Upon listening to the new all-samples Girl Talk album (download/buy the album here), my first thought was this: “misogynistic lyrics over an amalgam of beats and samples? Really? Ugh.”. After so much chatter and hype, to me this seemed remarkably… unremarkable. How was this any different from Lil’ Wayne’s new disc or countless other albums that are catchy – and sorta’ offensive?
But as I sat there, perched condescendingly atop my high horse, it occurred to me that this was a bit unfair. After all, can you really argue that the lyrics on the Feed the Animals are a projection of DJ Gregg Gillis’ views? That this is self-expression through somebody else’s words? Not really. Listen to the album and what strikes you immediately is that the voice behind the disc is not to be found in individual phrases or samples – if it is to be found at all. This isn’t one of those albums that I refer to as ‘personality discs’, works that are explicitly meant to be a reflection of an individual behind them.
The most recent ‘personality disc’ I can think of is Santogold‘s self-titled debut. As she careens through an array of influences, chanting lyrics like “Me I’m a creator / Thrill is to make it up / The rules I break got me a place / Up on the radar” there is a clear sense that this is Santi White speaking about herself. Similarly, the album’s opener “L.E.S. Artistes” suggests White worries about the sacrifices she makes for art – as in “I can say I hope / It will be worth what I give up / If I could stand up mean / For all the things that I believe” – and draws on a long legacy of personal, self-reflective song-writing.
Santgold is the musical and lyrical expression of an individual, the album becoming like a public diary of inner thoughts, feelings and opinions. Feed the Animals is an aesthetic arrangement of disparate, often contradictory elements into something resembling a coherent whole. And one way to think of this contrast is to turn to Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his distinction between monologic and dialogic writing. To Bakhtin, a dialogic novel was one that, instead of attempting to maintain a singular ‘monologic’ voice throughout a work, aimed to arrange a number of different perspectives and ideologies into an aesthetic whole, allowing the tension or dialogue between the differing views to remain unresolved. Bakhtin’s most common way of demonstrating this difference was to contrast Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy, he argued, maintained one dominant voice and perspective through the use on overarching narrator and, as such, a singular perspective shone through by the time the plot resolved. Bakhtin argued that Dostoevsky, on the other the hand, arranged a number of different voices and deliberately left them unresolved, and was thus the superior, more sophisticated writer. It’s a point worth considering: what is more ‘realistic’ (and poignant) than irreconcilable differences remaining irreconcilable?
So in my little analogy, the all-samples Feed the Animals is clearly the dialogic novel – it is the aesthetic organisation of a set of contrasting sources. As in a dialogic novel, it is not simply enough to have disparate elements; instead, it is the arrangment of the different perspectives into a coherent – if not necessarily cohesive – whole that makes the work… ‘work’. There is no overarching perspective that dominates in the novel, as there is no overarching generic or lyric theme that runs through Feed the Animals. Rather, the satisfaction for me comes precisely from the ‘irreconcilable’ being put together in a way that feels right, in a manner that works both with and against the very differences that are put into play.
Santogold is quite different. While it is a great album, also culled from a variety of influences, there is something less satisfying to me about the ‘monologic’ nature of it, the singular, overarching voice that sits atop the album. But what I think is most interesting is that Dostoevsky’s dialogic approach has become far more significant than what now feels like the more simplistic monologic style. The question to ask is if Girl Talk are heralding a new age in which the album will be a frame for the arrangement of styles and ideas – rather than the straightforward expression of them.