A few weeks ago, the Internet “blew up” when Girl Talk unexpectedly dropped his newest album, All Day (Illegal Art). At least, that’s how things would seem if you were following many a music critic on Twitter. Should the fact that Illegal Art’s servers were clogged with traffic have been as unexpected as All Day’s appearance? Not really. That should have been as expected as the glowing reviews many critics bestowed onto the album. Girl Talk has become a sacred cow in music, and that’s not good for music.
I never made it through All Day. My curiosity couldn’t withstand the boredom I encountered listening to the album. I don’t doubt the talent or sincerity of Gregg Gillis, nor do I look down upon his craft: I recognize that it takes a lot of dedication to pull of what he does, and All Day is certainly flawless.
And boring. And voiceless.
It’s not the reason I fell for Girl Talk’s music in the first place. Back in the fall of ’06, I’d started an organization that booked small shows at Brandeis University with a friend of mine. The two of us basically handled all the insane paperwork and meetings while anyone else who wanted in contacted bands and tried to bring them to the school. By chance, one of the acts we nabbed in our first couple months happened to be Girl Talk.
I didn’t know much about Gillis or Girl Talk: At the time, his profile was inching towards the tipping point, towards that moment when Congressmen began to discuss his music and every music outlet sang the praises of his latest record, Night Ripper. Back then, Gillis still had a 9-5 job, and he had to fly into town for a Saturday night show.
And what a show it turned out to be. Some 200 people packed Chum’s, the school’s tiny coffeehouse situated in a castle-turned-dorm. With all the lights in the place on, Gillis took to the stage and began manically jumping about the place and stripping while fiddling on his computer. Most of the crowd just stared, confused and shocked by the pulsating and frenetic sounds and Gillis’ sudden wild-man affectations. They stared when Gillis jumped headfirst into the crowd and promptly found his way to the floor. They stared until a few folks took it upon themselves to move onto the tiny stage and set the rest of the night in motion.
The whole event turned one unexpected corner after another. Kids stood on every seemingly stable obstacle in sight. And danced. They danced and danced and danced. There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to any of it, other than a cathartic need to move one’s body to the rapid-fire sounds pouring out of the speakers.
When people praise Girl Talk, the “wild and insane” live show is usually one of the first things to come up. Yet, since Girl Talk’s public profile has ballooned into something resembling superstardom, his live sets seem more tame and unaffecting than ever before. That first show I witnessed felt like one big, ecstatic communal outpouring, with people giving into an urge to dance where previously they probably would have stood in place and quietly watched the stage.
That emotional response has since been replaced by ritual and idiocy due to the circumstance of Girl Talk’s fame. Now, people go to a Girl Talk show expecting to go “buck wild” in a way that lacks any of the in-the-moment response to experiencing what’s happening. Now, folks can just slip on a Girl Talk concert uniform – something resembling a mish-mash of bright, neon clothing – go to the show to try and get on stage, and return home as if nothing had happened. I don’t doubt that people are having fun, but the very thing that made Girl Talk’s live performance so special seems to have faded and given way to the growing tradition of the “crazy Girl Talk concert.”
All Day, too, has lost the feeling and voice that made Girl Talk stand out in the first place. Yes, Gillis still packs in plenty of pop samples and recombines them in new ways, but it just feels like a mathematical equation. Plug, play and see what works. What made Night Ripper so irresistible wasn’t simply that Gillis packed samples into a small span of time, but that he managed to put a voice to a style of music that often is defined more by the samples than the end product.
Night Ripper is like a hardcore record for mash-ups: It goes against so many sensibilities for pop-music accessibility. The record jumps out and goes for the jugular, giving a new energy to some musical ideas that are familiar, all while making the entire end product a hyped-up, energetic dance product.
All Day flips that script, and seems more intent on making people admire the cool new ways famous songs are re-interpreted than the whole end product. It’s akin to one really long, verbose guitar solo: Sure, that kind of talent is admirable, but who wants to listen to an hour of someone showing off their “mad skills?”
Still, the outpouring of people loving Girl Talk isn’t exactly unexpected. Girl Talk has reached a peak as a pop cultural phenomenon that few musicians ever get to, and a large part of that is because of how his style reflects and challenges the music, culture and society of our times. It’s a peak of cultural importance that somehow makes Girl Talk invincible to actual criticism. As long as Gillis continues to do what he’s always done, he’ll get heaps of praise even if the end product isn’t all that compelling.
Which has made Girl Talk something of a peak of fashion as well. There’s something chic about posting All Day on your Facebook wall with some witty comment. Girl Talk has become an artist that people in the mainstream admire for his independent attitude, and people in the subculture still admire while he’s insanely popular. Everyone has a chance to get cool points for a sly reference to that Wale-Beck combination during “Let It Out,” and somehow that’s become more important than one’s immediate emotional response to the music.
Perhaps that’s fine for some people, but I never got into music because I sought out cool points: Listening and responding music is an individual experience. Sometimes, like that first Girl Talk concert, it can connect a mass of people on a pure, emotional level. But, in the end, it’s all about how the individual feels about a song, album or band. If you’re just listening to something to be in with the in crowd, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of experiencing, well, anything?