House of Blues, Boston, MA
November 2, 2009
Gregg Gillis can sure play the fuck out of a laptop.”
“Did that just happen? Seriously.”
The first one I said, but the second and others like it I heard exiting the Girl Talk show Monday night at the House of Blues. Gillis, better known by his stage name Girl Talk, had just finished a ninety minute set of pure pandemonium. More impressive, he did it playing other people’s music on a pair of laptops. I had a lot of trouble conveying just how this works, so I found this YouTube comment that pretty much summed it up: “wait so does he just sample a bunch of songs together and then lead massive raves??? i could totally get into that.”
Girl Talk’s work has been subject to huge controversy. As a mashup artist who mixes together bits and fragments of popular songs, he’s been derided as derivative, piggybacking off the success of other artists. Fans on the other hand argue that his inventive mashups put the familiar in unfamiliar territory, creating a whole other beast.
After witnessing Monday night’s show, I can say none of this debate matters. It takes a hell of a lot more than playing Jay-Z on top of Radiohead to make two thousand people go absolutely bonkers for an hour and a half.
Part of Girl Talk’s magic came from his command of melody and juxtaposition — his mashups simply sounded amazing. It was like putting avocado and watermelon together. You don’t think it could possibly work, but then it does, and your mind is blown.
The other half of the magic came from the orchestrated insanity of Girl Talk’s stage act. He went out there and started hammering away on two beat up Panasonic laptops covered in saran wrap (to prevent beer and sweat damage). Instead of stage gimmicks, he let the first two rows of the audience rush on stage. Those fans pretty much experienced the rapture that night and elevated the energy to otherworldly levels. The beats and samples started pouring out, slowly layering themselves into a warped sonic mishmash of damn-this-makes-me-want-to-dance. And then watching him, everyone realized, these weren’t pre-recorded mashups - he was mixing everything live.
Having weaseled my way on stage with a press pass, I saw the process first hand. The nerd is strong with Girl Talk so everyone at MIT will love this: Girl Talk ran a GUI where each box on the screen was a sample. There were fields associated with each sample that let him manipulate the tone, speed, volume, etc. One laptop played the mix while he set up new samples on the other. Toggling between the two, he played them like digital turn tables. I’ve never seen so many people geeked out over a dude running Windows XP, but then again this is 2009.
The people on stage boxed him in with flailing arms and screams. In turn, Girl Talk fed off the intimacy and energy, frantically pounding on his laptops and slowly shedding clothing, until at last in a moment of climactic delirium, he hopped on the table half-naked, drenched in sweat just jamming out.
Looking back, I can’t remember much of the music. It was loud, enjoyable, and made my feet move. There were hooks and great moments when unsuspecting tunes meshed in serendipity. None of that compared to the hair-raising feel of the moment. I remember towards the end of the show looking out at the crowd and seeing the packed masses hopping up and down. To my right and left the fans on stage were wigging out, having transcended space and time. And at the center of this mini-universe, there was Girl Talk, conjuring the calamity one click at a time.