by John Stoehr
I love it when artists do something that, merely by an accident of fate, suddenly brings to focus a contemporary issue hanging in the ether but that thus far has not been dealt with.
That's the case with a "musician" named DJ Girl Talk.
He's covered in today's New York Times, because of his allegiance with the "pay what you want" movement and because of his recent coup, as a headliner of a big music festival in New Jersey this weekend.
He's also a lightening rod in the raging copyright debate.
You see, Girl Talk (his real name is Gregg Gillis) doesn't write his own songs. He doesn't even play an instrument (as far as I can tell). He merely stitches together bits and pieces of other people's music.
His craft follows the tradition of pastiche artists of the mid-20th century and the early pioneers of hip-hop. But his aren't deep cuts, nor are they rearrangements of popular songs. He finds likenesses among them, syncing beats with melodies. The result is some pretty killer tracks that he's asking fans to pay for.
His new CD is called Feed the Animals. It's being released on a label called, um, illegalart.net.
Some say what he's doing is indeed illegal, but Gillis claims protection under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law, which allows snippets of intellectual property to be reproduced without penalty.
"Fair use," according to the Times piece, articulating the position of progressive legal scholars, "has become important to the thinking of [what is sometimes called] the “copyleft,” who argue that copyright law has grown so restrictive that it impedes creativity [italics mine].
What the article doesn't address (not that it should have) is something beyond law. It's an issue raised back in the early 1990s by a composer named John Oswald (see this profile from Wired).
Oswald is the creator of series of aural experiments generally called Plunderphonics. They are in the same spirit as Gillis Feed the Animals, but on a higher level of art and intellectual rigor.
Best-known in this series is probably 1993's Plexure. It squeezes and mashes together thousands — yes, thousands — of artists from 1982-1992, the beginning of the digital era, into an 18-minute disc that was the musical equivalent of compressing a lump of coal for millennia until you have a gleaming diamond.
Most of pop music is crap. It's so unoriginal and lacking in value that to even cite each and every source in Plexure, and Oswald's other works, would be giving more credence than the original works are due. (Oswald is keen on creating visual reflections of his music, as you can see to the left with "Jackoscan," the subject of the Wired profile linked above)
The end, he said, resulted in something wholly original, "a radical transformation of familiar music," while making a political and artistic comment on the "original" sources — that they weren't all that important, more of the same really, derivatives of each other.
You may as well mix and match all their names. They're that distinct from each other. (In fact, Oswald does that here. Some examples: "Marianne Faith No Morrisey," "Blondie Sabbath," "Ozzie Osmond," "Cheap Pixie Peppers," "Beastie Shop Beach," "Lynyrd Lovett," "Cream Styx," "Jello Bellafonte," "Milli Fudge," and "Ozzy Loaf").
I tend to feel that most pop music is indeed just filler. With the ascent of single-song downloading, we are certainly more conscious of the fact that most albums, historically speaking, have been samey. Crap, even.
Even with good songs, there are only small portions within that provide that pop of emotion, that snap to hook you. That's why they're hooks. I listened to DJ Girl Talk's new "music" and I discovered he was doing what Oswald does, using all the good stuff of very popular songs, everything from R&B to rock to thrash metal to hip-hop. Eventually, I had to wonder: Perhaps this is better than the originals.
Gillis is taking the best and leaving the rest. Perhaps that's illegal, but it's far more interesting.