“This is the biggest show I’ve ever played,” announced an ecstatic Greg Gillis to the salivating mob at Chicago’s sold-out Congress Theatre, just before hundreds of multi-colored balloons dropped from the ceiling and engulfed the venue. “This shit is ridiculous!” Girl Talk is Greg Gillis, and Gillis is a hyper active mash-up anti-DJ for a generation raised on energy drinks, TiVo, and Adderall. His instrument is a laptop, and his talent lies in the ability to seamlessly blend disparate pop songs into a non-stop, propulsive groove, achieving a synthesis of irony and innovation.
Girl Talk’s latest album, Feed the Animals, is a continuation of Gillis’ fascination with the melding of club anthem hip-hop, guilty pleasure Top 40 hits, and indie rock favorites. The album’s first track throws the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin”, Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door”, Lil Mama’s “G-Slide (Tour Bus)”, Huey Lewis’ “Heart of Rock and Roll”, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, and Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”, into a blender stuck on high, and by the time “Ghetto Superstar” meets Yo La Tengo late in the album, the casual listener is probably too spent to care, or even wonder who the hell is Yo La Tengo? On record, the shtick wears thin after a couple spins, but the real point to the whole venture is that if you’re not dancing, you’re missing the point.
This 4,000-capacity, all ages Congress show was the biggest non-festival gig of Gillis’ career, and a testament to how far Girl Talk has come in a relatively short amount of time. Gillis has released four albums on the Illegal Art label since actively beginning to record in 2000, dabbling, at first, in small, club sets while studying biomedical engineering at college in Cleveland. Word of mouth quickly spread, with his breakout album, 2006’s Night Ripper, drawing rave reviews and prompting many to consider his use of unauthorized sampling a lawsuit waiting to happen. Gillis cheerfully disregards these charges, citing Fair Use as his legal right for sampling, and his popularity has only grown since a buzz-worthy performance at 2008’s Lollapalooza where Gillis surfed the crowd in an inflatable raft. Part of the charm of live Girl Talk is Gillis’ involvement with the crowd, with the fourth wall broken as the stage becomes flooded with crowd members who surround Gillis and his laptop. Outside of Europe, it’s rare for a DJ to draw such attention and admiration in a live setting, and before the Congress set began the crowd had threatened to smother itself, a grim reminder of his 2007 performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival when Gillis’ set was cut short as the crowd rushed the fenced in area surrounding the stage.
After a brief scolding by security, the set began; Gillis surrounded by hundreds of fans randomly selected before the show to spastically strut their stuff on stage. It was simultaneously charming and sad to see teenyboppers in neon shirts and new wave knee socks, chewing pacifiers and throwing glow sticks, dancing to the well-supervised chaos. The short-lived beauty of ‘90s warehouse raves, and the flamboyant style established by Michael Alig during the ‘80s reign of Club Kids in New York, was a sense of danger and glam rebellion. As projected images of marijuana leaves and giant cheeseburgers flashed on the screen behind Gillis, it became impossible to separate sincerity from hipster irony. During his sets, there can be anywhere from two to ten loops playing at any particular time. Although it feels like improv, the material is arranged before the shows, with the transition from segment to segment propelled by a combination of crowd intensity and the whims of Gillis. My notes became a garbled mess, as I frantically tried to keep up with Gillis as he threw “Blitzkrieg Bop”, Fergie, and Kenny Loggins at the ravenous crowd.
As the bass dropped out, Gillis isolated the riff from Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl”, and the place went bananas, leaving me to wonder if the young crowd actually liked this ‘80s gem, or if they would happily lap up anything their beloved Girl Talk could sample. As the two-hour set wore on, the breakneck intensity of Gillis never subsiding, I began to feel old and very conspicuous. A guy in his late-twenties in blue jeans and t-shirt halfheartedly wishing he had an ecstasy connection instead of feeling lost in the crowd like one of Gillis’ many, many samples.