28 March 2011

2010: Girl Talk

Girl Talk
All Day

Released November 15, 2010 (Illegal Art)

Short Notes: This is as divisive as it gets, folks.

Lin: D

Christgau's rating system, which we're using here, breaks down at the lower end: it doesn't work particularly well for the really crappy albums. His description of a D+ album is, "...an appalling piece of pimpwork or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity." Which describes my opinion of this album pretty accurately (mostly the former clause). But at the same time, "It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D record." Well, I can understand why someone would get this album because I've had this argument a few too many times, but the only somewhat-valid argument is the simple "because I like it."

What Girl Talk does is a skill. I don't deny this. What Yngwie Malsteen does is also a skill. The dudes that speak fluent Klingon? Skill. Now, I don't think what Girl Talk does is as difficult as the other two examples, but that doesn't make it any more or less important or valuable. What I'm saying is that skill or difficulty is not a good argument for good music in and of itself. Good music requires soul, not pyrotechnics.

Which is key because, when you're working with other people's art, you need to add something to it in order for it to be worthwhile. The cover is the easiest example: of what value is a rote, note-for-note, pitch-for-pitch version of someone else's song? The best covers add something to the original and/or force the listener to interact it with a new and different way, adding to the experience.

What does Girl Talk provide that is new? None of the music or instrumentation is original. None of the lyrics or vocals. All that's "new" is a combination of elements. At best, an element is "new" only in speed/pitch. (I could be wrong about this, but I hear fewer adjustments of this type on this album than his previous ones.) Do any of these combinations lead us to considering the originals in a new light? If so, I'm at a complete loss: what am I, for instance, supposed to get from B.o.B.'s "Haterz Everywhere" appearing over top the famous riff from "Layla"?

I find it frustrating not only as a listener, but as a critic as well. How am I supposed to approach this? To judge it? What makes any particular mix good? What makes it bad? In the philosophy of science is the principle of 'Falsifiability' -- that it must be (logically) possible to prove an argument false. I feel like this kind of mixture of music is unfalsifiable, that I can't make any argument about it at all. (But that doesn't mean I'm not trying.) In and of itself that's not necessarily a bad thing. But this style (mashups) is the only style where I encounter this problem. I don't have the knowledge necessary to adequately judge Opera, for instance, but I could get the background to do so. That doesn't even seem possible with Girl Talk.

But let's assume that there is some deeper meaning to be gleaned from the combinations. I would be more willing to accept that I am just too dense to get it if Girl Talk allowed them some room to breathe, some room to grow and release their subtle secrets. But switching songs every 15 seconds? It's schizophrenia at best. All Girl Talk does is trade on cheap nostalgia. The album becomes a hipster version of "Name That Tune" where we can prove our geek mettle by recognizing more samples than our friends.

So, yeah, "All Day" offends me as a fan of music. If it was original, I'd be more okay. If it used rarer tracks, I'd be more okay. If had a better sense of groove, I'd be more okay. If it showed more virtuosity, I'd be more okay.

But it doesn't. This is anti-music. The only good thing is that you can download it for free. But don't.

Brandon: B+

And thus it falls to me, Mr. “I bought my first Robert Johnson record at 16 and I own approximately 5,000 pre-war blues and country songs,” to defend the authenticity of a mash-up record. The fact that my high school self would have slapped the grin off 30 year old me’s face had he caught me listening to this (and then insisted we listen to some acoustic Muddy Waters to “cleanse the palate”) is not lost on me. But I like Girl Talk (and its creator, Greg Gillis) a lot (although not particularly this record, which is an issue I’ll come to later), and so like Lucy, I’ve got some ‘splanin’ to do.

I’m not going to try to respond to Lin’s criticisms one by one, because, truthfully, it’s not fair to him. Just because I got to read his review before I wrote mine shouldn’t give me an advantage. So my defense of Girl Talk, and indeed, of the whole enterprise, needs to stand on its own merits. And so now we come to The Payoff.

I have absolutely no problem with appropriation in the name of art. Since Double Dee and Steinski’s 1983 “remix” of “Play that Beat, Mr. DJ” (done, famously, not on “authentic” turntables, but by literally cutting and splicing tape), hip-hop music (and I do want to assert that Greg Gillis’s music is fundamentally grounded in hip-hop) has benefited tremendously from its artists’ efforts to playfully appropriate, quote, re-combine, and co-opt music from across the popular culture. Before substantial sampling (not just the brief looped rhythms of many of the earlier hip-hop hits), rap DJs were rarely able to capture the magic of early live hip-hop performances. Just like Shakespeare, or Euipides, or Dvorak, or Ionesco were able to take allusions, references, and even entire stories (or melodies) that would have been easily (and in fact necessarily) recognizable to their audiences and turn them into something more, golden age hip-hop depended on its ability to take the recognizable (and even the cliche--”Apache,” anyone?) and by placing it in a new context and employing it in a new way, draw listeners in with the hint of the familiar. Art has always depended on the artist’s ability to make the familiar unfamiliar, and sample-based music is simply a digitally-enhanced extension of a very old principle. In this sense, I think the idea of “soul,” or a frame of “authenticity,” is the wrong way to approach this kind of music. If we acknowledge that appropriation, pastiche, and bricolage are legitimate and longstanding artistic moves and just move on, there’s a lot more to be enjoyed here.

One common criticism of Girl Talk in particular, as opposed to deep “cratediggers” like DJ Shadow or the Avalanches is that because he relies on the most recognizable of contemporary pop for the easy rise of recognition the latest hits provide, his music is essentially hackwork. As Christgau himself suggested in his review of Girl Talk’s first “major” record (2006’s Night Ripper), because his material is so recognizable, it never really coalesces into something entirely independent of its source material, the way most turntabalist records or Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9” do. But is this really a problem?

I hate to be an asshole or a postmodernist dilettante, but Derrida really comes in handy here. The thing that makes the best of Girl Talk so exciting--like the juxtaposition of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and Biggie’s “Juicy” on Night Ripper’s “Smash Your Head,” which is arguably one of the most joyous pop music moments of the last ten years--is that by mashing together the most familiar pop records, the records we in the mainstream all have in common, he gives us a glimpse of the “structurality of structure” in modern pop.

In the late capitalist pop world in which we live (god help us), we are both inundated with the ubiquity of mainstream pop and yet can easily set ourselves apart from it. Despite all the other blogs and the Youtube videos and all the rest of it, the “Arcade Fire wins the Grammy” moments in which indie culture and the pop hegemons cross paths are the delightful exception, rather than the rule. While I know most of the songs Gillis is sampling, to say that I have more than an unintentional, passing familiarity with most of them would be a lie. There’s a lot less crossover (outside my immediate circle of friends) between fans of Elton John and the Notorious B.I.G. (or, on the record in question, Sabbath and 2Pac, on “Oh No”) than us music types think.

By pairing Billy Squier and Dr. Dre (“Friday Night,” off Night Ripper), Girl Talk moves the “center” of the structure of modern pop. Rather than being constrained by genre or by our own biases towards one kind of pop or another, Gillis is asserting that it’s all pop, and that he’ll play with it like he wants. At its best, the sample choices in Girl Talk songs remind us of what all pop music has in common. We revel in our recognition of the samples--there’s “Strawberry Letter 23!” That’s “Can I Get A...” (without the Ja Rule verse)!--the same way that the audiences of the Greek tragedies reveled in the retelling of the familiar myths. But because we live in a world that’s so saturated with media--even I recognize the Ke$ha samples, for chrissake--the joy of recognition is multiplied by the joy of recognizing what Ke$ha and Grand Funk (on track 6, “On and On”) have in common as weirdly integral parts of my life. It’s not that I find myself re-considering the value of each song sampled, it’s that I’m re-thinking about pop as a structure, and how it impacts my life.

That said, this particular iteration of Girl Talk falls a bit flat. While the album's first 2:30 are stone-cold brilliant, I thought the middle “songs” (the album’s a continuous mix) dragged even before I gave them repeated listens, leaning a bit hard on the most recent mainstream hip-hop and euro-style pop (Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas were repeat offenders) for my tastes. If you’re not already persuaded by this kind of thing, I’d give his two most previous records a listen first.

Of course, it might be easier to just argue that a world in which no one is playing “Single Ladies” over the beats to M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” just isn’t a world in which I want to live. This is visceral, joyful stuff, and you don’t have to go pomo on a motherfucker to appreciate it. Aside from its post-structuralist implications, I find the sample-spotting to be good fun, and as an unabashed pop fan, I find the anticipation of just how it’ll all hold together thrilling. But like it or not, I still think it’s art.

No comments: