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Girl Talk – Product or Producer?

“Art is anything you can get away with.”

– Marshall McLuhan

The music industry is an ongoing, fascinating experiment in copyright law in the digital age.  The Internet as an environment encourages the ethic of sharing (partially because of its layout and partially because of its convenience) which leads more and more people to exchange music for free.  But what happens when remix culture and composition come into the mix?  Our digital music editing capacity is advanced to the point of democratizing the composition process, leading to the explosion of electronic music, remixing, and DJing.  “Fandom” is no longer necessarily a passive listening experience.  Anyone with a laptop and Logic can express their appreciation for music as an artistic form by adding to it and taking from it, a process that reflects both the “cut and paste” world in which we live, and remix culture.  This unique environment breeds artists like Girl Talk.

Two Turntables and a Microphone A Man and His Laptop

Girl Talk producing live

According to his Wikipedia page, Gregg Michael Gillis was just a kid from Pittsburg with a laptop who started playing around with electronic music while casually studying bioengineering.  Since then he has put out five albums and a few EPs.  He ditches the “faceless techno bullocks” anonymity of DJing and producing; he is very present during his performances, dancing behind a table on stage beside dozens of fans.  He tours, he collaborates; he’s been called both “the future of pop music” and “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”  In their scathing article A Theoretically Unpublished Piece About Girl Talk, For a Theoretical New York Magazine Type Audience, Give or Take an Ox on Suicide Watch, David Marx and Nick Sylvester say of Girl Talk (among many more deprecating things): “Gillis is not a DJ, but not a traditional musician either.”  That about sums it up.

Girl Talk participates solely in music mash-ups, a form of remixing that takes two or more original works and combines them.  He does not add any original beats.  In order to fit two separate pieces together, he will sometimes digitally manipulate the tempo of a few bars of one of the songs.  Whether you believe this creates something new or not probably determines your stance on Girl Talk the creator versus Girl Talk the glorified DJ.  If you’re not familiar with his music:


(Sidenote: Gillis planned his retirement to coincide with the predicted end of the world – December 21, 2012 – but has since been rumored to be producing a new album.)

What Makes Girl Talk Possible

Girl Talk could not exist without the technology at Gillis’ disposal and the environment it has created.  Digital editing software as a medium reflects the “cut and paste” ethic.  Not only is the process of composition easy and accessible, it is also reinforced by cyber culture practices like collaboration and peer-to-peer sharing.  It may be that, because of experiences within this environment, people feel less and less morally opposed to borrowing the material of others.  Since Girl Talk came on the scene almost a decade ago, many Girl Talk-esque DJs, composers, and artists have emerged with essentially the same music model.

But Girl Talk can also be seen as an all-encompassing symbol of the music industry today, and this new digitally enhanced culture in which we find ourselves.  In terms of style he is both a throwback and a forward-thinker who uses the popular music of any time, reflecting remix culture’s playful dance between nostalgia and innovation.  He uses a “pay what you want” model when releasing his albums, engaging in a new music economy that does not belittle the consumer.  (This may be because Gillis is not much more than a consumer himself.)

Legality

How has Girl Talk been able to thrive?  Just because we live in a “cut and paste” culture does not mean that there are not legal ramifications for copyright infringement (especially when there is profit involved).

It comes down to this question: Is Gillis exploiting loopholes in copyright law, or just demonstrating a new era of fandom?  You can attribute his popularity to the short bits (30 seconds or less) of songs he plays – appealing at once to a sense of nostalgia and a love of popular music – which play upon a listeners “music ADD.” These clips are also what keep Girl Talk’s music legal or, at least, untouched.  Gillis holds that his songs fall under fair use: they are short enough and out-of-context (distorted) enough so that his mixes will not affect the sales of those songs he samples.  In his article, Joe Mullin writes that:

Gillis would be a ready-made hero for copyright reformers; if he were sued, he’d have some of the best copyright lawyers in the country knocking on his door asking to take his case for free… At the same time, the record labels have a healthy business going selling music sample licenses, the economics of which aren’t threatened by laptop musicians like Gillis.

Gillis at least seems to have a genuine love of the music he works with.  Marx and Sylvester patronizingly categorize him at that dude at a party asking, “Yo, you remember this shit?” as a way of marketing nostalgia.  If art imitates art, than all the music of Girl Talk could be seen as an ode, one long postmodern text of fond reminiscence.

Do you think Girl Talk is a positive or negative product of digital media?  Have you ever interacted with art (music, literature, etc.) by making art of your own (remixes, collages, tattoos)?

Personal Reflection

I hate Girl Talk, can’t stand the stuff.  A lot of it sounds like noise to me (often attributed to his experience in avant-guarde music) and I have neither the ironic capacity nor the sincerity to appreciate what he’s doing.  Having said that, I think Girl Talk represents the future.  Everything from his composition of sound to his pay model is a product of the evolution of our digital culture.  As we’ve seen with “Toy Story Mash-ups,” etc, fans are interacting with art in new creative ways, and I see Girl Talk as a continuation of that.  As for whether he’s a product or a producer, I’ll have to say a little of both.  (I know, what a cop out.)

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