Flash Points

Obama Special, Part 2

Photograph of President Obama's inauguration by Doug Mills/The New York Times.

Photograph of President Obama's inauguration by Doug Mills/The New York Times.

This continues my previous post about the laptop DJ/performance artist Girl Talk, in which I situate him in a lineage of intersections between art and music and suggest a link between his concert on November 16, 2008 at Terminal 5 in New York and the election of Barack Obama a week and a half earlier.

Girl Talk’s referencing of Obama through video projections at this performance made explicit his connection with the then-president-elect—not a personal but a formal affinity. The form in question is, simply put, miscegenation: the elimination of difference through the blending of categories. This form was stressed throughout Obama’s campaign, both as a personal attribute of the candidate himself and as his fundamental message that he would transcend Bush-era ideological polarization and unite the country behind common goals. Likewise, in Girl Talk’s mixture of fragments of highly recognizable popular songs, different genres coexist in delirious combination—an effect exploited in his concerts, in which the crowd is invited onstage to take up the role of performer. This is from the opening moments of the 11/15 show at Terminal 5:

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Why compare an arty DJ and our current president? To make a case for the value of art that entertains.

In some cases it is the most vituperative polemic that best articulates an aesthetic strategy. In a meandering and expletive-laden screed on the blog Riff Market, “NBS” argues that the recognition that Girl Talk has received thus far is scandalous. Girl Talk’s approach to music, he contends, lacks the basic tenets of DJ-ing skill, among them seamless transitions or combinations of songs, changes in tempo and sound levels that create a sense of dynamism over the course of the mix, and, most scandalously, variation in the recognizability of his samples.

Although Girl Talk has a few choice moments… he relies on pitch-shifting and time-distorting everything to fit within the same BPM—cramming all his various found elements into the same one-size-fits-all bed… Are we a pop culture generation easily placated to hear our ‘references’ bounced back to us, no matter the context or skill?…Is the whole game now: “Hey, I know what that is!!”? …This project …he calls a celebration of pop music. What he himself doesn’t know is we already had a name for it: la danse macabre.

For me the above is a brilliant diagnosis of precisely what is both novel and artistic about Girl Talk. NBS is explaining how Girl Talk deskills the art of DJing. Using programs that run on a PC laptop, he makes deliberately amateurish choices of songs— well-known instead of obscure. The end effect is closer to a house party than a professional DJ set that aims to enlighten or challenge the listener. The house party host plays all the hits to please everyone, to, as it were, “feed the animals“—those with broad taste who merely crave the next thrill. Deskilling, whether in high art or popular music, is always a form of effrontery to a previously established skilled medium or practice. Punk, for example, deskilled rock and roll, making a virtue of the fact that many of its musicians barely knew how to play their instruments when they began and a democratic ethic of “do-it-yourself.”

It is the manipulation of beats-per-minute, which lends the effect that any given song is interchangeable with any other, that is Girl Talk’s most subversive gesture. It completes the journey of the popular song begun with the advent of the compact disc, from analog to digital. The digital, which homogenizes information through an underlying, uniform code, is what allows songs and styles to be locked together at the same tempo—miscegenated, as it were. Genre is bred with genre, undoing their respective uniqueness, destroying specificity. In music, codification is literalized in tempo; the very element that in pop music provokes dancing, physical movement. Girl Talk’s stroke of genius is to use the very motor of our pleasure in pop music to tear down pop music’s basic—and racialized—categories.

Writing in the early 1980s, Hal Foster noted the emergence of a new artist who would be a “manipulator of signs,” using already-existing and highly recognizable informational material to produce commentary or veiled critique. One of the first records to feature disjunctive samples, Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, recorded at this moment, corresponds to this logic, layering televangelists and other disingenuous voices of spectacle culture over computerized dance rhythms and samples from non-Western music. Girl Talk similarly forces highly racially coded aural signs together. At Terminal 5, the Time magazine image of Obama was periodically subjected to an alternation between negative and positive that rendered our president black, then white, then black again.

Two moments from the 11/16/08 Terminal 5 show that I attended speak to this dialectic of utopian miscegenation and spectacle, and in doing so stand as evidence of just how relevant popular art can still be—what it can still tell us, even as it entertains, about the social and mediatic conditions in which we are ensconced.

The first is a particular mashup that played during one of the times that Obama’s image was projected on the screen behind the stage. This graphic had already appeared numerous times, but in this case the point was particularly clear. The background melody and beat of T.I.’s “What You Know?” was matched with the chorus of DJ Unk’s “In Yo Face.” This was not a frission produced by two disparate or oppositional genres, merely a rearranging of two quite similar examples of Southern hip-hop that are grounded in signifiers of power: bass and braggadocio. But the original version of the T.I. song celebrates a lone voice, whereas the supplanted lyrics of “In Yo Face” sound as though they are yelled by a crowd of kids, voices in unison, calling out all four cardinal directions: “West Side! Hey! We ready! We ready! East Side! Hey! We Ready!” and so on. The combination can be heard in this footage from the previous night at the 2:30 mark, reposted below:

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“What You Know?” is undone as a personal anthem and refigured as a universally inclusive one. The panoply of voices, so they claim, speak for everyone. What do we all say? “We ready.” Ready for what? Obama’s grinning face was spinning around like an oversize screen saver, and this chorus sounded like the voice of the Multitude.

It is not clear what the Multitude—a kind of global constituency that philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri predict will emerge to challenge globalization—will be ready for, or indeed, who they are going to be. Was it the Multitude that elected Obama? Has this constituency already begun to form? Or could they represent something far different, far more radical, even violently so? We don’t know what is going to happen. We can only be ready for it.

The more millenarian potentiality of Multitude was conjured at the very end of the Terminal 5 show, of which I could sadly find no footage. After a finale in which the tempo was pushed to a breakneck pace, the mashups abruptly ceased in favor of an almost inaudible wall of noise. It was not feedback, precisely, but what sounded like a blown speaker, or a song incorrectly downloaded, a broken file—digital information that could not cohere. Girl Talk, who had been standing on his DJ table, continued to act as though a crowd-pleasing song was still playing, bobbing up and down to an absent beat. This went on for more than ten minutes—a move possibly inspired by the recent reunion tour of the British band My Bloody Valentine, who have reinstated their practice of a concert-ending “Holocaust section,” in which an intensely loud barrage of feedback is directed at the audience for ten to fifteen minutes, as seen below:

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On the screen there was now an image of Girl Talk’s face, clothed in a mask reminiscent of Dr. Jonathan Crane’s in the film Batman Begins. Dozens of computerized skulls danced around the image, recalling a cheap video game that mocks the player when his or her character dies. And that was it; the concert was over. The crowd filed out, bewildered; some sort of pleasure had been withheld at the last possible moment.

What had happened? It was as though Gillis had pulled away the veil of spectacle, leaving only the code of his music. His relentless undoing of genre was revealed as no-genre, indeed no-music: music without figure and ground, in which all distinction—necessary for vocals, melodies, and beats can be perceived—is lost. This is perhaps what NBS is referring to in calling Girl Talk’s music a “danse macabre”: it ultimately destroys the very genres that it seems to celebrate, and thereby portends a further breakdown of pop music in general. It is, in fact, a funeral for all specificity, for the categories that have come to define popular music as we have known it: good and bad, indie and sellout, black and white, hip-hop and arena rock. It is a funeral that sounds like a party, a parade of past moments, dismembered and reconstituted for a present and future necrophagy. Even the virtuosic DJ who once made elegance out of this practice is condemned to the past; the Multitude is poised to take his or her place, with its demands of collective pleasure and immediacy. Democracy revealed as such is liberating, terrifying, and above all unknown; it is futurity itself.

Daniel Quiles was our guest blogger in the second half of January. Find all his posts here.


  1. Tavia says:

    Very interesting take on Girl Talk, whom I didn’t know much about. Thanks. Can’t say I’m grooving to your use of the “musical miscegenation” metaphor, though. There is a lot of fraught racial history behind that term that in no way is summed up by your definition: “the elimination of difference through the blending of categories.” For a little of that history, and its problematic relationship to both popular music and utopian yearnings, check out my essay “Musical Miscegenation?” (linked above) or check out Roshanak Kheshti’s take in the November 2008 issue of American Quarterly. Just my two cents.

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  2. Daniel Quiles says:

    Tavia,

    A million thanks for the comment and link to your brilliantly written article. I confess to not having been aware of this particular and fascinating history of the term “miscegenation,” which reveals it to have been a prism for white male power and desire as far back as the Civil War era. This is a classic example of the sort of occlusion of our national past that can occur at the level of language, and I am grateful to you for bringing it to light. That said, I am not certain I want to surrender my employment of the term just yet. I hope that you will have a chance to listen to some Girl Talk’s music and that we can have a modest dialogue here. Either way, this gives me a chance to flesh out my points above.

    I had not remembered that Frere-Jones had used this same formulation in his article, which I detested because of what I felt was his profound simplification of just what constitutes “indie rock” (something you teeter close to as well in your characterization of “college radio and white hipsterism”). To my understanding, “indie rock” refers to one thing: rock music recorded on independent labels. The volume of music that this encompasses is far too vast to consider here, but Win Butler’s response to Frere-Jones is useful for seeing how much the latter’s argument breaks down when one actually considers certain examples of the genre. One example I would cite would be TV on the Radio, who along with countless others make it very difficult to generalize.

    I would be at pains to differentiate my use of “miscegenation” from F-J, for one element that I would say is missing in Girl Talk’s method and perhaps digital music in general is what I would call the “expressionist” legacy of rock n’ roll on both sides of the racial divide in music. This lineage is lost, or is perhaps obfuscated, in the transition from the “analog” to the “digital.” In the analog case, racial coding takes place at the level of the actual performance of songs by musicians; the authenticity is thought to derive from the actual performers themselves. This black authenticity is then what is craved and mimicked by white rock n’ rollers such as the Rolling Stones, who seemingly channel blackness through musical style and performance and thereby, as you put it, figures “whiteness as a condition of loss, absence, and depletion awaiting the revivifying energies of blackness.”

    But what about the digital case? In Girl Talk, there are several major differences from rock n’ roll that must be pointed out. First, sampling is not the appropriation or borrowing of a certain style, but the recontextualization of the original itself. There is no mimickry or assimilation, only cut-and-paste. Second, in GT the above takes place not within a single genre, but between at least four: rock, hip-hop, pop, and dance/DJ music. Of these, only the first two are explicitly racially coded, whereas the second two –may- be, depending on the performer. Third, the digitalization of music allows for tempos of different songs to be synched, creating a –homogenization- of styles that makes genres indecipherable. Different pieces of songs in different genres are reassembled into a kind of mush; there is something paradoxically –destructive- about this project. As I argue above, I think Girl Talk is aware of this and has made reference to it in his performances.

    “Miscegenation,” as I had understood it prior to your clarification, comprises a history of fear of the blending of racial categories. As you note, “hybridity” also works as a description, but it lacks the element of anxiety that has historically surrounded the breakdown of specificities—the precise anxiety that fueled the Croly and Wakeman pamphlet. Our current moment, it seems to me, is seeing a number of political and aesthetic claims for the value of miscegenation, expanded into a structure that can be applied on ideological or aesthetic registers, as a way of pushing beyond previous impasses to an unknown future. But you are right in pointing out that miscegenation always disempowers someone—he or she who stood to benefit from having a specific identity, a particular claim.

    Thus I think you touch on something that is present in Girl Talk’s music, perhaps problematically: his consistent use of the most lascivious lines from a variety of rap songs. This consistent theme of seduction references the form of the music, the disassembly and reassembly of songs into hybrids. But the majority of these verses are also about domination, the subjugation of the seduced by the seducer. This nod to violence may be a trace, in the utopian moment of digital dispersal, of the history you have sketched.

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  3. Tavia says:

    Hey, I totally get that your argument is different from Frere-Jones. So why use the compromised term “miscegenation” in the first place? Listening to Girl Talk, at your suggestion, was quite entertaining. But I didn’t see what his music had to do with miscegenation, or, for that matter, with Barack Obama’s parentage. Why help a discredited racial idea survive into the digital, utopian future, given that the term originated in a vision of a utopian future without racial conflict in the first place? Shouldn’t that compromised utopianism be our first clue that miscegenation doesn’t do what we think it does (integrate the nation and help transcend its racial past)? A focus on it, then and now, sidesteps the more difficult work of racial justice, which isn’t resolvable through the formal properties of any aesthetic, analog or digital.

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