Girl Talk's Pop-Music Car-Wreck
I really hope this is his parents' house
People actually dance at Girl Talk shows. I'm not quite sure how this happens, but it does. On record and in person, the Pittsburgh laptop DJ Greg Gillis specializes in a sort of everything-at-once geyser of instantly recognizable reference-points: rappers rapping over old rock songs, old rock singers singing over rap beats, no single piece of music allowed to play for more than a few seconds before being violently disrupted by some other piece of music. It's the mash-up, that unbearable futuristic trend of six years ago, pushed way past its natural endpoint. For me, the absolute high-water mark of the whole mash-up silliness was Hollertronix's Never Scared mixtape, an omnivorous dance assault that pulled from sources spread haphazardly across genre but mostly keeping within a very specific idea of cool; Missy Elliott slashed with the Clash, say. Diplo and Low Budget actually managed to forge an aesthetic out of that blenderized idea of cool. The unfortunate byproducts of that aesthetic are currently making unbearable noise all over blog-house blogs, but I never had any trouble seeing how people could dance at Hollertronix DJ gigs. Girl Talk shows are another story. Gillis goes way more trash-culture with his song-choices, mostly swinging way away from anyone's idea of cool unless someone's idea of cool involves "Criminal Minded" careening into Paula Cole's "I Don't Wanna Wait." Gillis is totally uninterested in holding a beat for more than a second or two, which you'd think would make dancing hard. I sure as hell can't dance to the stuff. But at a Mercury Lounge show a couple of years ago, I watched a crowd bug the fuck out. Maybe whoo-ing and pogoing and spilling drinks on my shoes don't quite count as dancing, but they're something. And at the Pitchfork festival last year, things got even weirder: as Gillis hunched over his laptop on the festival's fenced-in third-stage, a massive crowd converged: climbing trees, hanging off chain-link fences, whooping from across the street. For music so based in catching references as they fly by, Girl Talk sure seems to inspire a lot of dumbing out.
Maybe I'm herbing myself out here, but I sort of like Feed the Animals, the new Girl Talk album. Actually, that's not quite right. I like individual bits and pieces of the album. Taken as a whole, the thing is just as spasmodically overwhelming as Night Ripper, its predecessor, and intense ear-fatigue sets in before I'm halfway through it. But since this isn't the first burst of reference I've heard from Gillis, it's easier to take this as something other than a vaguely risible Artistic Statement, even if Gillis is releasing it through a label called Illegal Art and giving it away for free online so nobody sues him (as if anyone cares enough to sue him). Given that Gillis is making his collages out of pop music, there are pop music thrills to be had on Feed the Animals; I remain physically incapable of hearing the opening bars from Len's "Steal My Sunshine" without grinning huge. Of course, Gillis is onto something else entirely by the time those opening bars finish, and I'm left wanting to hear the rest of the song. And maybe that's the best way to hear a Girl Talk album: as a list of reminders of songs you should really think about downloading from iTunes when you get home from the office today. (Roy Orbison's "You Got It"! Ace of Base's "All That She Wants"! Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak"!)
Back when every rock critic was writing about mash-ups, one of the selling points was that the act of juxtaposing two unrelated songs would help bring out qualities of both songs that we hadn't heard yet; Missy Elliott's voice, for instance, would take on unexpected mournful resonance when heard over Joy Division beats. Gillis isn't interested in making any points like that, I don't think. When we hear Chuck D barking out "Rebel Without a Pause" over Heart's "Magic Man," maybe the point is that it turns Chuck into the magic man of the other song's title, sort of like how he (maybe) became the kool thing from Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" just by ad-libbing on the track. More likely, though, I think it's just fun to hear his booming megaton voice over the weirdly psych-disco instrumental break at the middle of Heart's song. Gillis's main mission seems to be to mash those instant-recognition buttons as often as possible, to cause the instant-recognition rush we get when we hear (another example) Lil Mama rapping "Lip Gloss" over the Darkness! Imprisoning me! bit from Metallica's "One." There's no hidden connection between those two songs, and Gillis isn't trying to highlight qualities that they might share. They're just two really fun songs, and there's a tingle of surprise we get when we hear them combined like that.
But yeah, this is basically music for people with such severe ADD that they get bored listening to thirty-second song-samples on iTunes. Gillis doesn't care about internal dynamics or rising drama; he just wants to keep that adrenaline going as long as he possibly can. But my favorite moments on Feed the Animals come when he lets the chaos break for a second or two, when he lets stillness and beauty into his party. When I hear Lil Wayne or Rich Boy rapping over Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" or Aphex Twin's "Girl/Boy" song, the effect is something like when listening to The Journey, the gorgeously minimal experimental-music radio station in Grand Theft Auto IV, while trying to get through some hectic car-chase; the contrast between prettiness and giddy violence is a powerful one. So my big hope for Girl Talk is that he'll focus more on those moments of beauty. There's a bit near the end where we hear the vocals from Wiz Khalifa's "Say Yeah" (itself a self-conscious cheese-culture grab thanks to its Alice Deejay sample) over a troika of luxuriant, expansive tracks: Underworld's "Born Slippy," Usher's "Love in This Club," the Cure's "In Between Days." Those three songs sound just gorgeous together, and I'd like to hear somebody put them together without having Wiz Khalifa blathering overtop. But I guess that'd violate the tenants of Gillis's obnoxious project.