This essay will carry out an analysis of the musician ‘Girl Talk‘, also known as Greg Gillis, to ascertain the relationship of his music to postmodernity. It was written as part of my studies in Critical Theory at Auckland University.
Postmodernity developed through the middle of the 20th century, as a rejection of the grand or meta-narratives of that period, and the associated perceived failings of modernity (Lyotard, 1984, p. 37). There were a number of precursors to this development, including the counter-culture movement of the 1960s (Eagleton, 2003, p. 41), which espoused a rejection of the positivism and rationalism underpinning capitalism, from a perception that the grand projects of the world had not resulted in the emancipation of mankind, but instead the integration into a worldwide system of domination.
Postmodernity as a movement aims to question existing structures and fixed values, to accept that nothing can be taken for granted (Eagleton, 2003, p. 73), that there are no fundamental truths as ultimately there are no fixed foundations which anything can rest on. This promises radical emancipation from all existing structures, but instead leaves those who follow its values potentially more open than ever to manipulation by a system which does believe in grand overarching ideologies, and does act to further the reach of its ideology. Those who follow its values focus more so on the here and now, the immediate, the ‘pragmatic’, rejecting any grand, overarching value system which proscribes a general direction.
Girl Talk is a musician who produces ‘cutups’. He takes samples from popular music, and produces tracks from them, by recombining the samples into new pieces. The works are then released under a Creative Commons license, allowing others to remix the works as they see fit. Legally, permission is generally required to reuse samples of traditionally copyrighted works, although Gillis does not seek this permission, citing protection under ‘Fair Use’, which allows amongst other things small parts of works to be copied for the purposes of parody and satire – critique and commentary of the work.
Indeed, Girl Talk claims a certain level of critique occurs through his music, such as when he states a desire to “put Elton John in a headlock and pour beer over his head”, suggesting a lack of reverence which is normally reserved for Sir Elton, a willingness to knock him off the pedestal he has been put on by the public. Further, the vim with which he samples other titans of the music industry, including Michael Jackson, New Order and Nirvana, mixing them in with such disparate styles as Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Hall and Oates appears to show little respect for those acts, their message, prestige or even legal issues (Illegal Art, 2010). However, Girl Talk is perhaps not as revolutionary as he would at first appear. Watching a live show, he rapidly sinks into 30 year-old rock clichés such as taking off his shirt, head banging, crowd surfing and exhorting the crowd to “put their hands in the air”. Similarly, the behaviour of the crowd resembles that at any other traditional rock concert, including those of the artists he samples, to the point of singing along to the samples as he mixes them together (Gaylor, 2008a). He acknowledges his love of the music he re-uses, distancing himself from “underground, cool artsy forms”, which he sees as inaccessible, preferring to celebrate the music he samples, rather than be subversive or respond to it in any substantial way, and stating that one “doesn’t have to be progressive to make important music” (Gaylor, 2008b). Rather than the revolutionary message that postmodernism was intended to stand for, a willingness to question everything no matter how seemingly untouchable and fundamental, Gillis instead represents a return to the past, a deference to existing power. Where he does make comment on works past, it is reduced to mimicry of the sampling innovators, to mere technique, to pastiche with no content, using the art of sampling in a way which has not progressed in 20 years. In what is perhaps one of his greater ironies, he heavily samples the likes of NWA, Public Enemy and Beastie Boys (Illegal Art, 2010), all three of whom were both highly political (Lemmel, 2001) and highly skilled at the process of incorporating other artists’ work into their own through sampling, commenting on the systems of oppression inherent in capitalism, pseudo-Maoist totalitarianism and other meta-narratives. Unlike those acts, Greg Gillis professes no particular political direction, preferring only that people have a good time (Gaylor, 2008b), thus reducing his work to that of focussing on the here and now, the immediate, while ignoring any overarching ideas of potential human emancipation. He readily falls into the postmodern trap of ignoring the grand narratives and concentrating on micro-narratives, while the centres of power in the world are willing to keep pushing for their own metanarrative and ideology (Eagleton, 2003, p. 72). Further, he states that the works should be free for all to reuse, remix and thus comment on, resulting in a plethora of opinions, all no doubt minor in their voice, none demanding any real change or questioning of the system. This quickly begins to resemble the “democracy of opinion”, a situation where all get their say, but all are subsumed under the bigger, dominant ideology (Lipovetsky, Charles, & Brown, 2005, p. 40).
Further, an interview with the man behind the music includes brief demonstrations of how the tracks are put together. He uses phrases such as “I just take 0.25 seconds from this sample, then 0.125 from this sample and mix them together” (Gaylor, 2008a), revealing a mechanistic approach to making the music, reminiscent of the novel-writing machines from Orwell’s 1984. The methods appear similar for each track, and listening to an entire album reveals the lack of difference between each piece at a technical or any other level, rendering his music still further as technique, assisted greatly by technology rather than skill, and pastiche.
Perhaps the biggest pointer to the reality of this lack of real critique comes upon hearing that, despite hundreds ff thousands of records sold, hundreds of concerts and huge awareness of what he is doing, there has yet to be a lawsuit challenging the work. The significance of this is revealed during an interview, when he states: “These people aren’t idiots; they see the value in the work, and how it turns new people on to the work” (Village Voice, 2008). Far from seeing a threat in what he is doing, the record companies of the world realise his ‘commentary’ on the works results in increased sales, further increasing their profits for no promotional outlay.
Gaylor, B. (2008a). RiP!: A Remix Manifesto. Documentary, Canal D, B-Side Entertainment.
Gaylor, B. (2008b). Girl Talk Interview.
Illegal Art. (2010). Girl Talk – All Day Samples List. Retrieved August 7, 2011, from http://www.illegal-art.net/allday/samples.html
Lemmel, C. (2001). The History of Rap Music. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
Lipovetsky, G., Charles, S., & Brown, A. (2005). Hypermodern Times. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Eagleton, T. (2003). After Theory. London: Penguin.
Village Voice. (2008). Interview: Girl Talk a/k/a Gregg Gillies – New York Music – Sound of the City. Retrieved August 11, 2011, from http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2008/11/interview_girl.php