Girl Talk, cartographer of contemporary pop
Kanye West is ubiquitous lately. Possibly the only venue in pop these days in which you can escape him is one in which you might have expected to find him: the new album from Girl Talk, the king of the mashup.
It's not a departure for Gregg Gillis (who records as Girl Talk). In a series of albums starting in 2002, he took the mashup of the '90s, seldom more than tracks from two or more songs layered over each other to produce something new, into something more new. By 2008's Feed the Animals, he was creating continuous hour-plus albums consisting of a swirling, constantly shifting series of samples of well over 300 songs, an aural compendium of the state of pop and hip-hop circa 2010 (and its history, with some samples from pop standards decades old).
But the new album, All Day, doesn't have a note of Kanye. In fact, self-aware superstars are almost completely absent from the mix; there's no Taylor Swift, and barely any Gaga. (None of the three were present on the last Girl Talk album, either.) And that means that All Day's huge popularity right now owes to something besides the novelty of Gillis' method or the popularity of his samples.
For Gillis, 29, contemporary pop music is Rihanna, Beyonce, Miley, Missy; when it comes to divas, he's more into the best of committee-written bubblegum than he is singer-songwriters or postmodernism. He's certainly not against intelligence, but he doesn't seem to warm to performers who give off the vibe of thinking they're better or fancier than pop.
At the same time, some songs that are obscurities to the Top 40 listening public (if not to pop music congnoscenti)—think of the sample, on this album, from '80s and '90s D.C. post-punk outfit Fugazi's anthem "Waiting Room"—are mined for their pop chops without sentimentality for the context. Without a drip of nostalgia, you're lured in by the way the guitar lines match the hip hop sampling layered over them. There's an equalizing effect, and a "Total Pop" effect, here.
There's something perverse about releasing a dance mixtape at the beginning of winter. Feed the Animals, Girl Talk's previous album, was released in June of 2008, and you could look forward to a whole summer with it. All Day, on the other hand, landed abruptly two weeks ago; there it was, announced on Twitter, as a free download.
Perhaps it's just reading the season into it, but there's an autumnal feel to All Day, an unexpected mellowness. Girl Talk is an artist who is known to rouse crowds of people to insane tempos, but listening to All Day leads to a lot of quietly nodding your head to the beat, not the desire to go crazy in your apartment.
Some of the album's best passages—Foxy Brown, Peter Gabriel, and Nine Inch Nails; "Creep" and "Shimmy Shimmy Ya"—are dazzling and bring a smile to your face, but they're easygoing. For a dance tape, and particularly compared to Feed the Animals, this isn't exactly wiling-out music.
It might be a question of theme. It can be hard to discern an overall "concept" in albums that feature hundreds of samples each, but Feed the Animals seemed to refer to, well, sex. If it was "about" anything, it was about respecting the power of the sexual impulse. "Play your part," Andre 3000 told us at the very beginning and very end of the album: don't think you're more than your desires. The hour between was a constant reminder that pop music's reason for being is to get us to sleep with each other.
All Day begins rather differently, with Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" ("In the fields the bodies burning/ As the war machine keeps turning"), and closes with John Lennon's "Imagine." It's a stretch to call the album "political"—try as I might, I can't find real-life social resonance in Spacehog's "In the Meantime"—but it's more sober than Feed the Animals, and certainly less sexual. It's about a different kind of moment of pop.
It remains gorgeous and technically flawless. Only Gillis would have the nerve to start out-of-sync the mash-up of Lil Kim's "The Jump-Off" and the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." It's briefly jarring, but in a couple of beats everything has settled together perfectly; more perfectly, in fact, for the moment of discord. The mash-up is the vision, the illusion, of everything making sense, everything fitting together. Gillis' work by now is so confident that he's able to show off the artificiality of the conceit without abandoning the illusion.
But there are big chunks of All Day that are easier to admire than to love, particularly compared to the irresistible Feed the Animals. There's an uninspiring section on the new album dominated by Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia," and the beginning of track six (the album was conceived as a single unit and divided into twelve tracks for easier navigation) is bland. Of course, if you don't like something, it's over in a few seconds, but the slow bits seem to add up; there are still dozens of brilliant ideas, but fewer moments of revelation, when you hear a song—now newly juxtaposed—with fresh ears.
Seeking those moments of revelation is the game that mash-ups are always playing—particularly Girl Talk's work, which places a premium, like a wedding, on combining something old and something new. If you wanted to appreciate "With or Without You" and Twista's "Wetter" better, or "Layla" and "Haterz Everywhere," just listen to them on top of one another. And while many mashups are just novelties constructed from two famous songs—"Genie in a Bottle" and "Party Up," or something—Girl Talk isn't averse to delving deep into the indie playbook, coming up with Portishead singles. His work isn't just about a flash of recognition, but about hearing the basic structures that underlie almost all of pop.
Girl Talk is about simulating power and control; our lives—the stuff our parents listened to and the stuff they'd never tolerate—suddenly harmonize, and the effect is both melancholy and exhilarating. And it depends, in a strange way, on the sincerity of the music; what we rediscover in songs we took for granted is their sweetness, a quality missing from Kanye and Gaga. That was the most surprising thing about Feed the Animals: how sweet horniness could be. It's the story pop music always tells, but we needed Gregg Gillis to tell it to us again, with all the parts.