The Controversy of Mashups: Girl Talk

A mashup takes songs or sounds from other artists and combines them to form a single unified song. The most famous contemporary American mashup artist is Gregg Gillis, a retired biomedical engineer who performs under the name Girl Talk. Gillis makes musical collages out of short clips from other people’s songs but does not get the permission of the original composers. Here is a clip of Gillis demonstrating how he goes about creating mashups:

A great controversy over the work of Gillis and other mashup artists remains whether mashups fall under copyright law’s fair use principle, which allows online music reviews to use short clips of songs. According to the U.S. Code: 

The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

Gillis argues for the legality of his work and claims that there is currently an impetus for a more open exchange of culture and media. Others strongly support this claim such as Congress Representative Mike Doyle who argues that copyright law has grown so restrictive that it impedes creativity.

However, some argue that Gillis and other mashup artists are simply substituting someone else’s creativity for their own and that such actions should be, and in fact are, illegal. Interestingly enough the current record label of Girl Talk is called Illegal Art. Regardless, both sides agree that the current method of distribution of Girl Talk's songs plays a key role in keeping the controversy out of the courts. Girl Talk’s most recent album, All Day, is available for download free online, as are all his other works.

Gillis performing at Duke University in the spring of 2009.

Regardless of the legality of mashups, their impact on the musical community is difficult to examine. Covers of a single song can serve as a marketing tool, helping an artist's work become more popular, or can, if the work is sold commercially, help the original artist make some money. Mashups, though, do not necessarily do either. Gillis takes small clips from songs, often eliminating all but one intended instrument or sound, and combines many songs together to form a new entity which cannot be easily identified with a single artist. In addition, Gillis does not pay musicians to use their songs. They are not necessarily a useful marketing tool for the original artists, and do not allow the creator to gain additional profit. Mashups do, however, contribute to an environment in which digital media and collaboration are encouraged, which, as future blog posts will address, may help change the future of music.

Here is an example of one of Girl Talk's many mashups:


  1. When I think of recent music, covers are the farthest thing from my mind. I haven't run into a recognizable cover in a long time. However, sampling as well as "mash ups" are recognizable terms and essential parts to the music industry today. I am constantly stunned by how the same beat can span across 3 different rap songs and come out with a completely new and seemingly original product. It does make me question how vast creativity really can be though. How much longer will anything in art be considered new instead of a new representation of an old idea?

    - Deja

  2. I think the legal ramifications would be more significant if Gillis was directly profiting from the sales of his music. Still, while it is all available for free download, he is profiting from this in other ways and there if definitely a legal argument against him. Ultimately, I think that what he does is an art and although it is different from the cover form, by mixing elements of songs together he is creating original work.

  3. I think that this kind of music sounds, in theory, like the essay we discussed in class that directly plagiarizes lines from various famous works of literature and compiles them to create a new and unique story. Girl Talk does take beats, lyrics or both from various songs and does aggregate them in a unique fashion to create a new song however the final product sounds nothing like any of the original songs and therefore does not infringe on their intellectual brainchild. For example, if Girl Talk takes music from a wide enough array of musicians and genres than they are not copying any one particular artist too heavily and so avoid copyright problems. It is also, music conceptually, so interesting to see how recognizable tunes become so immersed within a mash-up when joined with other recognizable tunes that they carry a new meaning altogether even when the actual clip of the song is entirely unchanged.

  4. I have definitely heard of a few Girl Talk songs and what he does is truly creative. I cannot imagine artists getting mad at him for what he does. In a way, his songs pay an homage to the original artists; although plagiarism usually takes little effort, it is apparent that Girl Talk's music requires careful planning. On top of the distinct disparity between plagiarism and Girl Talk's music, he lets listeners download his music completely for free. This just goes to show the extent of Gillis's passion and his true intentions.