Girl Talk is back with another album (listen and learn the samples here), and you know what that means:
Anytime something as artistically dubious as the mash-up gains as much pop-culture steam as Girl Talk has, it’s mandatory music for geeks like myself to rationalize its awesomeness. As such, the consensus arrived at for Why We Can Unironically Enjoy Girl Talk is a basic two-headed animal:
1. We have involuntary emotional attachments to the pop music he samples, and by skillfully combining these magic sounds on his laptop, Girl Talk tugs repeatedly and deliberately at our heartstrings in multiples of two and three. It’s nostalgia on steroids. Who can resist?
2. Girl Talk is way better at it than his recreational predecessors. So good, in fact, that he has elevated a street non-art into something worthy of institutional respect. He’s the Tony Hawk of mash-up DJs.
Now comes the part where I dismiss those rationalizations as culture dork shame and tell everyone to shut up, stop being so pretentious, and just dance to it, right?
Wrong. I’m going a step further. Follow me.
The nostalgia argument makes sense, but it doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. The most famous Girl Talk mashes, like the classic “Tiny Dancer”/”Juicy”, do justify the idea of specific emotional attachments and associations, but what percentage of a Girl Talk offers such vivid and universal recall? I say well under fifty percent.
Take for example one of my personal favorites from the new All Day: The Beastie Boys “Hey Ladies,” rapped over Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life.” First off, there is no chance, given how wide Girl Talk’s audience has become, that 50 percent of listeners could name both artists/songs and have specific associations as I do. I just so happen to have been obsessed with the Beasties as a kid, and equally obsessed with the movie Trainspotting, in which “Lust for Life” backed the epic opening sequence. “Lust” is so omni-present, though—in everything from cruise line to financial planning ads—that you don’t even need know who Iggy is to instantly recognize that drum intro. And you don’t need to know that the Beasties were goofing on the 70’s in 1988 to think “Hey Ladies” is funny, referential, and vaguely familiar. It’s a perfect mash in terms of being a sandwich of vaguely familiar sonic pleasures, but is that really nostalgia for anyone other than me?
Maybe its snob and provincial to speculate on those who are less culture geek than I, though. Maybe Girl Talk albums are consumed by the masses but really made by and for my kind. That would hold water if I didn’t have the same moments of meaningless non-specific recognition that 23-year-old girls have with Iggy Pop. I was, for instance, bobbing my head to some unconsciously familiar pop beat on All Day, when my 23-year-old coworker informed me I was rocking to Miley Cyrus. I had no clue. It’s one of those beats that is so pervasive in all public surroundings I’d probably heard it over 100 times without ever having to consider its author or have any conscious, specific feeling about it. You basically have to be deaf to have never heard it. But I never consciously liked that tune until Girl Talk put some guy rapping about getting head in the bathroom on top of it. That’s almost the opposite of Nostalgia.
Another typical moment of Girl Talk genius on All Day features a cheeky Drake sample over Flock of Seagulls’ “I ran (so far away).” I own the Drake album, and I didn’t know that was Drake until I listened at alldaysamples.com (link at top of page). That knowledge is probably inversely related to being in the minority of geeks that can call an 80s reference like FoSG instantly. But do I really have specific nostalgic emotions for that song, or does it exist in my head solely as an 80’s joke to be placed alongside any guy in a white Don Johnson blazer, in every mainstream comedy ever made? Isn’t that just semi-conscious pop-culture awareness? Now, if it were the Miami Vice song, that would be nostalgic.
The question is, what level of feeling association are we really working with here?
The wizard himself (Greg Gillis) claimed in an interview that "the whole basis of the music is that people have these emotional attachments to these songs." That doesn’t come close to covering the bases, though. I’m employed as a music geek, and I have a specific attachment to at most twenty percent of the pop music employed on All Day. Outside of Jay-Z, I know maybe five percent of the two hundred hip-hop samples by name. The familiarity we experience is on a completely different level. Do you own a television? Then you’ve probably heard “Cecelia” and “Don’t Fear The Reaper” before. Do you hang out in bars? You probably loved those INXS and Fine Young Cannibals samples, whether you knew who those bands were or not. Do you work out at a health club? Kylie Minogue may actually have colonized your skull while you were on the treadmill. Pop music isn’t music you seek out. It’s the soundtrack to mainstream culture. It’s on your television, in your retail outlets, in the cab you take to the bar, in your coffee shop, in your spin class, and on your phone while you’re on hold with the cable company. You don’t even need to own a radio to appreciate Girl Talk. The only way to live in the United States and have no connection to his pop samples is to be the Unabomber. And even he would probably know what was going on. He didn’t move to the woods ‘til after grad school.
And raunchy/funny rap lyrics? That’s a familiar generic sound unto its own. A hip hop sample doesn’t even need to be recognized to be recognizable. It just needs to sound like other rap and say something funny. The brilliance of hip hop as a commercial form has always been that it succeeded as an aesthetic first and an art second. All the mash-up has to do to get your head bobbing is deliver the basic aesthetic of sex/money/parties/hustling/etc. in rap voice. Sometimes it’s more fun to know the song, but some of the best Girl Talk mashes have samples I’ve never heard. A typically hysterical All Day moment loops the sample “All the girls standing in the line for bathroom!” over Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” I would never have known it was N.E.R.D. if I hadn’t looked it up, but that is totally irrelevant to its awesomeness. I’d rather listen to that for thirty seconds than all of the Springsteen song.
I’m not denying Girl Talk’s status as an art form. If anything, I’m claiming it to be more of one than Gillis himself would be willing to claim. I don’t think any of the originators of mash-ups ever imagined it could be this popular, and the fact that they didn’t is proof that they didn’t really comprehend the scope of it.
What Gillis has done is take the ambient noise of our very existence—the aural experience of living in mainstream culture and having working ears—and reorganize it into concentrated, consumable entertainment, without even slightly distorting the signposts. Warhol did it with Campbell’s Soup labels and Marilyn Monroe’s face. Girl Talk hikes up Monroe’s dress so Ludacris can spank her big white a** while T.I. pours champagne on both of them, and throws all of that on the Campbell’s label. And you don’t need to have a specific attachment to tomato soup or Marilyn Monroe to be entertained—you just need to be American.