Sure, it might be illegal -- and it's better than the original

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I love it when artists do something that, merely by an accident of fate, suddenly brings to focus a contemporary issue hanging in the ether but that thus far has not been dealt with.

That’s the case with a “musician” named DJ Girl Talk.

He’s covered in the New York Times a while back, because of his allegiance with the “pay what you want” movement and because of his recent coup, as a headliner of a big music festival in New Jersey last month.

He’s also a lightening rod in the raging copyright debate.

You see, Girl Talk (his real name is Gregg Gillis) doesn’t write his own songs. He doesn’t even play an instrument (as far as I can tell). He merely stitches together bits and pieces of other people’s music.

His craft follows the tradition of pastiche artists of the mid-20th century and the early pioneers of hip-hop. But his aren’t deep cuts, nor are they rearrangements of popular songs. He finds likenesses among them, syncing beats with melodies. The result is some pretty killer tracks that he’s asking fans to pay for.

His new CD is called Feed the Animals. It was released on a label called, um, illegalart.net.

Some say what he’s doing is illegal, but Gillis claims protection under the “fair use” clause of U.S. copyright law, which allows snippets of intellectual property to be reproduced without penalty.

Others say Gillis’ opponents — i.e., music industry VPs already scared to death by BitTorrent and LimeWire — are part of the overall problem with copyright law.

“Fair use,” according to the Times piece, articulating the position of progressive legal scholars, “has become important to the thinking of [what is sometimes called] the “copyleft,” who argue that copyright law has grown so restrictive that it impedes creativity [italics mine].

What the article doesn’t address (not that it should have) is something beyond law. It’s an issue raised back in the early 1990s by a composer named John Oswald (see this profile from Wired).

Oswald is the creator of series of aural experiments generally called Plunderphonics. They are in the same spirit as Gillis Feed the Animals, but on a higher level of art and intellectual rigor.

Best-known in this series is probably 1993’s Plexure. It squeezes and mashes together thousands — yes, thousands — of artists from 1982-1992, the beginning of the digital era, into an 18-minute disc that was the musical equivalent of compressing a lump of coal for millennia until you have a rough diamond.

jackolantern.jpgOswald, in an essay titled “Plunderstanding Ecophonomics: Strategies for the Transformation of Existing Music,” appearing in the 2000 book Arcana: Musicians on Music, edited John Zorn, makes the following case.

Most of pop music unoriginal and lacking in value that to even cite each and every source in Plexure, and Oswald’s other works, would be giving more credence than the original works are due. (Oswald is keen on creating visual reflections of his music, as you can see to the left with “Jackoscan,” the subject of the Wired profile linked above)

The end, he said, resulted in something wholly original, “a radical transformation of familiar music,” while making a political and artistic comment on the “original” sources — that they weren’t all that important, more of the same really, derivatives of each other.

You may as well mix and match all their names. They’re that distinct from each other.

(In fact, Oswald does that here. Some examples: “Marianne Faith No Morrisey,” “Blondie Sabbath,” “Ozzie Osmond,” “Cheap Pixie Peppers,” “Beastie Shop Beach,” “Lynyrd Lovett,” “Cream Styx,” “Jello Bellafonte,” “Milli Fudge,” and “Ozzy Loaf”).

I tend to feel that most pop music is indeed just filler. With the ascent of single-song downloading, we are certainly more conscious of the fact that most albums, historically speaking, have been samey. Crap, even.

Even with good songs, there are only small portions within that provide that pop of emotion, that snap to hook you. That’s why they’re hooks.

I listened to DJ Girl Talk’s new “music” and I discovered he was doing something similar to what Oswald does, using all the good stuff of very popular songs, everything from R&B to rock to thrash metal to hip-hop.

Eventually, I had to wonder: Perhaps this is better than the originals.

Gillis is taking the best and leaving the rest. Perhaps that’s illegal, but it’s far more interesting.

Charleston City Paper

September 1, 2008 11:21 AM | | Comments (1)

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1 Comments

This is a fascinating area of music, and not just for the legal implications, but you should know that most of Oswald's plunderphonics are quite different from what Girl Talk does.

Girl Talk makes pop songs out of parts of other (mostly) pop songs, while Oswald mainly makes works that are more like compositional etudes, focusing on one or more aspects of a particular work. Plexure is a rare exception from Oswald's usual practice of creating plunderphonics.

There's another website with lots more information about Oswald's work: http://www.plunderphonics.com/

From here, you'll find links and/or addresses from which you can get copies of some of Oswald's music, as well as many more interviews, essays, etc.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on September 1, 2008 11:21 AM.

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