Girl Talk, The Musical Dr. Frankenstein
Friday, September 11, 2009
Security guards must have a nervous breakdown when Girl Talk comes to town. Normally at festivals, security guards spend much of their time exterminating beach balls and preventing fans from enacting nefarious plots to stage-dive. But when Greg Gillis, the man who is Girl Talk, takes the stage, college party mayhem takes over. Dozens of fans climb up on stage and start dancing in various stages of undress, a modified leaf-blower covers the world in toilet paper, and giant inflatable worms wander across the audience mocking the security guards like monstrous, mutant beach balls. I sat with Gillis at Street Scene to talk about his shows, his thoughts on the Fair Use doctrine, and what it’s like constantly having to argue that his music is actually music.
Girl Talk’s songs are like Frankenstein’s monster. Every note and each and every syllable in Girl Talk’s music (NSFW*) is sampled from the work of another artist. “It’s a loop-based idea, but every sample is triggered in real time,” Gillis explains when asked about his live shows. “So when you hear a drum beat going, there might be a loop of a kick drum, a loop of a snare, a loop of a high hat, and you’ll hear claps come in, or a high hat drop out, or a melody come in, or vocals come in and that’s actually me triggering that sample in real time.” Gillis guesses that he plays in the neighborhood of two and four hundred loops every hour and he’s either starting or stopping a loop every one to five seconds. Because he’s playing loops from so many different artists at the same time, the audience experiences an explosive kaleidoscope of recognition. One person will jump up with excitement as they hear vocals off the latest track from M.I.A., while the person next to them rocks out to a guitar riff from The Cranberries, a third sings along to the Beatles, and a fourth stares in frustration while racking his brain to figure out what song that bass line is from.
So what do you call Girl Talk? Huge debates rage on the internet over whether Girl Talk is a laptop jockey, a sample jockey, a mashup artist, or just a plain ol’ DJ. But in person, Gillis was not nearly as black-and-white as his “I AM NOT A DJ” t-shirts on display at the merch counter of Street Scene. “I’m not offended by the phrase DJ,” Gillis says. “But in all the years of doing this, I’ve never played a song. I’ve never played an unaltered song.” He has also never played with a DJ. “The people I mainly looked up to…were producers,” he explains, naming The Bomb Squad, Negativland, and Kid 606 as influences. In fact, Girl Talk doesn’t use a turntable. He plays all of his music through a laptop on a program called Audio Mulch.
This massive commandeering of pop music creates all sorts of fun questions about copyrights for which Gillis is now well-prepared. “There’s a doctrine in United States copyright law called Fair Use, and it basically states that you can sample previously existing works without asking for permission if it falls under certain criteria,” Gillis says. “It looks at whether your work is transformative or not, if you’re taking away potential sales from the source material." Gillis feels that he is justified on all counts – and despite several years of success, no lawyer has proved him wrong in court. Gillis argues that what he does with his samples is transformative and compares his use of samples to other musicians taking inspiration from their heroes. “It’s like with any band – you can recognize their influence or their sources, but they’re trying to take it to a new place.”
Copyright law aside, Girl Talk is constantly assaulted by accusations that what he is doing is not actually music because he is just sampling other artists and not creating anything himself. I was interested in how Gillis felt about having to defend his music in every major city in the Western World. “If you’re not defending your art form as something that’s valid everywhere you go, then you’re probably doing something that’s pretty well accepted, or you know, pretty standard at this point,” he says. “Not to compare myself to anyone, but if you look back at the history of any music, when something new hits, there’s this discussion whether it’s the devil’s music or worthless or whatever.”
But in the end, just like girls, Greg Gillis just wants to have fun. “I got into this not to necessarily push people’s boundaries or not to challenge copyright, I got into this because I’m just a fan of music.”
*NSFW: Not Safe for Work (There are some naughty lyrics in his music).