Twice now I've interviewed Gregg Gillis, the DJ and producer better known to the world as Girl Talk.
And both times, I've come away believing he's one of the smartest dudes in music. That tends to happen when you make a living playing chicken with the laws of copyright infringement: You get asked about it a lot, and so you get intimately familiar with terms like transformative nature and fair use doctrine. The fact that you make and play music on a computer just makes you seem like even more of a poindexter.
But the truth is, Gregg Gillis owes his popularity to mastering the art of simplicity: He takes hooks and beats you know by heart, and combines them into a strange but exciting new experience. He's the Grant Achatz of music. You probably wish you'd thought to do it first. (But then again, that's what makes geniuses geniuses, right?)
On Wednesday at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, Girl Talk turned what was essentially a simple DJ set into a hyperactive hybrid of a night at a top-40 club, mixed with a house party scored to an iPod set to shuffle, mixed with a frenzied spin through the FM radio dial.
In other words: It was a mashup. Appropriate, no?
Gillis maintains that his shows are live concerts; he mixes songs on the fly and keeps the songs rolling in a precise order. I don't doubt this, but let's be honest – you could achieve more or less the same effect by plugging All Day or Feed The Animals into your speakers and blasting them at full volume.
So Gillis compensates. He brings scores of dancers onstage. He has stagehands blast toilet-paper guns into the mosh pit. He dumps balloons and confetti on the crowd. And at the center of it all, he strips off his clothes, one sweaty shirt at a time, and hops from foot to foot, amping up the crowd in a nonstop jumping-jack/dancercise session.
It's a fool's errand to try to catalogue all the samples you hear in a Girl Talk show. Gillis leaves most mashups running for anywhere between eight and 32 measures, which works out to 90 seconds or so of each track, max. It's the only place Radiohead, Rick Ross, Rage Against The Machine and ELO can coexist peacefully. And every now and then, he'll drop in a hit you'd long since forgotten about. (Hey, I remember The Darkness!)
One of the criticisms Girl Talk has endured is that his songs are not really his own. When he samples Paul Simon's Cecilia, and the crowd is singing "Whoa-oh-ohhh-ohhhh," sure, he's capitalizing on a hook that Simon wrote. And when he samples Michael Jackson's Thriller or Van Halen's Jump, he's counting on those monster synths to provoke an instant scream. The song is a proven hit, so the results can be reliably predicted. It's science, people!
But the purpose of going to a concert is to lose yourself and have a fun time, right? Greg Gillis can hook you up with that. If you're willing to surrender yourself to hook after hook after hook, to rap with T.I., sing with Belinda Carlisle and play air guitar with Black Sabbath, then you will go home satisfied. Near the end, Girl Talk actually played Shout, that ultimate wedding-reception dance-floor filler. And damn if it didn't actually work on the bearded, bespectacled hipsters in the audience.
In his pursuit of a new art form, Gregg Gillis takes parts of songs, sure. But only the awesome parts. Only the parts you'll remember, and never get tired of. And that's why he's stayed so popular.
Pretty smart, huh?
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*