Life Savers: Girl Talk

Girl Talk
Night Ripper
Illegal Art

I would classify myself as a music geek, although not of the highest order. I don’t have 15,000 songs on my iTunes or the biggest, newest iPod. But I do read music blogs, write record reviews, and listen to music that casual music fans would probably consider weird. I often have headphones on and probably spend too much of my money on concerts.

I don’t personally remember hating pop music but I can (and probably still do) recall feeling better about myself because I had “taste” in music. When people I knew who weren’t serious music fans asked me my favorite band, I would often say “you probably haven’t heard of them.” What kind of jerk answer is that?

By definition music nerds have to hate popular music. In fact, your music nerdiness can often be directly correlated with just how much you hate pop music. It’s targeted at the unwashed masses and lacks substance, intelligence, and gravitas. Peddlers of pop music are mostly concerned about image and sales numbers – something indie musicians clearly will never care about. Their records sell at Wal-Mart and their videos are on MTV. They are sexy, do Pepsi ads, and sing the national anthem at baseball games.

One DJ from Pennsylvania has turned the notion that it’s un-cool for hipsters to like pop music on its head. Girl Talk’s third album, 2006’s Night Ripper, re-defined what pop music is – and what it can be — by destroying, warping, twisting, chopping, smashing, and generally mutilating it beyond recognition. Labeled a “mash-up” DJ, Girl Talk takes a number of short samples, rearranges, loops, and scrambles them together to create a pop music Frankenstein’s monster.

It’s not like Gillis is breaking any musical barriers here. Old-school rappers and DJs have been using samples and/or chopping records up for decades. Unlike many rappers, though, Gillis has avoided legal trouble from the artists he samples. It’s probably because he has always stood firm that his music “re-contextualizes” the original source material. Basically, he isn’t stealing the hook from Billy Squier’s “The Stroke”. Instead, he is weaving it into a quilt of many other samples to form an entirely new product. Unlike other unlicensed sampling, Gillis isn’t directly profiting off another’s work. In fact, he is probably exposing them to a new audience.

For example, album opener “Once Again” takes the intro from Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” and blends it with Ludacris’ “Pimpin All Over the World” and Ciara’s thumping “my/my/my” vocals from “Goodies”. From there, the song warps into a collision of the Ying Yang Twins’ “The Whisper Song” and the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. It would have taken me years to think of that one minute span of glorious musical alchemy and even longer to deftly and seamlessly overlap the many components. The result is not only a great song, but a newfound respect for the catchiness of Luda’s rapping, Boston’s guitar work, and the Ying Yang Twins’ nasty lines. I have never listened to Ludacris seriously, but maybe now I will. To think, hipsters like me listening to mainstream hip-hop.

Revelations like this are everywhere on Gillis’ latest, 2008’s Feed the Animals, as well. You know that MacBook Air song (Yael Naim’s “New Soul”) that got stuck in your head for days? Imagine that hook with Eminem’s drunken, slightly misogynistic track, “Shake That”. Can’t hear that in your head? Alright, what about the guitar from The Cranberries’ “Dreams” (you know it, even if you don’t) and M.I.A’s “Boyz”? One more for you: Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” vocals + Nine Inch Nails “Wish”. Trust me; it’s terrifying and awesome at the same time.

Songs are given new life from this pop music Dr. Frankenstein. The drums and guitar from Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice” are as brutal on “Smash Your Head” as they were in 1993 on In Utero – maybe more so when featured alongside Young Jeezy. The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” makes a great backbeat for Purple Ribbon All-Stars’ “Kryptonite (I’m on It)”. Genres, timelines, and popularity are of no consequence to Girl Talk. Britney Spears and the Pointer Sisters? Do it. The Breeders and Stevie Wonder? Bring it on. It’s like Gillis threw your music library into a blender, set it to puree, and created a 42-minute milk shake of pure pop pleasure.

In addition to making an amazing party album, Gillis has done something far more profound: revived pop music for a lot of jaded music fans. Going to any “indie” show is a lesson in pretension and assumed coolness. Most fans (myself included, most of the time) just stand around, arms folded, quietly enjoying the band. Dancing is simply not cool. It is something teenage girls do. The thing is, roughly the exact same crowd can be found at Girl Talk shows (because he is “cool”) dancing like teenage girls. Gillis has pulled the ultimate rope-a-dope on hipsters. By peppering pop songs with “indie” samples like Neutral Milk Hotel, the Pixies, and Weezer, he has allowed them to simply love music again. If one kid goes to a Girl Talk show and then steals his/her parents’ Genesis, Chicago or Aerosmith albums or his/her younger brother’s Young Jeezy or 50 Cent records, I’ve got to think that’s a good thing.

I have listened to Night Ripper roughly twenty times through in a one month span. The same is true for Feed the Animals. That’s more than I can say for a host of critically acclaimed, “important” albums that came out this year. Does this mean Girl Talk is more important or better than Of Montreal or Radiohead? I don’t think so. But in a way, yeah, it does. I’ve listened to “Once Again” off of Night Ripper about once a day since I’ve acquired it – and it’s probably more than that, between my car and iPod. That is ridiculous. And although that number will probably level out eventually, it says something about the power a pop-minded mash-up DJ can have over a music geek like me.

Often dismissed as somewhat of a fad – a guy who just plays other people’s music, something that loses relevance the longer it exists — I think that’s the way Night Ripper, Feed the Animals, and Girl Talk’s music in general, should be. It’s the Voltron of pop music, taking choruses and hooks from a host of sources and turning them into something more, something bigger. Best of, the source material is not only used, but revived as well. Am I going to come back every so often to listen to it as much as say Arcade Fire’s Funeral? I doubt it. I don’t think the record will have as much resonance when I am say, 32, instead of 22. But every single time (so far) I’ve heard B.I.G’s “Juicy” mixed with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, or Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” with Three Six Mafia’s “I’d Rather”, I think Gregg Gillis is a goddamn genius.

I used to keep bands like Styx and Electric Light Orchestra out of my iTunes library — despite liking many of their songs — for fear someone cooler than me would see it and scoff. Although that never happened, I do recall doing it to people on more than one occasion. No longer will I laugh when the first artist in someone’s iTunes is 2Pac. Girl Talk has made it more than just ironic to like bands like Heart, Cat Stevens, and Puff Daddy – he’s made it cool again. He’s shown me (and probably others) that there can be just as much musical value in a mainstream, MTV rap song as there is in an Icelandic minimalist techno song, or sometimes even more.

We shouldn’t hate pop music simply because of what it is. We should love it for what it isn’t. It’s not pretentious or deep or complicated. It’s just pop. And despite how goofy the lyrics for “My Humps” are, it’s undeniably…pop-y. And that has to be good for something. Now, James Taylor is nestled right next to Jens Lekman in my library. Styx right next to the Strokes. Lily Allen next to Lightning Bolt. And that’s the way it should be.