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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 18, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 11
Girl Talk a mix of spectacle and fizzle
Arts & Entertainment
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Girl Talk a mix of spectacle and fizzle

by Rahul K. Gairola - SGN Contributing Writer

Girl Talk
March 16
The Showbox SoDo


One can feel seriously ambivalent when you leave a Girl Talk show. Sure, Greg Gillis (the man behind the 'illegal' phenomenon known as Girl Talk) has his shirt off by the end and is jumping up and down behind a table featuring turntables and other DJ paraphernalia. But what of the quality of a show, minus its hype and rumor? Well, this question was perhaps most heavily on the minds of the many, like myself, who showed up early at Cha Cha Lounge on Capitol Hill the night before to catch a glimpse of Gillis and perhaps have some sort of meaningful musical experience. But when the venue of the show becomes the marker of what is to come, rather than the performer, you can rest assured that what follows will also disappoint. Gillis never showed up to Cha Cha, and the wonder that is Girl Talk was absent the next night, as well.

Those who fervently follow Gillis identify themselves with a time warp caught in the 1980s: headbands, neon jewelry, Velcro sneakers, ski jackets, etc. For those not caught in this vortex of commodified culture, it indeed seems an arduous task to even try to fit into the scene. This is because the music is a scene - it reeks of a very specific kind of pattern and patent that is mainstream chic. Yet, as Lady Gaga shows, it is not the way to fly. But this incipient observation is countered by the beginning of Girl Talk's show, which in may ways compels what follows in this review to have an ambivalent tone.

The show opened with flickering strobe lights, with an animated back screen flickering multi-colored lights and a repeating graphic stating 'Seattle' in a white font. Soon after, Gillis (whose stage name is Girl Talk) mounted the stage while exclaiming, 'Let's kill this tonight, Wednesday night, Seattle!'

Gillis commenced with 'Oh No,' the first track from his most recent record on Illegal Arts, All Day. Featuring a sample from Led Zeppelin under a fleeting beat of Rihanna's 'Umbrella,' the visual effects featured leaf blowers shooting out streams of toilet paper with falling confetti and wild lasers. A great opening, but it set the tone as a post-millennium prom sock hop, which might indeed have been the point, rather than the set of a cognizant artist who can transcend pop stereotypes. However, with multiple dancers surrounding Gillis and him hopping up and down, it is difficult to not be distracted by spectacle rather than substance. This illusion soon fizzles away. Indeed, the heavy beats aligned to a sample of the Ramones' 'Blitzkrieg Bop' and a Euro dance club feel reminiscent of the nouveau feel of dance clubs in the former East Berlin soon fell flat given the raw fact that, despite all the projected enthusiasm and neon jewelry, no one was dancing.

To his credit, Gillis tries to humanize the show - which seems utterly dominated by the digital elements of his set and sensibility - by featuring dancers on the stage in front of a projected image of himself dancing behind his gear. But this messiah syndrome is only so effective, because it is undermined by Gillis' ability to mash up other artists' songs. In other words, Girl Talk's self-gratuitous gestures can only go so far when Gillis is hopelessly citing the music of many, many other artists. What once seems to be genius falls flat in the face of desperate spectacle, digital repetition, hired onstage dancers, and a light show that is so self-conscious that it comes across flaccid less than halfway through the show. While Gillis is clearly an energetic performer who can skillfully mash up samples of the Pointer Sisters' 'Jump' with the beats underlying 'Umbrella,' then Radiohead's 'Creep,' the seams between the beats glare like the black lights by the middle of the show.

This is not to say that the '80s vibe is not present: there are panels of large, colored dots (think a super-size version of Lite Brite) and a huge screen depicting Gillis jumping up and down. This yields to a sample of a hip-hop song mashed up with 'Come on Eileen' by Dexy's Midnight Runners, which segues into Len's 'Steal My Sunshine' from the soundtrack of Doug Liman's 1999 film Go. This film intertwines the plots of three friends searching for drug deals that will ultimately lead them to the ultimate rave. The problem is that, to those very familiar with Liman's film (I used to teach it for two years), Girl Talk's stage presence and props rips off that film as well - strobe lights, black lights, large blown up figures swaying around, etc. All of a sudden, when one realizes that the atmosphere in addition to music is a patchwork of things has-been, it is too late to request a refund or regret being at the venue despite the confetti and strobe lights.

Towards the end of the show, despite Gillis' commendable charisma and appeal to the crowd to 'pump it up,' his digital citation to Kylie Minogue, Nirvana, Van Halen, and Faith No More seem meaningless salutations muttered in winter months by those said to be afflicted by the 'Seattle Freeze' (passive aggressive inability of locals to genuinely embrace outsiders). This in itself is not troubling, but Girl Talk's attempt to pander to and capitalize on these aspects of Seattle life is problematic. Moreover, as complained by the person beside me, Gillis can also be viewed as a white guy stealing black music and culture samples who nonetheless celebrates the white privilege of being able to sample it. It is naïve to think that race is not significant in the mass marketing of pop music, and it is more so naïve to not feel, by the end of the show, that the endless string of samples feels oppressive and inter-citational rather than original.

Despite the 'diversity' of the samples, the live show of Greg Gillis is spectacle versus substance, which is perhaps most aptly demonstrated by him taking his shirt off, jumping up and down, and almost desperately calling out to Seattleites. At this point, the most obvious question arises: with confetti, sophisticated lights, chest hair, go-go dancers, multiple samples, etc., what else do you need to gain the respect of a music-savvy audience?

Clearly, Greg Gillis needs to do some background research on this, and, along the way, critically question what his social and political stakes and aversions are in making money off this material. This would be far more becoming than inflating his own ego onstage along to aural patchworks that consist of the work of other popular artists. While his compositional brilliance in respect to other artists' work is formidable, it seems that Gillis has much to learn on his own, beyond the sound bytes of those who have composed original work that has gotten them well-earned laurels.

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