Commentary

Girl Talk's genius gets you moving

Updated: May 5, 2009, 11:19 AM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

At the end of my first week of college, one of my dorm-mates invited me to a party. I was excited about the prospect of any sort of social activity because I knew no one on campus and, otherwise, would have spent that Friday night with a book or at the dormitory computer center, where this thing called e-mail was catching on.

Feed the Animals -- Girl Talk
Hear and see more about Girl Talk.

When we arrived at the party, I started doing what I did at most parties when I was 18 years old: I sat down and tried to be invisible. I was completely unfun in college. I didn't drink, I rarely stayed out late, and I had sex as often as the average septuagenarian. All of which are facts that are totally irrelevant to the story. I only wanted you to feel better about your college experience.

As I wallflowered at the party, I had plenty of time to process the music that was being played through ancient speakers that were hanging perilously from the ceiling. Late in an extremely sober evening, the adopted DJ put on "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden. I was transfixed, but not because the song was new. I had bought "Superunknown" soon after its release; my ownership of it made me slightly cooler when I took it to an overnight video game party on a Friday night when I was 16. (I've made it clear that I was not a cool teenager, right?)

At the party, "Black Hole Sun" rocked my virginal world because someone else had picked it. It sounded better because it was a surprise. When I heard the opening lines, I thought, "Why don't I just sit at home and listen to Soundgarden all the time? This is amazing!" "Black Hole Sun" is, in fact, a fairly amazing song. But if I had been back in the dorm room and if I had picked out the song myself, I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much.

Which is a part of the genius of Girl Talk.

Girl Talk is actually one man, name of Gregg Gillis. His music is not really his music at all. It's made up entirely of samples of other people's music. In his latest album, "Feed the Animals" (2008), he samples more than 300 songs.

I like Girl Talk because I think he's part-genius, part-hack. The internal debate over his talent makes me want to keep listening. But I also like him because of the same phenomenon that helped me survive a first-week party at Iowa State University. Sometimes, it's nice to let other people pick out the music.

Girl Talk is different than a stoner DJ at a Midwestern beer party, of course. He picks out the best parts of songs, smashes them together, and connects them using other songs, improving upon all of them. By the end of a recent listen of his latest album, I was seriously considering whether I need more Quad City DJs in my collection.

The effect of "Feed the Animals" is similar to the effect felt by partygoers at any of the quasi-hip clubs that most of my friends hate. Those clubs have figured out that young, drunk people don't want to hear whole songs -- their attention spans are hummingbird-like at any time after 9 p.m. So DJs play bits and pieces of songs and everyone wins. Each person in the audience is guaranteed to hear something he or she likes, even if it's only for a few seconds.

My opinion of such music can be distilled down to this: Even though I realize how artistically awful all that skipping around is, I have never cracked a frown when I hear it. I can try all I want to remain aloof, but if I hear a tiny bit of K7, transitioned into a snippet of "Sweet Child Of Mine," I'll probably smile.

[+] EnlargeGregg Gillis
Roger Kisby/Getty ImagesGregg Gillis has this to say to anyone questioning his artistic credentials.

If club music is peanut butter, then Girl Talk is the strawberry jam and 12-grain Oroweat bread that turns something everyone likes into something everyone loves.

(Disclaimer: I could be overestimating the general public's affection for PB&J. In that case, feel free to substitute Jim Beam, Coca-Cola and ice in the above equation.)

Girl Talk's credentials as an artist are certainly up for debate. Regardless of the critical acclaim that has come his way, it's a stretch to think that his mishmash of samples will stand the test of time; it's unlikely that we'll hear Girl Talk alongside Radiohead on Classic Rock circa 2035.

Nonetheless, listening to Girl Talk is fun. Fun like cotton candy, Pixy Stix or a snow cone is fun. It's not nutritious, it's not long-lasting and it might even be harmful to the progress of music as culture. But every time I hear the track "Shut The Club Down," and I hear (I had to look this up on Wikipedia) ... Avril Lavigne squashed into Dolla, transitioned to Aphex Twin using Rich Boy, I want to dance.

And if there exists music that can make me -- a guy whose first college party was highlighted by hearing "Black Hole Sun" in a totally sober state -- want to dance ... well, you need to have that music in your collection.


In an effort to pack my columns with as much musical goodness as possible, a few notes:

  • The Girl Talk album can be purchased here. You get to decide how much you want to pay. Seriously.

  • In a column from two weeks ago, I mentioned that I would be attending a Gaslight Anthem concert. My report: it was even more fun than I thought it would be. I was lucky enough to get to spend 20 minutes pestering the band after the show and was thoroughly impressed. They're all earnest, hardworking and, most of all, appreciative. But check back when they're playing arenas. ... I spent most of my face time speaking with drummer Benny Horowitz. During our conversation, I figured out that he wanted to talk about basketball more than I wanted, and that I wanted to talk about music more than he wanted.

  • Short musical recommendation of the week: Metric, "Fantasies." Another female lead singer digging into my impressionable ears, which means that another love affair could be in the works.

    Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and by e-mailing him here. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."

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