Alex Tapscott
by Alex Tapscott
Tue Dec 23rd 2008 at 10:23am UTC

N-Gen Music: Mash-up Mania

Warning: If you’re over 30, please proceed with caution. I mean it. This may upset you.  I just caught wind of a 28-year-old musician who goes by the name of ‘Girl Talk’ who is ‘sampling’ The Band, The ‘Stones, R.E.M, AC/DC, and Aretha Franklin, and mixing their iconic sounds with the likes of 50 Cent, T-Payne, Gwen Stefani, and Bubba Sparxx (who!?)

Listen here.

Because he (Girl Talk is a he) started his own ‘independent label’ he thinks he can basically do whatever he wants! No royalties, no fees. And his album is basically free! His website says, “Pay whatever you want.” And he encourages YOU, the listener, to use and sample his music. This internet-driven model threatens to bury the whole record industry!

Here’s another way to look at Girl Talk: as an artist and as an MC, but not in the traditional sense of the word. He has no records, no turn-tables, and no CDs. He has a laptop. That’s it. Girl Talk is commonly described as a mash-up artist: someone who takes the vocals from one song and the instrumentals from another and mixes them together into a new, unique sound. Think The Beatles’ The White Album meets Jay Z’s The Black Album to create Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. But Girl Talk takes the style to a whole new level. 50+ samples in one four-minute song are not uncommon, and he mixes his massive database of music at live shows in real time on a plastic wrapped computer. Because his samples are so short, nothing he does is illegal according to “fair use” copyright law in the U.S.

I believe Girl Talk’s music is a metaphor for my generation. His songs, which sample from Roy Orbison, Queen, Nirvana, and T.I., to name a few, require a very broad musical knowledge to be fully appreciated. N-Geners today listen to a lot of music and can give a wink and a nod to the clever way older songs are used. Even if they don’t know those songs, odds are many kids will go online and discover them afterward.  OK, kids listening to and/or learning the greatest rock/pop songs of all time. That’s a good thing.

On the other hand, his music can be construed as the ultimate symbol of our short attention spans and our obsession with short, easy-to-digest sights and sounds (think Sneezing Panda on YouTube). One could argue that digital technology has left us incapable of focusing on a good song for more than a few minutes (so let’s jam 50 samples into one track instead!), and Girl Talk is my generation’s answer. OK, that’s a Bad thing.

Girl Talk understands his target audience. He knows his music will be widely disseminated online, for free, before he has the opportunity to release a CD. So he embraces an open, online platform for his music where payment is optional:

“I think what we went for seems like an obvious game plan now, just because as soon as it hits the internet, anyone…can get it for free if they want to. So why not tap in and let them actually take a step back and think about it, and maybe offer some money?”

Get the whole interview with Pitchfork Media Here.

In this open and collaborative model, more money goes directly to the artist (and not a major label), he fosters good will with his fan base, more people get to hear his sound, and as a result he attracts a wider audience to live shows. I think this is a good thing.

This last question depends on your perspective. Some of his mash-ups take important songs out of context and use them only as a means to an end. How would you feel if he mixed Sam Cooke’s powerful and spiritual ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ with the vacuous and asinine ‘My Humps’ by the Black Eyed Peas just to get a ‘cool’ sound? In this regard, his music can be construed as not respecting the wholeness and message of his songs. I’m not a music critic, so I’ll stop there before I start sounding foolish, but I encourage you to share your thoughts.

13 Responses to “N-Gen Music: Mash-up Mania”

  1. hayden fisher Says:

    Hey Alex, I’m 36 and I’ve been downloading mash-ups for several years now. Some other great artists include “Party Ben” and “DJ Earworm”. Google “Club Bootie” and it will pull up a club and movement that began in SF and is moving rapidly across the globe. No, it’s not a bottom-feeder hook-up spot or fetishist club; it’s a place where people celebrate music and dance. Online, it has become a hub for those who enjoy the new mash-up genre. FYI, mash-up mania has gone mainstream as well and can be viewed as the digital continuation of hip-hop which started in New York via Jamaica and always involved dueling toastings over music at its core.

    With the mash-up, existing music become like instruments to be played and woven together to create new music. That old track played in the back is tantamount to a new instrument. DJ Earworm will literally string together 15 – 20 songs to create a wholly new song with a new theme and message. This is pure art enabled by the digital world.

  2. Kaushik M. Says:

    I’ve heard Girl Talk’s music and although I can appreciate his approach and philosophy, his music sucks. I don’t care if he’s crammed 100 samples into a 1 minute song, is the end result listenable as music? Most of his stuff isn’t. The hipster media (PitchFork etc.) and their readership seem to like his music. But to me it’s just spliced and diced noise with no musical qualities at all.

  3. hayden fisher Says:

    I personally have not heard Girl Talk but there are mash-up artists out there who just create noise just like there are traditional musicians who do the same; crappy music is not new. But some of the mash-ups being created are truly phenomenal and enjoyable for all of the reasons Alex cites. Kaushik, I highly encourage you to check-out some of Party Ben’s and DJ Earworm’s (my personal favorite) stuff among others. The Club Bootie website has a top 10 mash-up list that updates regularly.

  4. hayden fisher Says:

    I would also finally add as my last comment so that I don’t hog too much space that the music industry should welcome the mash-ups as essentially trailers for existing music. I’ve purchased countless songs from iTunes featured in mash-ups; after hearing the mash-up a few times, listeners often want to hear the originals again and own them too.

  5. Alex Tapscott Says:

    Thanks to the two of you for your comments.

    Hayden, your last remark that the music industry has mishandled the rise of mash-ups and other remixes is spot-on. When Danger Mouse did the Beatles/Jay Z mashup, sales in the black album, white album and grey album went up. As you say, mash-ups help music reach a wider audience. Of course, tell that to the record labels. Shortly after the release, Apple Records (owner of the rights to distribute Beatles music) sued Danger Mouse.

    Kaushik, I know what you mean. For me, its about the mood. Sometimes Girl Talk just doesn’t work. But I’m glad you agree with the importance of the genre and the general philosophy, because I think mash-ups are an inventive and exciting new sound.

    Great comments, cheers Alex

  6. Tom Breuer Says:

    Hi Alex,

    While I believe that Girl Talk is very talented, I am not sure about creative. If I take a bunch of magazine pictures and make a collage, am I creative? Perhaps, it depends on the context. In this case, I don’t see this as being a sign of true creativity. He made a collage based on the work of some of the top people in the field.

    As for a generational metaphor, I am not so sure about that. I don’t see Girl Talk furthering “knowledge” or music. If this is a metaphor for our generation, I am worried. Does that mean we have no creators or original thoughts? I doubt that. In every generation you have your creators (BB King, Jay-Z) and your sharers and those who build on knowledge (Toyota learning from GM, Facebook learning from ICQ). Where my Grandmother shared recipes and reworked them for her, Girl Talk reworks music. The people haven’t changed, their desires haven’t changed, technology (and therefore ability) has.

  7. hayden fisher Says:

    Alex, thanks for your comment and post. As I indicated, I’ve been a huge fan of the mash-up scene for several years now and it’s great to see someone else taking notice of this new art form. And I do think it’s generational and more the product of the under-30 set even though I’m a 36 year old gen Xer; albeit a never-been-married no-kids one.

    Tom, there are very talented traditional musicians in the new generation but also digitally empowered artists who create truly new music using old music. Again, think of the old music as instruments being put together to create new music. Some mash-up mixers create crap; but some of them also create incredibly artistic music. Don’t knock it until you’ve heard it, Girl Talk is only one of the new mash-up artists.

  8. Tom Breuer Says:

    Hi Hayden,

    Actually, while I was writing that last night, I was listening to Girl Talk. One of the first Mashups I heard was a mashup of Genesis’ Mama with Queen’s We Will Rock You. Some mashups are good, some aren’t. It’s all personal taste.

    I do believe Girl Talk to be talented. But that’s not the question. Is he creative? Has he created something or just reworked something? Would you put Girl Talk on the same creative level as Eric Clapton? While those sound bites may be his notes, I don’t see him “creating” anything.

    Does what he did have value though? Yes, if people pay for it (monetarily or with other consideration).

  9. hayden fisher Says:

    Well, Eric Clapton is a legend and one of the best ever to play the guitar. If that’s the standard, the answer to the creativity question is probably no. But that’s like comparing ever entrepreneur and computer designer to someone like Steve Jobs; or every artist from the Renaissance period to the most noteworthy. But good point.

  10. Craig Hill Says:

    I think that Girl Talk can be considered both Creative and Talented. We need to look at this from the perspective of a DJ. The number one goal of a DJ is to get a dance floor moving. Indeed, dance floors attention spans are far shorter than they used to be, so all Girl Talk is doing is tapping into that piece of factual evidence to do his job better. Have any of you been to a Girl Talk party? The floor is packed and people crawl onto stage with him for what has become one of the most renowned dance parties of the past decade!!! And Girl Talk has been around for almost 5 years now, so I don’t see this as anything new.

    Also, to comment on his strategy of releasing his album for free or a ‘pay what you wish’ policy, that’s nothing new! Look at Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Jamaroquai, Murs and 9th Wonder, Atmosphere, The Charlatans, and the list goes on and on…This is the new trend of the future of music industry politics. If your music is going to be downloaded for free anyways, why not embrace change instead of avoiding it, and ask people to pay what they want? Truth be told, bands and artists KNOW that they’re #1 means of income isn’t coming from record sales anymore, that’s why the touring industry has increased 10 fold with bands often touring 3 times for one album!

    On the other hand, licensing of music is also a very large means for artists to generate income in the music industry, so i do understand that there are copyright infringement complications. However, if you ask me, Girl Talk is helping to promote older music to a younger audience, which in return, can only help those older artists by reviving what may have been a lost identity or song. I know when i heard his use of Roy Orbison’s ‘You Got It’, I went and bought the song off of iTunes because it is a GREAT song! None of that money goes to Girl Talk. It goes to Mr. Orbison’s copyright holders.

    So in hindsight, it is a double edged sword. But if you ask me, trying to stop change is going to bury you 6 feet under with the rest of the fundamentalists out there. Wy do you think the Big 5 Record companies charted record losses and job cuts over the past year?

    The times, they are a changin’.

  11. Tom Breuer Says:

    Hi Craig,

    Those sound like awesome parties. I haven’t partied like that since before kids. My question is does his creativity get people on the floor or is it his talent? If he has the ability to choose music the people want to hear, isn’t that talent? In my mind, that still leaves us with the question of creative.

    Hayden, who from previous generations (in terms of creativity) would you compare Girl Talk to? I use Clapton, Jay-Z, BB King because they are the best. If, as Alex writes, Girl Talk is a “metaphor for generation”, shouldn’t we want to compare against the best from other generations? If I am to be a metaphor for my generation, would my generation prefer I be compared against Clapton or Gary Numan or Lipps, Inc? Perhaps there is a better middle ground?

  12. Wil Says:

    Mashups are the next logical development after the sampling that is common in hip-hop. It is fascinating to see how music continues to evolve beyond instruments…..An historical point: Eric Clapton’s early style was directly copied (sometimes even note for note)from BB King, only much slower, which is why he was sometimes called “slow hands”. Another historical point is that the god of all guitarists, and inventor of hard rock was Jimi Hendrix.

  13. Nina Says:

    Check out the documentary Good Copy Bad Copy, on copyright, sampling, and creativity at http://www.goodcopybadcopy.net/

    Girltalk is featured in the film.