“When people said ‘Girl Talk,’ this is what I thought of,” admitted Volume publisher Mona Elsayed ’08, holding aloft the classic ’80s board game of the same name. “Tween girl-y slumber parties. I mean, what the hell is ‘Girl Talk’ ”?
A fair question. The confusion Elsayed described is one likely shared by many Yale students. But it’s also one that’s likely to be remedied — at least in part — tonight, when Girl Talk performs in the Ezra Stiles dining hall. Tonight’s show, presented by Volume, a music magazine, and sponsored by the Committee for Campus-wide Activities, will also feature Harlem Shakes. Doors will open at 9:30 p.m., and admission is free.
Girl Talk, on the most basic level, is Gregg Gillis — a skinny white guy bearing no resemblance to either a board game or a tween-age girl. But beyond that, the answers become murkier. Is Gillis a DJ or a musician? A workaday biomedical engineer or an up-and-coming performer? A big nerd or an uber-hipster? His latest album, “Night Ripper,” was released on the label Illegal Art, and the label’s name points to yet another ambiguity in Gillis’ work — does it fall inside or outside the bounds of the law?
Gillis samples from over 150 sources on “Night Ripper,” and the liner notes thank each of the artists whose work he uses. But none of these artists granted Gillis the rights to their material. And so, while he has not faced any legal challenge so far, Gillis stands on thin ice: one of the perils of pioneering this new territory is that the copyright issues it raises have yet to be resolved.
Gillis creates sonic collages, piecing together loops from dozens of unauthorized sources. Songs spanning the last four decades are cannibalized and spliced into something wholly original. Listening to Girl Talk can feel like an Easter egg hunt — you never know when some instantly recognizable, evocative fragment will catch you off guard. And however incongruous the results may seem to be — Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” playing alongside hip-hop? — they always add up to more than a musical punch line. It’s an approach with its roots in hip-hop sampling and the “mash-ups” created by DJs like Danger Mouse, but Gillis goes beyond anything attempted by his predecessors.
“We’re in this postmodern time where everyone is familiar with sampling,” Gillis said. “I think, like, my album took it to the next level.”
Whether Gillis’s work constitutes an artistic revolution or just copyright infringement remains to be seen — his label has battened down the hatches in anticipation of legal action. But many in the musical community are greeting Girl Talk with enthusiasm.
“Gregg Gillis is interesting because he’s exploring a really young genre — one that defies market and style norms,” said Ted Gordon, editor in chief of Volume.
Elsayed emphasized the suitability of this kind of innovation for a campus concert, saying that college should be a place where the next big thing happens first.
Girl Talk, the Volume staff believes, is avant-garde but also highly accessible. Gillis’s ability to move easily between popular and more obscure musical selections, Gordon noted, is an important part of his appeal. With this show, the Volume staff hopes to reach out to a broad swath of Yale students and to recast their publication’s image — one that Elsayed worried had become “pigeonholed” during a previous incarnation as gunslinger.
But the group’s more immediate goal is just to make normally reticent Yalies dance.
“People can only dance in Toad’s, in the dark, under strobe lights,” Elsayed said. “Girl Talk is a dance party. He’s all over the stage; he’s tearing off his clothes; he’s going crazy. You can’t just stand there looking at [him]. You can’t awkwardly wiggle.”
Elsayed pointed to Gillis’s double life (he works as a biomedical engineer during the week and, unbeknownst to his coworkers, tours on the weekends) as a parallel to the work hard/play hard mentality of many Yalies. His obvious, obsessive love of music is also something she sees in her own friends and that she feels is poorly represented in the Yale social scene. This deficit is something the magazine is trying to address. So when they learned about the CCA funding used to bring Gunther to campus this spring, they immediately began to explore the possibility of organizing their own event.
“The great thing about CCA funded events, from Gunther to the Contra Dance, is that they’re by undergraduates, for undergraduates,” said CCA head Bill Fishel, who approved the money for Volume’s show. “A group of kids sitting around in a common room who have an idea can come to us and get funding.”
Fishel stressed that the real credit for tonight’s show goes to the Volume magazine staff — the CCA, he said, just gave the thumbs-up.
“It’s weird,” observes Elsayed. “If you’ve heard Girl Talk, you’re obsessed with him.”
Chidimma Osigwe ’09, a newly minted Girl Talk fan, can relate. She first heard Girl Talk in September, on a friend’s enthusiastic recommendation, and was immediately drawn in by Gillis’ catchy deconstruction of pop hits. Osigwe said she definitely plans to attend tonight’s show.
“It’s just fun,” Osigwe said. “It’s like, Dance Mode: on. Go!”
—Alex Benenson contributed reporting.