By Anthony Collamati
Let’s consider the slideshow a montage of visual samples; the voice over, a backbeat.
So, when Chris Austin’s “Let’s Talk Girl Talk” considers the legality of Gregg Gillis’s sample-rich music by sampling from those samples, we can say there is an irony at play. Like Gillis’s music, little in Austin’s video—besides the voice over and the titles—can be considered original material. Not that this is a problem. Rather, it subtly builds a case for Gillis (Girl Talk) with each cut.
Still, the video is not timid about its opinion. After demonstrating that Gillis fails to meet most of the criteria for fair use, the narrator explains, “While I think the creators of the originals [i.e. the samples Gillis pulls from] should be credited for their contribution, I believe copyrights are crippling artistic and creative growth.”
Even though the statement is highlighted in a section titled “Why does this matter??”, it might be best to treat the comment as a sidebar. It’s not clear in the case of Gillis what exactly is being crippled by copyright law. He supports himself as a full-time musician. His shows draw throngs of fans. And despite reports to the contrary, his music is available for legal purchase (I’ve downloaded several of his albums from emusic). If artists have been crippled by copyright, Gillis is not their most convincing spokesman.
Other ideas teased in the video raise much more interesting questions. For one, there is the linking of technology, teenagers, and Girl Talk. Austin claims that “technology has changed pretty much everything” and allowed a generation to “express themselves in new and innovative ways.” Girl Talk becomes the model of those new modes. The conclusion follows that to stifle Girl Talk is to suppress “the growth of a whole new genre.”
But technology is not always as new as we think. Sampling, for instance, has remained largely unchanged. Just as Austin is sampling from Gillis, Gillis—say, on a track like “What’s It All About”—is sampling from Busta Rhymes’s “Woo-Hah,” who is in turn sampling from Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder,” which is derived from 7th Wonder’s “Daisy Lady,” which leads to a discussion of sampling in soul and funk and blues. The strategy has not changed, just the tactics.
Undoubtedly, though, Austin is right, and there is something new going on. When I fist saw Gillis perform outdoors in 2007, jamming shirtless behind his laptop, surrounded by dozens of dancers who had hopped on stage with him, the police arrived mid-set to shut him down. Too many people were scaling trees and chain-link fences to be a part of the scene. It was a fire hazard. And how could people resist? Gillis was blasting chunks of the most popular songs of the last forty years. His genius was letting them play long enough to be recognized, before transforming them into another beloved hook.
The modernist cliché was Pound’s call to “Make it new.” This has since been replaced with the cliché that “it’s all been done already,” a burden which young artists and students like Austin, surveying the digital landscape, surely must feel. If Girl Talk is a symbol of innovation and youth it is because his music unabashedly admits that, yes, it has all already been done before but we will make it new anyway.
This is why people will scale fences for Girl Talk. He’s a tonic for the media-weary. His music says that the MP3s contained and connected to our laptops are to be enjoyed, because in the enjoying we recompose them. Austin argues as much when he explains that Gillis is not detracting from the value of the works he samples. Gillis is glorifying it, pumping it out for those assembled, so that it might be consumed again anew. Fair use is not so much a threat to an emerging genre as it is a threat to the scene of music’s catharsis, the point of oversaturation where all the years of Top 40 Number 1 Hits spill out, where their excess overflows, the artistic accretion bursts, and people find a different way to dance to it. This is the threat of fair use: not in the crippling of Girl Talk, but in the breaking up of his party.