Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, is an artist bound for some controversy. He quit his job as a biomedical engineer in 2008 to become pretty much the ultimate mash-up artist. The five albums he has released (available free online) are all made completely from samples of other songs spanning a wide variety of popular music, but relying on hip hops beats that make the tracks appealing in a way comparable to musical crack while being put together .
Example of a Girl Talk track from “All Day” (2010)
Girl Talk is interesting to me from two different perspectives: the cultural implications of music this fragmented and scattered, and the legal issues that surround his work. Listening to the music Girl Talk produces in a club or party setting might just sound like the work of a skilled DJ, but once you realize it’s put in album format and put out for a profit it’s hard not to wonder how Girl Talk gets away with it.
And in fact, there is a lot of debate as to whether what he’s doing is legal. His official stance is that the samples of his songs are so short that they are unlikely to affect the sales of that particular song, making it covered by the fair use trademark law. This allows “limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders”. His most recent album was released online only for totally free (available here) to skirt the issue of his making a profit at all.
In a way, Girl Talk epitomizes the debate around music rights and mash-ups in particular that has been a point of contention in the country for years; here are all the tracks you weren’t going to pay for anyway, layered together in a way satisfying to those with the most intense musical ADD. The sample selections are from from classic and alternative rock as well as Top 40 hits, and are layered on each other in 2 second to minute segments.
Girl Talk raises the question of at what point music becomes your own when it’s made from other people’s. It can definitely be argued that all music throughout history has built on what is before it to an extent, but not until the birth of hip hop have there been many direct pieces of other people’s music put into new songs. Gillis is basically collage-ing pop, providing hook after hook to heavy beats, creating mindless danceable music that is really appealing, but doesn’t seem to have much to say. Maybe his popularity, like that of many mainstream pop artists, comes from a general audience’s desire things that are easy and digestible; if so, what does this say about the state of the music industry today?