There's something crucial about listening to music as a teenager that no one tells you at the time: If and when you do fall in love with a certain sound or scene, you're going to fall hard. It's going to be an affection so consuming, an infatuation so serious, that you may cling to that aesthetic with unabashed loyalty. This phenomenon of adoring something so seriously can happen to anyone, but when you're a teenager and click with a sound -- or an artist, or an album, or even a song -- that bond can easily feel like the center of your world.
Late into high school and then all through college in the 2000s, I loved punk rock. I didn't discriminate very much, since I was so desperate to hear and try almost anything I could find. I drank it all in: pop-punk you'd hear on the radio (Blink-182, Green Day, Good Charlotte), pop-punk you'd never hear on the radio (Screeching Weasel, The Soviettes), classic punk (The Clash, Ramones), hardcore, post-hardcore, ska-punk, indie rock, etc. There were some bands or sub-scenes I loathed, sure, but I was pretty much willing to give anything punk- or peripherally punk-related a go.
But in committing myself to punk, I excluded almost every other kind of music from my diet. I grew up in the 1990s in Karachi, Pakistan -- a city, although massive, generally devoid of Western music (pop hits notwithstanding) if you didn't care to seek it out. I went from not really understanding why people enjoyed music, to only liking songs I heard on movie soundtracks, to only liking whatever they played on Channel V (a South Asian MTV equivalent) to wholly hitching myself to punk, with minimal breathing room for other encounters. Punk is a naturally antagonistic genre -- its most fundamental trait is that nebulous sense of rebellion -- so I had little time for anything else. I would have retroactively taken a hail of bullets to ensure Against Me!'s Reinventing Axl Rose or Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy made it into the world, but current hip-hop? Old pop music? New pop music? Fuck all that. Aside from maybe a dozen cherry-picked rap songs and some semi-ironic listens of Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend," I wasn't really having anything that wasn't rock music. I didn't know much about the world outside my interests, and I had zero desire to learn. Nothing else was as real or as genuine or could ever be as good as punk was.
Then, after graduating college in 2008, I somehow stumbled into writing about music semi-professionally as a way to do something with my English degree. I have listened to and spoken to a lot of musicians over the years -- a good chunk of whom I'll honestly never think about again -- and along the way, I have found a few gems that the mid-2000s version of me would have never given any attention.
One of these was Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis), the Pittsburgh native, former biochemical engineer, and collage artist extraordinaire. Around 2009, the mashup had more novelty value than it does right now. YouTube contains about 10 trillion mashups and is adding more every second -- so my interest was piqued. But what really reeled me in was Gillis' approach to music. Instead of taking a simple approach to mashups like Danger Mouse did when he blended Jay Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' The White Album to make The Grey Album, Gillis freely pulled pieces from all over the last three or four decades of Western pop music to create something that had no message or shape, all while pulling the choicest bits. In "Smash Your Head," I paid attention to what he was doing with the riff to Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Goin' Down," which in turn led me to hearing Trina, Young Jeezy, the Pharcyde, Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," and Biggie's "Juicy" for the first time. He has a way of seamlessly drifting between ideas and artists that is just astounding. Compared to other mashup artists who use the whole of or bulk of tracks, Gillis is a pickpocket, stealing little things here and there until he has massed a bizarrely beautiful collection of treasures. He makes stunningly inventive party music -- a product that mixes the past and present, the hyped-up and the dour, the earnest and the sardonic -- like no one else, all without coming off as too smart for his own good.
Long after interviewing Gillis, Girl Talk's output has stuck with me. It has allowed me to enjoy all kinds of artists I had never listened to or given much time before -- The Band, Rich Boy, Lil Wayne, Jimi Hendrix, Ludacris, James Taylor -- all while hooking me through the novelty of this tactics. I sincerely love rap music now, and sing along to pop, R&B, and some old (non-punk) rock songs with much more freedom. The other day, I searched out Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia" after hearing Gillis use it for a GT tune. (It's probably not cool to admit this cultural blind spot, but whatever.)
I still regularly listen to some of punk bands from way back when -- I never stopped loving Lagwagon" -- but they are now part of a broader mix. I'm now willing to try almost anything and not immediately dismiss it. I suppose anyone or anything could have ultimately been the catalyst to mature my tastes and pull me out of the punk-or-bust mindset. But it wasn't anyone. It was Gillis, and I have learned to enjoy a whole more about music because of him.
Girl Talk performs with MicahTron. 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Independent. Advance tickets sold out..