Here’s a true, neutral fact about Americans: We are not huge on “proper” dance music. We may have invented disco, and house, and techno, but the bulk of the country treats club culture as something a bit … distant. (At our worst, we write it off as effeminate, “gay,” European, silly, dumb, repetitive, or boring.) The nation’s preferred milieu for dancing isn’t a club it’s clutching a beer at a house party, playing around in someone’s living room, or shouting along with the tunes at a bar. We like tunes with words. We like joyous shout-alongs, nostalgic favorites, and goofy novelties. We like looking at one another as a song begins and knowing that we all recognize the tune already, and will be feeling the same thing as we move to it.
Pretty much any wedding D.J. will tell you we have a canon of songs we use for this sort of thing. Eighties hits are a huge part of it — everyone still recognizes and agrees on those, whether it’s Prince or T’Pau. Same goes for a lot of nineties alt-rock nuggets: Folks under 45 will pose to “Loser,” wave their drinks along with “Jane Says.” Recent hip-hop smashes always work, even if the dancing turns out mildly awkward or “ironic.” Older hip-hop smashes work even better: Young MC, 2 Live Crew. Stars like Ke$ha won’t fail you, even if 80 percent of the people in the room would normally tell you they hate stars like Ke$ha. (They’re not normally drunk.) Then there are the fundamentals: a Jackson 5 tune, some Grand Funk Railroad.
You may object that what I’m describing is “middle-class” or “Middle American” or “mostly white people,” but such is a lot of mainstream American culture, you know?
Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, is extremely well attuned to how Americans dance and party, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m currently writing about him, and not any of the other people who’ve done what he does. Gillis is from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and all the different examples above come from his latest album, All Day, which was released Monday as a free download. It’s his fifth, and it’s another sample free-for-all, with hundreds of bits and pieces of pop stitched together into a sensation-heavy party record. It’s the audio equivalent of quilting, only with hit songs instead of scrap fabric, and laptop software instead of thread. It’s easy to like; the entire purpose of it is to be easy to like; there are no other dimensions. Just hundreds of immediately appealing sounds — tones and melodies you might already know — leaping around one another in short, gleeful bursts, all reduced to just that moment at the house party where you think: Yes, this song. This song is my jam. Gillis has said before that his live show can be hit-or-miss in Europe, because people’s sense memories of the samples he’s working with aren’t as predictable. He can bet that the vocal from Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” will bring nostalgic MTV memories out of Americans, but what does it mean in Copenhagen?
See, back between 2001 and 2004, during the “Renaissance” of mash-up records like this one, the big names were mostly British or European, and a lot of them came from club culture. The most popular mash-up mix, before Gillis came along, was by a Belgian duo. 2 Many DJs’ As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 piled up more than 100 songs over its length — but its backbone consisted of in-vogue electro tracks from artists like Felix da Housecat and Vitalic. Mash-ups had a pop canon, too, and it tended to be pretty British and pretty 2001. Missy Elliot and Daft Punk’s Discovery made regular appearances, and the hip older tunes around them betrayed the sensibility of a turn-of-the-century English music geek. The best one-off mash-ups — the vocals from one tune grafted onto the music from another — tended to draw something strange and revealing out of both songs, as if they were using the source material to imagine whole new dreamworlds of pop. What’s amazing, though, is how quickly that mix-and-match pop world ceased to be imaginary: It came true, and currently describes a lot of the charts. The scene’s touchstones, tastes, and sounds wound up reflected in a lot of the pop music that came after it — electro-pop, cross-genre collaborations and all.
If the Renaissance of mash-ups happened over five years ago, then Girl Talk represents their Baroque period: Gillis has the editing skills to turn this stuff into slick, accessible, hyperstimulating full-lengths. And, of course, he’s American, which counts for a lot. Yes, he’s grounded enough in the mash-up scene that he frequently returns to its favorite sources: All Day uses Missy Elliot twice, once with Daft Punk underneath; its Skee-Lo vocal was also used way back on Radio Soulwax. But Americans don’t dance to dance music — we party to rock and hip-hop. All Day kicks off with Ludacris and Black Sabbath. The backbone of Gillis’s stuff is rap a cappella, spread over everything: Juicy J rapping over ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” Lil’ Kim rapping over the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” Lil Jon rapping over an odd hoedown made of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” and U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” And the dynamic of his mixes isn’t the slow, sweaty rise and fall of a club — it’s the amped-up blur of a house party. All Day represents countless hours of tricky editing, but Gillis can give it away for free, because his real product is the crazed mobile house party of his live show — and a lot of Americans will take that over a good D.J. any day. For better or worse, Girl Talk is built for this country in a way none of its predecessors were.
I suppose it’d be churlish, or point-missingly geeky, to point out that “putting rapping over samples of pop songs and beefing up the drums” is exactly what lots of hip-hop producers already do to make their tracks in the first place. Or to say that Gillis isn’t as interested as his predecessors in revealing new dimensions of the samples he chooses. (On his records, every bit of source material is used in service of the same straightforward goal: a good time.) Or to point to the spots where his work isn’t so amazing — where his combinations of songs seem bland or obvious, or when he gets sloppy matching up the different samples’ keys, so they don’t mesh right. (It’s grating, on All Day, to hear Rihanna’s voice working against the Fugazi bassline it’s spread over, as if she’s tone-deaf and oblivious to what’s happening around her.) Picking at this stuff seems, well, picky, especially when the new album is free. You’re left with two main options: Either you find it fun to listen to, or you don’t care either way, and aren’t going to bother being a humorless grump and/or wallflower about everyone else finding it fun. So you download it, throw it on at your next party, and most everyone with a modern attention span will be cool for an hour. Gillis is no wedding D.J., and his music is spiked with modern sounds and music-geek favorites, but its agenda is not sly or tricky. In a lot of ways, it’s a very generous and sincere thing that he’s offering.