When the Rapture released Echoes in 2003, the burgeoning online music media hailed it as a watershed moment for fine-tuned polyglot taste. No more did the underground consist only of slack-jawed white men and guitars! Now it can include slack-jawed white men with synthesizers too. In Amy Granzin’s blurb for the record on Pitchfork’s 2000’s decade list, she wrote “Echoes ordered indie kids to drop their genre boundary-drawing chalk and start taking beatmakers and synth-players seriously. [It] paved the way for Justice, MGMT, Hercules and Love Affair, and a host of other independent-minded dance acts.”
Independent-minded dance acts. I see what you did there. For most of its existence, electronic dance music has been queer, diverse, and populist in ways that, erm, independent-minded bands aren’t. The Rapture blew up because they wrote great songs, but they also had the distinct advantage of looking like four guys who listen to Pavement. As usual, hipster taste stopped short of fully embracing the things they liked, and instead found a detached surrogate to guide their path into the scene. They could not meet the discotheque on its own terms and were forced to invent meaningless, exclusionary halfstep genres like “dance-punk” in order to keep their egos cognizantly removed from those people.
Obviously, all of this looks really silly now. Dance music is about as mainstream and unpretentious as it has ever been, and when Pitchfork is running Skrillex reviews it’s safe to say the non indie guys won. But music culture - specifically the music culture that tastemaking publications used to breed - rely on outsiders to touch a world from a safe, conceited distance. It’s why you can find Cannibal Ox’s indie rap manifesto The Cold Vein on Pitchfork’s 2001 albums list, but not the fucking Blueprint. You should never underestimate how much self-conscious white men need to feel in control, and there was absolutely no better example of that than Girl Talk.
I love Girl Talk. Gregg Gillis is a genius. The three records he released throughout the 2000s (Night Ripper, Feed the Animals, and All Day) all crackle with a buoyancy that reflect the mind-boggling technological liberty integral to its origin story. When all music is free and living in microscopic etches of electrical current, you can listen to everything at once. Radiohead and Jay Z, U2 and Twista, Neutral Milk Hotel and Cam’Ron. DJs used to compose long, linear mixes contained by the physical limitations of digging out hunks of vinyl, but Girl Talk saw a laptop and reinvented the wheel.
In his early years, Gillis would play shows with an immaculate crew-cut and a pressed shirt; he’d mirror the same dapper vibe of the engineering job he held down as he was first getting involved in mashups. Today you best know him for his long, shaggy hair and day-glo stage parties. Many of his most acclaimed compositions gloriously unified two taste-adverse opposites – famously spreading “Juicy” over a chipmunked mutation of “Tiny Dancer.” It was interesting to hear how those two songs enhanced each other; Biggie sounded more joyous, Elton John more relatable, and Girl Talk’s craft started to feel a lot more like art.
But most importantly, those mashups were also a way for disaffected youths to enjoy Elton John, an artist that’s been on a permanent blacklist since the dawn of, like, Our Band Could Be Your Life or whatever. This is a tactic Girl Talk would use again and again. On 2010’s All Day, Gillis builds an indelible highlight with Soulja Boy and Aphex Twin. The breathless nursery-rhyme flow of “Pretty Boy Swag” lined up perfectly with “Windowlicker’s” alien belches, and a post-genre classic was born. For those of us who held stupidly orthodox opinions about music, the innate value of Warp-ordained acid techno and Atlanta party rap were very far apart. But Gillis was the first guy to demonstrate to fake-woke Pitchfork readers that music doesn’t work that way. He wasn’t taking the piss - the Aphex Twin beat is not presented to expose or condescend Soulja Boy in any way - instead it served as initial proof that the canon was slowly (thankfully) dying.
If I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure I heard the Girl Talk version of “Pretty Boy Swag” before the original. This is not a fact I am proud of. I was in college at the time, and Soulja Boy wasn’t on my radar. I had spent years reading music blogs that offered a number of noble truths that preached asceticism against certain zones in the mainstream. Gillis subverted all those privileged ideas, but he also opened a whole host of new problems.
Just like the Rapture and dance music, Hipsterdom first embraced artists like Soulja Boy after they were ordained by someone who looked and talked like them. A disheveled, Obama-voting white dude made it cool for other disheveled, Obama-voting white dudes to listen to “Pretty Boy Swag.” Gillis was literally presenting art, then considered irrelevant and disposable, as something more fashionable. It would be more forgivable if Girl Talk was just a live act, but you have to remember his records were cited as game-changers. The 8.0 Feed The Animals received from Pitchfork served as the first time anything involving Dem Franchize Boyz earned a word on the site.
“For those of us who held stupidly orthodox opinions about music, the innate value of Warp-ordained acid techno and Atlanta party rap were very far apart. But Gillis was the first guy to demonstrate to fake-woke Pitchfork readers that music doesn’t work that way.”
I’m not saying you can chalk all that up to tacit racism. Kanye, Jay Z, T.I. and Lil Wayne were getting webzine coverage in Girl Talk’s heyday, and they were cherished with the same exuberance as Sufjan Stevens or Animal Collective. Yet there was certainly a bias against pop (specifically black pop) that didn’t appear to be immediately cerebral. That was the core paradox of the era; Aphex Twin didn’t make Soulja Boy more complex or provocative, it just moved the paradigm enough for the music to be included in the conversation. Gillis demonstrated a shared lineage and knowledge as the people writing about him, and at the end of the day, that earned him more acclaim than his artistry.
In 2016 we are living in the universe that Girl Talk’s records imagined. Every scene and subgenre is mixed together in a utopian, border-free paradise where discourse flows evenly. Soulja Boy and Dem Franchize Boyz are now rightfully considered bold, pioneering innovators. Gillis’ work forced the former tastemakers to adapt to an environment where their pretensions are no longer germaine. Today, an Aphex Twin/Soulja Boy mashup seems totally unremarkable. I am glad we made it here. But we should try to embrace the next thing on the merits of its actual, original creators. Girl Talk was equalizing, but I hope we can go beyond proxies in pop.