The New York Times profiles mashup kingpin Girl Talk, with a great look at what goes on at a Girl Talk live performance.
In high school, he used to put up a life-size cutout of Christina Aguilera at shows and play 12 scratched CDs at once or shoot fireworks or smash a bunch of TVs — and he might have three people watching in the dark with their arms crossed. In a space like that — playing to an art crowd — it occurred to Gillis that going pop would be a “good joke.” He started running onstage like a lost member of Wham!, screaming and tossing confetti, and the same three people would still be standing there. He put together a kind of dance party, filling up the stage with a group of costumed sidekicks who did “superbasic” routines that Gillis choreographed. College lightened him up: girls, parties and dancing. He began to incorporate beats and rhythm. “I’m yelling at the audience to loosen up and dance, but I’m playing noise music,” he remembers. “Would it really be so wrong to have beats?” He would go to rock clubs and get heckled by “30 guys smoking cigarettes and chugging beers while I played a Madonna remix.” Twenty people in Boston, zero in Providence. (“The guy who booked the show forgot he booked it.”) He would go on and anger the audience with his silly show, then the second act would do a punk thing and fights would inevitably break out. “My older crowd were not the kind of people who would pay $30 for any concert,” he says. “I was trying to be this sore thumb of pop. I was almost poking fun at the idea of a rock-and-roll laptop show.”
But by 2006, people were starting to take seriously what had started as Gillis’s avant-pop joke. Pitchfork, the influential indie-rock Web site, gave “Night Ripper,” Girl Talk’s third release, an out-of-the-blue rave review. Girl Talk was suddenly headlining the Mercury Lounge in New York. “I was weirded out,” he says of that night. “These people actually wanted to see this laptop show. I used to pretend that the audience was having fun. After six years of pretending, the audience was now actually having fun.”
Where the hipster says “no, no, no” to everything, pre-emptively, Gillis twists the screw a perverse turn further. “I want to like everything until I’m convinced why not,” he tells me. He and his friends will “ride each other for not being into things. ‘You didn’t buy the new Katy Perry record? What? I’ve got two.’ ”
“I don’t want it to be ironic,” he added. “What it comes down to is being a fan of all this music. I just thought that it could all share one roof and be this really interesting mess.”
I asked him if, in addition to the Pirates and the Steelers, he ever felt any identification with another Pittsburgh institution, Andy Warhol, who blurred the usual distinctions between shallow and deep, trashy and sublime (and who broke through with a “sample” of Campbell’s soup cans).
“I definitely see parallels,” he said. “He made work that was very visual. Very conceptually focused. But also art fans could easily dismiss it.”
It was the tour manager who cued up the introduction, based on an ELO song. Gillis triggered a sample: the singer Ciara breathing, which eventually morphed into “Girl Talk, Girl Talk, Girl Talk, Girl Talk.” The dancers charged out of the chute and onto the stage, and Gillis leaped up on his table, wearing a yellow sweatshirt and black pants. He shouted into the microphone, his hand raised in salute. The house lights went up brightly on the crowd, and everyone’s hands were raised and moving forward, no one thinking about anything but that precise moment of gratification.
Leaf blowers blasted confetti into the darkness above their heads. Gillis gave them Black Sabbath overlaid with Ludacris, while two of his friends raced around the stage in U.S. Olympic basketball outfits, shooting rolls of toilet paper at the crowd and pumping their fists. Gillis went to a mash-up of Rihanna and Fugazi, reggae-tinged R.& B. and reggae-tinged punk. Rihanna sang, “Tonight I’m a let you be the captain, tonight I’m a let you be a rider,” and Fugazi’s guitars, shorn of their context, turned into pure stadium-rock testosterone with a weird dash of Bollywood coming through in the rise and fall of Rihanna’s flirtation. On the video screens, a cartoon baby ate a Burberry bag and regurgitated it, then ate a slice of pizza and regurgitated that. The girls were dancing with the girls, and the boys were dancing with the boys. There was a guy in a green bodysuit like the guy in the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” (Alas, he wasn’t onstage, and he wasn’t much of a dancer.) The toilet paper came spooling off a leaf blower to surprisingly poetic effect.
Gillis stood behind his table, bobbing violently up and down. He managed to turn a computerized performance into something that must feel almost exactly like playing rock ’n’ roll in the ordinary way. Eight or 10 loops were going on his laptop’s screen all at once, all of them on mute until he clicked them on — sampled melodies, a cappella raps, amorphous sounds, “pace keepers” (breaths, pants, “heys,” “yos”). Unless, like Gillis, you somehow have all of this memorized, you won’t know until you click on a loop where it will be in its cycle — beginning, middle or end. He had to account for the lag time between when he clicked the mouse and when the sound actually cut in. If he missed even slightly with a loop of rap, for example, the loop might be 64 beats long — which could be almost a minute of music — and for that minute all his rhythms would be misaligned. Triggering samples requires dexterity; three in a row is a feat. He could just let his laptop do the work, and 99 percent of his audience would never hear the difference. Gillis says he would hear the difference.