How is the Election Like a Girl Talk Record?

Taking things out of context is kind of the bread-and-butter of the political race.

Leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election, the Talkhouse has asked our contributors to weigh in on voting and what it means to them. 
— Brenna Ehrlich, editor-in-chief of the Talkhouse Music

Throughout my wanderings, I’ve called two zones home base: Idaho and New York. Politically, it’s the ultimate Red vs. Blue — something reflected in a voter attitude shared by both places. That attitude is: the GOP always wins in Idaho and the Dems always win in New York, so what’s the point of voting at all? It’s an apathy that I’ve tried to avoid. The contagion is quick, though, and that jaded feeling has to go somewhere. I usually attempt to put it into art, recontextualizing this mad world around me.

During the election, soundbites become music, and it’s all about changing the context. Election years are among the best (and worst) times for art-making, and specifically sampling. Best, as there is plenty of enraging/inspiring/maddening fodder for creation. Worst…for the same reason. For example: poor Jeb Bush and his now-infamous request to an impassive crowd following an address he himself delivered: “Please clap.” It’s such a perfect piece of audio. I sampled these few seconds on a track from my imminent new solo record. Because why haven’t musicians just simply started to ask for approval, instead of working for it? “Please clap,” and its punctuation of applause, undoubtedly grids dozens of tracks on Soundcloud right now. Here’s one of many I found through a quick search:

In this case, former Republican presidential hopeful Jeb was talking about the qualities he thought the next president should possess and, apparently, delivered an applause line that fell flat before he wryly asked for applause. He even had a little smile on his face when he solicited the cheer. Still, the media took just the sad little request totally out of context, and it became music to the ears of remixers everywhere — it works, as a sample, without context. Still, knowing the source gives the listener a little prize; once you figure out the secret, the music and your mind open up even further — and the sample in the song allows you to be in two places at once.

Samples, by their nature, very often sound out of context — and of course that’s the point. An attuned listener can usually tell when audio is sampled. As Jaron Lanier put it in his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget: “…you hear identical microstructure in sound again and again, making it seem as if the world is not fully alive while the music is playing.” A sample interrupts the natural order. That is to say, a sample can be jarring, discomfiting and unreal. Much like a presidential election.

Lanier speaks to sampling in hip-hop, specifically, attributing the repetition of the sample to a “stuckness and frustration” of its producers. He goes on to say: “A digital sound sample in angry rap doesn’t correspond to the graffiti but to the wall.” I take this to mean a sample is not necessarily an artistic gesture, but a utilitarian one — samples arise out of a necessity to express more than the limits of a situation might generally allow. This reading implies sampling is political by default. It collapses space and time and boundaries between elites and their constituents. Oh, you need a tuba? Here, take this John Philip Sousa record.

When I first heard about sampling when I was a tween, in the late ’90s, I couldn’t fathom it, and it took a long time to untrain my ear. How could one song, or a part of another song, be another song completely? Is that not simply stealing? In 2016, the ethical violations tend to slip away — for example, when you throw on the Girl Talk cut-up classic Night Ripper (2006). That record is both devoid of and fully indebted to context. Many songs can be one song; all the best music shares at least a spirit that unifies it.

Among that music is The Cold Vein (2001) by New York hip-hop duo Cannibal Ox, an album that opens with a sample from 1983’s The Big Chill. I was fourteen when that came out and the clip blew my mind. How could a movie clip be music? Taken out of context, it feels like it is the context for the entire record to come. Of course, years later, the real context came when discovering El-P really gerrymandered some tunes on that record, using Giorgio Moroder, Wall of Voodoo, Philip Glass, and a ton of others that seem totally out of context — but work so well. Jamie’s always got my vote.

Taking things out of context is kind of the bread-and-butter of the political race.

I first started using samples when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. I used his acceptance speeches at the Democratic National Convention for disembodied chanting, taking snippets of his voice and removing them from context. Sampling live had become much easier around that time, as digital audio had finally caught up to pocket-sized tech. I could carry around my phone or MP3 player, loaded with the samples I needed, and then play them into a loop pedal — speeding up or slowing down the voices, using them as I saw fit. I remember playing a show in Idaho, an inauguration party, quite literally twisting Obama’s words as part of the music. Manipulating soundwaves in a digital audio workspace such as Garageband or ProTools felt intuitive after that.

Taking things out of context is kind of the bread-and-butter of the political race. Whether it’s soundbite culture, attack ads or gerrymandering, politics is all about taking one thing and making it another thing. Remember when Herman Cain dropped off the Republican ticket for president back in 2012? As his concession speech, he recited, word for word, an inspirational salvo from The Pokémon Movie. In context, it’s probably the most condescending moment in the history of American politics; Cain literally told his supporters he was reciting a speech from a cartoon, and then delivered that speech. However, devoid of context, it gets me incredibly fucking amped. As I said, I recently finished my fourth solo LP, my third under the name Fissures. It utilizes a lot of samples. And you better believe Herman and Jeb are on there, along with a Nixon biographer, RFK and Amanda Palmer. I cherry-picked all of their most sample-worthy and awkward soundbites, like a CNN producer on a slow news day.

Moreover, picking and choosing what we do and do not look at is a function of music culture itself — and its politics. Take Morrissey, for example. What is it about him that we can accept, what is it we must reject, and where do we draw the line to cut him out of our own politics? That’s the curatorial aspect of our beliefs, and how sampling reflects the movement of the heart. As Bernie Sanders and Thurston Moore recently advised, on a limited edition flexi disc for Joyful Noise, “You have to feel it in your guts.”

Which leads me back to my voter apathy: a little blue island in a sea of red? It’s hard not to notice that clash, that contextual dissonance. So perhaps, when you’re out of context, that’s when you’re heard the best. So please: just go ahead and vote.

Dale is the drummer in Brooklyn-based duo YVETTE and the Director of Special Projects and Other Provocations at GODMODE music. He is also a freelance writer. His work has appeared recently in the New York Daily News, Complex, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Village Voice, Noisey, The Awl, Fader and elsewhere.