Think of Girl Talk—the stage name of mash-up mastermind Greg Gillis—as modern music’s Andy Warhol. Both are ardent recycle-ists: Warhol turned soup cans into Fine Art; Girl Talk turns other artists’ songs into his own. Both are willing to undermine an ideal of authenticity: Warhol would let people impersonate and even sign for him if he didn’t want to show up at a gallery; Girl Talk makes almost no original sounds of his own, yet he puts his name on his mash-up albums. But most importantly, both are firmly rooted Pop artists, and yet both consistently question what it means to be Pop.
Part of this means that both artists allow for multiple interpretations: some say Warhol was fully embracing low-brow Americana, like Brillo Boxes, while others say he was ridiculing it, using repetition to emphasize absurdity. Similarly, it’s easy to understand Girl Talk on many levels: is he celebrating all pop music, or is he juxtaposing lesser works with unimpeachable songs for implicit criticism?
But of course Girl Talk, like Warhol, is much more than a series of simple juxtapositions. Gillis has declined to offer any central or guiding theme in any of his work, except to say that he is a “pop music enthusiast.” Instead, each of his songs is not only original, but also unique in message. Some of his sampling is pure celebration of good pop music from many eras (as in “Smash Your Head,” the instant classic of Night Ripper, with Notorious BIG’s “Juicy” over Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”). This includes bringing yesterday’s hits to younger listeners, reminding older listeners of forgotten gems, and allowing everyone to relish in universally beloved hits. In fact, Gillis admits, “It’s important that you can recognize all the elements. The whole basis of the music is that people have these emotional attachments to these songs—whether they love it or hate it. Being able to manipulate that is a really easy way to connect with people.” *
Yet, in complete contrast, some of his songs are subliminally political, almost neutering chauvinist rappers by giving them “emasculating” backgrounds (as in Feed the Animals’ “No Pause,” in which Eminem’s club-sex rant is made silly in front of Yael Naim’s “New Soul”). Still other songs work in a different way, elevating the banal, crude, or more lowbrow in pop to the level of more critically hailed works, by giving them new background beats, or removing vocals, or repeating lyrical loops over and over. But all of his music does serve one mission: the exploration of new pop possibilities, by making music that amounts to much more than the sum of its parts.
What makes Girl Talk great, though, is expressed not in words in phrases, but in dance. With entirely sampled, diverse material, he has made cohesive albums that bring genres — and people — together. He makes commercial music cool, and he makes cool music commercial. Because his music is simultaneously so rhythmic and capricious, people who like “My Humps” and people who like The Band can find something to listen to and agree on, especially with crossovers like Jackson 5 rippling throughout.
*(From an interview with Pitchfork.com)