Osheaga: Girl Talk: How do you plead?

How do you plead?

Girl Talk: Lying down on the job
Photo: J. Caldwell

A declaration of guilty pleasures the first step on the road to enjoying mix master Girl Talk

To be a fan of Girl Talk’s music, you need to make peace with the notion of musical guilty pleasures. You need to admit that you sort of like that Kelly Clarkson song and that you make party mixes with Roy Orbison, Salt-N-Pepa, Deee-Lite and Nirvana. Because, if you’re listening to his 2008 release, Feed the Animals, you’re going to the hear the last four, all crammed on top of each other, in the space of about 15 seconds. Girl Talk, known as Gregg Gillis when he was a biomedical engineer, has no such issues.

"I’m kind of over that – I like to like things. I think guilty pleasures stem from people being afraid to like things. That idea that it’s cool to dislike something first is just sort of a defence mechanism," says Gillis, on the phone from his home in Pittsburgh. "I’m into consuming as much pop culture and media as I can, so when I hear something I don’t like, I try to take a step back and get into it on some level."

To the uninitiated (his music is available at a PWYC scale on Illegalart.net) or the elderly or the purists out there, this sounds like it could be terrible. I’m none of those things and I like it, but you may not be. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that there isn’t a lot of thought put into the frenetic mile-a-minute smash-ups.

"I like to keep it recognizable, but the art is in the balance. I’ll drop Whoomp! (There It Is) and Kelly Clarkson, but too much of that turns into an MTV Party to Go mix. But alongside something more obscure, it turns into something else."

In 2009, the "How is this working?" mash-up and the bizarre but ear-worm-y remix are commonplace, but Gillis worked his way slowly into this musical melting pot. He points to acts like Kid606 (and his label Tigerbeat6), Negativland and a Pittsburgh group called Operation Re-Information that played sample triggering computer keyboards on guitar straps and were "electronic music that played like a rock band." All that fell together with his longstanding love of hip-hop and some good old-fashioned college parties.

"I was in college when I was developing the early stages of Girl Talk, and at those parties the music was almost always hip-hop and I took in how the audience related to it. I wanted to appropriate some of that energy and feeling and put it into a new context and new show that I was developing."

It was not only hip-hop’s extroverted, wall-rocking energy that Gillis appropriated – it’s fair to say that his live shows are as exciting as electronic music live shows get – but also its use of sampling to create something new. And, like Biz Markie and 2 Live Crew (and, skipping ahead, Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album), he has run straight into the issue of copyright. His recent appearances in two documentaries, Good Copy Bad Copy and RiP: A Remix Manifesto, have made him something of a reluctant figurehead for the cause of rethinking copyright laws.

"There haven’t been any fundamental changes in the law and I don’t even know if I had any impact on it at all. I think the biggest effect has been the Internet and YouTube culture," says Gillis. "It’s really highlighted how much people can borrow and interact and communicate with art and music. When someone puts out an album, you can go on YouTube and find fan-made videos of that album. And pitched-up versions of it set to a Chipmunks video. And then they release the a cappella, and then you can hear the techno remix, and then someone can take the techno remix and add a video of Christian Bale flipping out on the set of Terminator."

While I see all of this and think, Jesus, people should get out of their houses more often, Gillis sees something more.

"I think that has really demonstrated in a very clear way that you can take pre-existing media and make something transformative out of it. I don’t think a lot of people have taken a step back and seen the significance of how comfortable everyone is now with borrowing and reinterpreting other people’s ideas. It is a fundamental change."

But ultimately, Gillis seems to only overthink this issue when asked to by journalists. His musical message is entirely more straightforward:

"I’m not a critic, I’m here to enjoy things."

Girl Talk
w/ Coldplay, Jason Mraz, Eagles Of Death Metal, The Roots, Elbow, Lykke Li and more
At Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Île Ste-Hélène, Aug. 1, starting at 2 p.m.
For ticket and scheduling info: www.osheaga.com

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