generation. There’s no such thing as songwriters anymore, it’s all about sound-as-sound, divorced from context and pureed into something wilder than could ever previously have been imagined.
With that said, there is no doubt that the more complex these mixes become, the more rarified their appeal. At some point, much as modern composition alienated mass audiences (at least in part) by elevating the critical vocabulary of the academy to such prominence as to represent a prerequisite for basic comprehension, these type of postmodern pop collages risk sacrificing their legibility in exchange for intricacy. It almost goes without saying that Feed the Animals is probably too recondite in conception, if not in form, to interest anyone but hardcore music aficionados and critics. Pop music long ago passed the event horizon where Duchampesque impishness cannot be distinguished from sober-minded sincerity. If such a line ever existed, it hasn’t made a difference to anyone but the lawyers in a very long time. The only thing stopping The Gray Album from being Jay-Z’s best album is the crappy sound quality on the MP3s I downloaded.
Feed the Animals is a wonderful achievement, but don’t take my pseudo-intellectual pontification as proof of anything, go listen to it yourself. Albums like these are actively changing the way people think about and listen to pop music, and in doing so Girl Talk is contributing to a very long lineage of conceptual innovators stretching back all the way to Thomas Edison, a stream of engineers and musicians dedicated to liberating music from the tyranny of direct representation of physical sounds. Whether music needed to be freed is besides the point at such a late date. Just listen to Feed the Animals for proof: hearing the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard bump up against Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” bristles with unexpected, improbably synergy. The way Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” burbles out of the murk and butts-heads against the riff from Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” is one of the most purely enjoyable pop moments of the year so far—but it doesn’t last long enough to outstay its welcome, just a few seconds, before the mix moves on to something else. Lest you think that the mix is merely a sum of sterile mixtape mash-ups, the most gratifying moments come when the raw emotions of these tracks pop to the surface of the mix and focus your attention, if only for a moment, against the density of their chaotic surroundings.