Perfect Sound Forever

Snapshot Culture

How Gregg Gillis's Girl Talk Has Captured 21st Century Youth
By David McTiernan
(February 2011)

Jay-Z and Avril Lavigne are not on tour together. And even if they were, you'd be more likely to find a couple thousand teens and twenty-somethings scratching their heads than bumping and grinding to a surprise duet. Yet every week the Information Superhighway is jammed with thousands of Facebook photos and YouTube clips of them shaking what they've got to a modern mixtape that, on paper, makes no sense. Pittsburgh mash-up master Gregg Gillis, more popularly known as his half-naked, wholehearted persona Girl Talk, has developed what one review describes as "a simple formula that results in everyone enjoying themselves unequivocally: play every type of music at the same time!" What this blogger might not realize, however, is that mere enjoyment falls far short when it comes to the G.T.E. (Girl Talk Experience). Former biomedical engineer Gillis has created a liberating common ground of sex, youth, and pop culture that is anomalous in the world of live music.

When Gillis's slow rise to celebrity began, he was much like his audience--anxious, fidgety, in college, and hungering to satisfy his voracious appetite for dance and sexual expression. Crunching fusion numbers on his laptop by day and fusing crunk numbers at night, he began building a reputation as an unconventional, underground DJ. He played to audiences of ten or fifteen, never skimping on the enthusiasm, at times removing all of his clothing amidst a sweaty, head-banging drive to the finish of the set. His first two albums, completed during this nascent period, only hinted at what he wanted to accomplish as an artist, but his subsequent work has shown notable growth.

At the time of his breakthrough 2006 Night Ripper, Gillis was still only moonlighting as a mashupper, maintaining his day job despite the long hours he spent traveling to perform at night. With the slew of stellar reviews his album received, however, he soon found himself quitting the lab (where none of his co-workers even knew of his considerably less nerdy alter ego) and devoting all of his time to the stage, spending most of his time creating and preparing mixes for his live shows. His performance is very conducive to the live circuit, consisting only of a folding table, a laptop (a PC, mind you, despite the Apple-dominated culture he caters to), and a sweatsuit, which usually ends up being swung around his head before the final key command is pressed.

Rob Walker writes that "Gillis became known for doing whatever it took to up the energy level of live shows . . . crowds arrive expecting a party." And while honing this compelling skill for performance on a relentless world tour, Gillis birthed his fourth and most critically-acclaimed album Feed the Animals, which Pitchfork said "continues his sonic evolution toward his party-infested live show." The focus of his latest work "has shifted from technical prowess to the flow and balance of each segment in an effort to successfully translate the over-the-top party feel of the Girl Talk live show into album form." Gillis says of his progression, "All the time I was screaming at people at live shows to loosen up, but I was playing music that they couldn't loosen up to." Talk about overcompensating.

What had started as intimate groups of ten to fifteen sexually frustrated college students ballooned into throbbing masses of thousands of sexually frustrated college students: as one Baltimore observer described it, "specifically: white, reasonably affluent minors with 'x's' on their hands--dancing to a scraggly fellow triggering and stacking brief pop music samples on a laptop." Not exactly your typical club scene. So what is it about Girl Talk that makes the young lose shed their inhibitions so readily? Perhaps there is a certain amount of inherent comfort in the familiarity of Gillis's samples--while other jockeys might weave from a Wu-Tang sample to a Timberlake beat and oh so skillfully back into Wu-Tang, Gillis induces his fans to shake their asses and study history at the same time. They find themselves dancing to the music they heard their parents playing growing up and would probably be listening to if they were back in their dorms. One college student and avid Girl Talk fan notes, "I have heard some of my favorite songs sampled on a GT album and thought he actually managed to make the song better than the artist originally had." Gillis gets his kicks from these juxtapositions: "Things like really overtly sexual rap mixed with clean-cut ‘70s pop music, stuff like that. You hear a guy rapping about having sex, and it's set over James Taylor. I think it's what makes the music fun." In other words, the CDs these upper-middle class kids weren't allowed to buy under mom and dad's roof seemingly become okay to listen to when they're combined with some more wholesome pop.

So, you say, "Girl Talk makes kids dance. I get it." You have no idea. Gregg Gillis makes kids who never leave their rooms dance, and he makes kids who already dance lose all trace of reticence. Just as his publicist claims, this "visceral culture of audience involvement" always results in "the stage being mobbed with a sweaty mass of dancers who surround Gillis as he triggers samples." Gillis lives his music, looking like some mash-up himself of a kid in a candy store and the guitar player for that metal band your cousin likes. Village Voice blogger Camille Dodero writes of her G.T.E.: "it was a lot of firsts: first time I've seen a laptop jockey make an entire club detonate into sweaty, colliding parts in less than 60 seconds (no joke) . . . first time I've ever witnessed a biomedical engineer get (rubbed with) more ass than a toilet seat." Or as an Irish celebrant puts it: "He tricks your body into dancing through an act of misleading brilliance. Those purists who would otherwise be inclined to shake their heads in disapproval can't for the simple fact that their bodies are already moving, lured into an involuntary groove that betrays any rational analysis."

The G.T.E. is clearly a release for both Gillis and his enthused audience. He breaks down the artist-audience barrier by engaging in the show himself, holding hands and dancing with the fans jumping all around him, pausing to pose for pictures in the middle of his live performance. Thrusting kids into such a volatile, rhythmic social environment brings the pent-up sexual curiosity buried beneath textbooks and text messages to the surface. Countless live reviews make the same point: that Gillis cares deeply about each and every audience member having the best possible time at his show, and for most, this time seems to include releasing a more deeply personal side of themselves. The physical element of Girl Talk's music and of the G.T.E. translates directly into the level of physical expression that Gillis is able to draw from his audience.

"Girl Talk seemed to be more about my own experience. He wasn't trying to impress the audience."
"Once he let me have a swig of his tequila, and once he leaned over to ask me if I was having a good time and liked what he was putting together."
"Gillis, nice guy, kept checking on us."
"I honestly get the impression he is doing what he does because he loves it."

And we love it too. How else could "a dude from Pittsburgh with a laptop and loose-fitting sweatpants have more pictures taken [on one night] than exist of every Beatles show ever played"? His performance itself is a manifestation of youth culture in general, of the techno-centric, attention span-deficient age thriving all around us. This isn't your parents' dance party.

From the stage, amid numerous occurrences of onstage sex and countless occurrences of onstage sexiness, one looks out at a sea of cell phones and digital cameras, flashing and beeping in rhythm with Gillis' Frankensteined beats. At least one member of his entourage has the sole job of taking pictures of each out-of-control audience, which all eventually end up on Girl Talk's website, with a dripping, shirtless, scruffy Gillis in the middle of it all, a big goofy grin adorning his gleaming face. The under-25 demographic seems most comfortable in this snapshot environment-- reconstructing memories the next day from off-kilter Facebook photos, flashes of recollection mirroring the flashes of familiar melodies booming through Gregg Gillis's speaker system. Another fan I spoke to says of her G.T.E.: "I feel like in our generation and people my age are all about multi-tasking and short attention spans, and his music really captures that. Life is constantly on shuffle and people are doing a million things at once, and I think his music caters to my undiagnosed ADHD."

Couldn't that be a widespread cultural diagnosis? It's no wonder people think that, as another fan told me, "after going to Girl Talk, everything else seems slow." That is quickly becoming the standard: not too long ago, the G.T.E. might have been overwhelming, but with a gradual speeding up of youth and pop culture, Gillis's pace is normal. A generation-wide shortening of attention spans has provided the perfect audience for Gregg Gillis's Girl Talk to address. A backlog of hundreds, likely thousands of samples populate GT's hard drive, each emerging for its fifteen seconds of fame. Feed the Animals alone incorporates somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 samples spread throughout 14 tracks, which flow continuously into one another for 53 minutes. The G.T.E. is like a musical version of immediate supply and demand. His beat-up, plastic-covered laptop provides the supply so eagerly demanded by the undulating public, granting it before they lose interest. Gillis provides the fix, the pleasure-on-demand that his snapshot-loving audience so desires. And he has no intention of helping us kick the habit. As this piece was being prepared for publication, released another album for free download: All Day, which came complete with an alphabetized list of 373 sample sources.

What then becomes interesting to consider is how the on-the-spot give-and-take of the audience mirrors the (not so much) give and (mostly) take inherent in Girl Talk's music. This pleasure-on-demand goes all the way up to the sweaty ringleader himself. But let's not forget one important nugget of information (and an increasingly integral aspect of the techno-illogical age): what Gregg Gillis is doing with his music isn't legal. His music makes people dance, it sells concert tickets, but oh yeah, it isn't actually his. It's one thing for a rap or hip-hop artist to pull a sample or two from the James Brown catalog, provided they pay the predetermined fee, but to pull five James Brown samples among a list of countless recognizable snippets ranging from the Beatles to Michael Jackson to the Pixies? That would cost a small fortune to put out an album! Which is why Gillis doesn't pay. Another reason why Girl Talk has emerged as a fascinating figure in the music industry--he defies not only the laws of sexual inhibition, but also the laws of copyright.

Don't think for a moment that this has gone unnoticed by Gillis, or by the artists he samples. It hasn't. But for several reasons, his music has yet to spark a full-fledged legal battle. First of all, Girl Talk's albums are given away. For $10 a pop, listeners can get a hard copy, but everyone and their dog can download a free digital version online as fast as their coffee shop wi-fi connection will allow. So there's not much to be made in the way of royalties and points for the owners of the samples. Furthermore, some hypothesize that Gillis's use of their music actually boosts these artists' record sales. His hyperactive mash-ups introduce a whole new generation to music that otherwise might have been collecting dust in their parents' basements. He makes the Spencer Davis Group and Kenny Loggins as accessible as Kanye and Radiohead, and twice as hip.

The way Gillis and his camp defend this practice is by citing the "fair use" clause of copyright law. Fair use often applies to educational, nonprofit, and parodic works, or in Girl Talk's case, works that differ substantially from the original source material. He claims that due to the brevity of his samples, his music sounds so little like the original that one cannot really attribute his success to the work of the original copyright owners. Now, this is an interesting idea. It's not as though Gillis's samples are unrecognizable--in fact, it's the exact opposite. His popularity stems almost entirely from the fact that his samples are from familiar songs. The layering of these samples, however, does indeed generate an entirely new beast. The resulting creations do not necessarily sound unlike the original music. It's more like they're pieces of a gigantic jigsaz puzzle.

Think of Girl Talk as an entrée with a long list of ingredients. Here too is the final product greater than the sum of its parts--you never realized how much you liked oregano until it was combined with diced tomatoes. Suddenly you find yourself buying oregano on its own too, and your taste horizons are broadened in surprising ways.

This is how Girl Talk's music intrigues its audience. We are attracted by the complexity of his work and by the equally-present familiarity that makes it accessible. It draws us in, it rattles our brains, it shakes our bodies, it thumps our chests, and it spits us back out, hungry for more. Hungry for another serving of the mashed-up potatoes that Gillis is serving hot and fresh every night from his laptop. And with a tablespoon of cleverness, ten cups of your favorite song, and a whole heap of sex, he can count on having a lot of mouths to feed.

Works Cited

Byrne, Michael. "Weekend Notes: Girl Talk, The Chandeliers, and the Hexagon's Smoking Porch Rules." Baltimore City Paper. 13 Oct 2008. 6 Apr 2009.

Cardace, Sara. "Pants-Off Dance-Off." Nerve: Screening Room. 2006. 6 Apr 2009.

Del Pizzo, Lianna. Personal Interview. 5 Apr 2009.

Dodero, Camille. "Live: Girl Talk Gets More Ass Than a Toilet Seat." Village Voice Online. 27 Feb 2007. 6 Apr 2009.

Girl Talk. Feed the Animals. Illegal Art, 2008.

Girl Talk. Night Ripper. Illegal Art, 2006.

"Girl Talk - Feed the Animals (out 9/23 on Illegal Art)." Pitch Perfect PR. Chicago, IL.

"Girl Talk and the Sample License Clearance Process." Future of Music Coalition Blog. 27 Aug 2008. 3 Apr 2009.

Graboyes, Madison. Personal Interview. 6 Apr 2009.

Harvey, Eric. "Girl Talk: The Buskirk-Chumley Theatre, 3.3.07." marathonpacks. 5 Mar 2007. 6 Apr 2009.

Kaufman. "Girl Talk Speak My Language." MTV You-R-Here Blog. 10 Nov 2008. 10 Apr 2009.

Klingensmith, Aaron. Personal Interview. 3 Apr 2009.

LaMorte, Cait. Personal Interview. 7 Apr 2009.

"Live Review: Girl Talk (Whelans, Dublin)." See What You Hear. 15 Dec 2007. 6 Apr 2009.

Relic, Peter. "Mash-Up King Girl Talk's Sweaty Party." Rolling Stone Online. 27 Nov 2008. 6 Apr 2009.

Slaybaugh, Matt. "What's the Rumpus - Girl Talk at the Newport." The Agit Reader. 17 Jan 2008. 6 Apr 2009.

Walker, Rob. "Mash-up Model." New York Times Online. 20 Jul 2008. 10 Apr 2009.

See more about Girl Talk at Illegal Art

Also see our 2013 Girl Talk article

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