12.24.2008

Some Things You Can't Cover Up With Lipstick and Powder

1st Thing: This devastatingly incisive piece by Nick Sylvester and David Marx (which I came upon via Simon Reynolds), on critic's fave Greg Gillis a.k.a. GIRL TALK, the most prominent masher-upper of our time, and major list-topper of 2008. My only (slight) reservation is the concession to "Grand Wizzard Theodor" Adorno's "Grand Hotel Abyss" (to quote Georg Luk√°cs's perceptive diss) at the concluscion; it's a brilliant incorporation of a theorist whose myopic pessimism often seems severely antiquated, but for that reason I think any references to Herr Professor Theo are worth interrogating a lot more. (Seriously though, why is it that those of us who love jazz and pop music reference Adorno more than anyone?)

Regardless, Sylvester and Marx have produced the definitive analysis of Gillis's success, and the "wildly insulting comment his Girl Talk project is making about pop music in the process."

2d Thing: One the essay's most important points, a point that is rarely noted, is that Gillis's work is pretty poorly executed. Sylvester and Marx contextualize this extensively in terms of sound art, but it's also worth contextualizing this "not-a-DJ" within the context of DJ culture, beyond where their essay stops. It brings to mind Jess Harvell's complaint, in his year-end entry on Optimo's sprawling post-punk mixes, about the reliance by dance DJ's on "the easy-to-mix 4/4 stomp of the latest identikit dance hit." Sure, dance music is as likely as any genre to sometimes seem stagnant, but Girl Talk puts things in perspective. Whereas a good dance DJ (JG Wilkes or JD Twitch of Optimo might be the most Pitchfork-friendly examples, but they're hardly the only ones with as broad a reach) carefully selects tracks and paces a set (other DJ's will know that's a hell of a lot harder than it looks in print, even when it hews closely to that so-called "identikit 4/4 stomp" that many of us love), Gillis pitch-shifts the shit out of many a sample, with the sole purpose of cramming it uncomfortably into the company of the other elements of that particular Girl Talk "song," and leans heavily on the rockist LP imperative. Presumably, the (often brilliant) mainstream pop hits sampled in Night Ripper and Feed the Animals aren't really worth taking seriously until they acquire the post-Sgt. Pepper neo-aura of the long-playing album, even if they now sound fucking stupid.

3d Thing: Saturday, July 5th, 2008: Theo Parrish at London's Plastic People, all night (which was something like six hours). When my cohorts and I arrived, Parrish was going through a typical range of disco, funk, and jazz tracks, all with seriously tricky rhythms, and all practically remixed through ceaseless EQ'ing. The set progressed into deeper and deeper terrority, at one point getting into a very percussive, acidic section much harder and techier than I had been expecting that night. It was well into the midst of this mindbending portion of the night that I suddenly heard an uncannily familiar, yet unrecognizable (at first) voice, cheerfully announcing:
Hi everybody! I'm Archie Bell of the Drells, from Houston, Texas. We don't only sing, but we dance just as good as we walk! In Houston we just started a new dance called the Tighten Up. This is the music we tighten up with.
Even though Mr. Bell (or at least his ghost) had himself informed me what track Parrish was mixing in, a track I had heard countless times on oldies radio, I was for a moment unable to place it; this time it sounded so modern, so futuristic. Later that night, we would hear Outkast's "SpottieOttieDopealicious," a Fela Kuti track, a bunch of dub reggae, and more of that obscure jazz fusion and disco that I had never heard before and may never hear again.

I wish I could share those moments with you, but the closest thing I can point to is
this 1997 mix, in which Sheila E's "A Love Bizarre," one of Prince's great compositions, is heard almost entirely simultaneously with the tracks that precede and follow. The breadth of Theo Parrish's mixes goes further than that: check out this live set from 2007, which includes the B-52's, Cameo, and Yellow Magic Orchestra amidst jacking house and neo-soul. Of course, he's not the only DJ with open ears, and this approach isn't just limited to a history lesson. Dixon, Ellen Allien, and others can be heard spinning Thom Yorke tunes; this recent live set by Marcel Dettmann includes Radiohead, The Human League, Yellow Magic Orchestra again (I think), and even some jazz amidst house and techno both classic and current; Claude Vonstroke included John Coltrane's "Bahia," the a cappella of Khia's "My Neck," and the Pack's (awesome) "Vans" in his 2007 BBC Essential Mix; the sensibility of Baltimore Club and its subsequent appropriation by scenester DJ's like Diplo is entirely based on odd and abundant samples; DJ/rupture, whom Sylvester mentions in his post, incorporates not only American pop, but myriad global musics in his (seamless) mixes; hell, even post-disco DJ's Larry Levan and Ron Hardy were known to drop the Clash or Liquid Liquid or Frankie Goes to Hollywood or even Supertramp back in day.

All of these things seem something like mashups, but they're a different animal altogether. None of this is just a punch line about postmodern recontextualization, although it can certainly be called part of that too. It's about a track's material existence in the moment of its experience, the time and place it is played and heard. The repetition-compulsion Sylvester/Marx ascribe to Girl Talk's aesthetic doesn't apply; the DJ mix is about music as a phenomenological category. That's been the point of this mode of cultural production since the late seventies; though extended mashups of the Girl Talk variety are obviously something new, in some kind of way, they hardly seem necessary.

4th Thing: To conclude: a plea on behalf of a young DJ who works here in my small, pseudo-suburban college town. DJ Manic plays every weekend at the local top 40 hellhole, Indigo. For as long as I can remember, he has been pounding out the same thoroughly uninspiring hodge-podge of crunk hip-hop party jams, 70's AM-radio corporate rock anthems, vaguely alt-ish 90's nostalgia hits, and hipster electro snippets that makes up the majority of Girl Talk's albums and live shows (and yes, I have been to one). Sure, the (pretty smooth) transitions come after 30 seconds rather than 10, but it doesn't amount to anything all that different, and my (admittedly limited) experience of top 40 clubs makes clear that Manic is only one of the more talented of many DJ's with similar sensibilities. The difference? DJ Manic tops nobody's year round-up lists, and has never gotten an album out. Does this just boil down to the collective attitude of performer and audience, to whether there are smirks on their faces instead of grins? Is it fair that Girl Talk has ascended to this level of success, while DJ Manic is left playing a small club in a college town for a crowd of smug, white students who are probably only there in hopes of getting laid?

OK, never mind.

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