Mashed into Pieces

Gregg Michael Gillis has had quite the last several years.  A former biomedical engineer major at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Gillis has found himself in front of crowds around the world, in Paris, in New York, receiving awards from Time Magazine and Wired for his style of electronic music.  Impressive for an artist who must give his music away for free to avoid legal repercussions. It is perhaps a credit to the 5C rumor mill that Gillis, or Girl Talk as the world knows him, is actually playing a Halloween gig at Pomona College.  I first heard the rumor two weeks ago, and it sounded like something that was far-fetched to say the least.  For such a high profile artist to be playing one of the biggest party nights of the year seemed unthinkable for the colleges.  Yet Girl Talk, one of the most sought-after electronic musicians in the country, will be here to preside over the spookiest night on the 5Cs.  [Note: Though Girl Talk has currently yet to list the performance on his own website or Myspace page, the performance has been confirmed through two school-wide emails, one from Director of Student Activities Jim Nauls and another from ASCMC, and representatives from Pomona College's student government, ASPC.] [Update: It's not official until it's Facebook official, check out the event here.]

I'm excited to see Girl Talk in person.  Gillis's shows, if they can really be called concerts in the traditional sense, are supposed to be things of legend, with audience members dancing on stage and a continuous stream of music combining every sample under the sun.  While CMC hosted another such mash-up artist, E-603, last weekend, Girl Talk is the undisputed master of the trade.  Gillis is responsible for bringing this style of music to the fore.

Night Ripper, the 2006 release that made Gillis an underground sensation, is a remarkable work; bits and pieces of songs come hurling at the listener two and three at a time.  Rap verses enter over familiar rock songs.  To hear it for the first time is a tremendously entertaining romp, with everyone from Twisted Sister, to OutKast, and Rage Against the Machine entering the mix.  All this hovers atop beats primed for dancing, with track flowing into track for the entirety of the album.  The result?  A national following and dates playing both music festivals and clubs across the country.

As enjoyable as this first release was, three years later, numerous other artists have followed in his footsteps.  Perhaps this was to be expected.  Artists such as Super Mash Bros. and Wax Audio (and yes, E-603) jumped on the Girl Talk bandwagon.  Nevermind, of course, that even Gillis was borrowing ideas from a genre formed by predecessors including Danger Mouse, The Kleptones, and the Grammy-winning Jay-Z/Linkin Park collaboration on "Numb/Encore."

A listen to E-603's debut, the unfortunately titled Something for Everyone, continues in the vein of these hyperactive mash-ups, with little progress being made on his followup Torn Up.  The formula, which was originally exciting on Girl Talk's debut, now feels stale and dull.  Step 1: choose rap verse by anyone.  Step 2: pair it with ironic instruments from well-known rock and pop albums.  Step 3: repeat for the entirety of the disc.  Some combinations inevitably work better than others, and to be fair there is a particularly inspired moment buried in the middle of the disc featuring Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles." Yet every time the music hits a stride, building up to some Frankenstein-esque climax, the adhesion to the formula requires that new samples enter the mix, with a new ironic pairing of rap and pop/rock.  Lather.  Rinse.  Tour around the country.girltalk dj

Of course, this isn't music that one is supposed to listen to intently.  Mashups are intended to go on the speakers and blast mindlessly; music for dancing and huge parties and people with short attention spans.  To be fair, it does this very well.  Also to be fair, the LA area is full of disc jockeys who were creating energetic dance music long before Gillis and his contemporaries were working on their craft.

While the dance atmosphere was certainly present in Mckenna Auditorium last Saturday, despite a blown speaker and a technical malfunction, the persona of the so-called performer was all but absent.  With a local, no-name DJ opening up the set, virtually no identifiable features of E-603's performance differentiated him from those on stage before him.  There were samples and clips of famous songs and nothing that represented any sort of artistic development of music.  If his methodology is congruent with other mashup artists in the field, then the samples were all copied and pasted prior to the moment he entered Mckenna, each activated by the mind-blowingly precise task of clicking a mouse.

This whole thing reeks of an unsustainable fad.  Even Girl Talk himself changed virtually nothing of the formula on the 2008 release Feed the Animals.  Perhaps this is understandable.  Artists like Girl Talk and E-603 are merely glorified DJs, and now that the idea of cramming samples together has become so mainstream, anyone willing to take the time to cut and paste other people's music together can come up with something at least in the ball park of Night Ripper.  The music provided by amateurs who don't carry the national name recognition (and higher costs of bringing to a place like CMC) has already become identical to the stars they emulate.

It's heartening that the 5Cs are still bringing some original artists to play on campus.  The upcoming performance by the Cool Kids at the 5C music festival will showcase original music and carry the high energy environment of a true live performance.  Still, the next time that ASCMC or ASPC want to host a campus-wide party, I would strongly suggest they take a page from the highly successful Mudd Suds party: an original concept combined with with great music.  And great music sometimes means professional DJ services as opposed to glorified amateurs.