As Girl Talk wanders the globe from one soldout dance melee to the next, laptop in hand, it's hard to believe he was recently just Gregg Gillis, a biomedical engineer in Pittsburgh, who had released two pop-collage mashup albums to a small audience.
But when his album Night Ripper exploded in 2006, earning raves from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone among others, it seemed that tastes—and times—had finally caught up to Girl Talk.
"This is an era right now when people involved in underground music are into dancing, as opposed to 10 years ago," says Gillis. Starting out playing experimental electronic music in Pittsburgh's underground scene and inspired by Kid 606 and Negativland, Gillis says he now listens almost exclusively to mainstream music. "When I first started listening to college radio in the '90s, it was all about Pavement, or noise, something like that. [Now] it's just so diverse—a pop era."
Girl Talk's latest, Feed the Animals—released in June as a pay-what-you-want download, and out on CD on October 21—is an impressive Top 40 audio collage, with 300 samples flashing past in 54 minutes. He sets rap lyrics from the likes of Ludacris, 50 Cent and Yung Joc atop pop hooks that range from the contemporary (Rihanna's "Umbrella") to yesteryear (Ace of Base's "All That She Wants"), classic rock (Styx's "Renegade") to classics (David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel"). Gillis says creating just one minute of this collage takes an entire day's work.
"The ultimate goal is to recontextualize the material enough where it has its own identity," he says. "The whole idea of the project is just embracing pop. I want to make the most over-the-top pop-collage album."
But Gillis' samples are entirely unauthorized, which means his album could also be a collection of 300 potential copyright-infringement lawsuits; prominent entertainment attorney Howard Hertz has estimated Girl Talk's maximum liability at $45 million. Gillis and his label Illegal Art contend that, by using the snippets in such unorthodox ways, he is creating new material protected under the "fair use" legal umbrella. So far, they haven't had to argue that case in court.
Not surprising, Gillis says he's tired of the media characterizing his music as a "lawsuit waiting to happen," though he admits that "there's definitely a component there of seeming like an outlaw, and I think that appeals to some people." Girl Talk's appeal, perhaps, speaks to the preoccupations of a new generation raised online—and he may be just the sort of celebrity it fosters.
According to pop-culture theorist Shelton Waldrep, associate professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, Gillis' music may be seen as "a kind of forbidden document or text, in the way [young music fans] download music and put together their own discs." Part of the appeal, Waldrep adds, is the transgression of the gap between the original artists' intent and consumer use, in this case, by Gillis—"the revenge of the user of the product over the artist, in a way."
The roots of Girl Talk's aesthetic go back to the pop-art 1960s, "the Andy Warhol soup-can effect," Waldrep says, but his methodology reflects the moment. "It's everyone wanting to manipulate music and video and technology, and the Internet and Apple computers and all the tools we have for doing that now," says Waldrep. "But it's also a kind of movement or underground aesthetic that may be bubbling underneath the surface of the mainstream right now, in at what seems to be a fairly blah time in music."
And "the moment" is hardly lost upon the 26-year-old Gillis. "I'm sure I'm going to make music forever," he says, "but I don't really have long-term goals associated with this, because it's so youthful, it's really about embracing right now."