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Girl Talk rings in the New Year with mash-ups on steroids

Jordan Gamble | Thursday, January 14, 2010

On paper, it all sounds pretty tame, even lame. Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, mixed together a bunch of different songs on his laptop and played the concoction for a crowd at the Congress Theater in Chicago. List price for tickets to the New Year’s Eve event was $35, kind of overpriced for a DJ.
In actuality, Girl Talk produced two hours of thumping, sweeping, grinding, outrageously intricate mashed-up music. Tickets hovered around $200 on StubHub for those unlucky enough to snatch them up a month in advance. The capacity (and then some) crowd filled the floor of the cavernous Congress Theater, where all the seats have been ripped out to facilitate a dance-club atmosphere.
In truth, though, the experience was more akin to a sweaty, booze-drenched house party with hundreds of your best friends, albeit one with vigorous pat-down security and a coat check. The stage crew even spent three days building a massive house on the stage, complete with two stories and a roof.
Just as the house had no fourth wall, Girl Talk didn’t have much of a barrier between his performance and the audience. People crowded around his mixing station to dance, spy on his upcoming song selections and even jump around with him for the few seconds when he would set the music to autopilot. A few others were allowed to filter through the life-size dollhouse. Some played the bongo drums in the second-story bedroom, sat on the toilet in the bathroom or rifled through the fridge in the kitchen. Halfway through the show, after Girl Talk led the countdown to 2010, a guy even proposed to his girlfriend in the living room.
But why exactly should he command such a following? Why does a DJ need a house on the stage in an old opera house for his concerts? Well, as Gillis will tell you, “I am not a DJ” (the concert t-shirts say the same thing.) He’s not even really a mash-up artist (think of Danger Mouse and his “Grey Album,” which strung together the Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “Black Album”).
Girl Talk weaves together bits and pieces from literally hundreds of different songs. He picks out a hook, a beat, or even a single word and treats it like its own instrument in an orchestra that he conducts with a laptop and some heavy-duty sound-editing software. Amazing things happen, and listening to Girl Talk is as much about enjoying the creation as it is a game of “I Spy” with music: Michael Jackson is spliced into Megadeath, an 80s pop song becomes a hip-hop anthem, somehow morphs into “Party in the USA” and melts into a guitar riff from Nirvana.
While he does mix a good portion of the music live, a general outline usually comes from one of his full-length albums released through the record label Illegal Art. “Night Ripper” (2006) and “Feed the Animals” (2008) are the two most recent and the most likely to turn up in his live shows. They are both essentially 45-minute-long songs, with no breaks beyond some rather arbitrary track listings.  “Feed the Animals” alone samples from more than 300 songs.
Unfortunately, a good degree of these albums’ intricacy was lost in the Congress Theater’s echoing confines, but enough of the infectious dance beats remained. Adding to the atmosphere were several crewmembers who used leaf blowers to spin toilet paper off rolls into the air. Every once in a while, huge tubes of clear plastic, filled with confetti, would be launched from the stage and glided around the floor of the theater on the hands of the audience. And, of course, at midnight, hundreds of balloons fell from the ceiling.
But the music still took precedence. Near the end of the first act (before the midnight countdown and the onstage marriage proposal), Girl Talk brought in the opening strains of “Don’t Stop Believing,” and the excitement in the air was palpable. Everyone knew what was up next, but Girl Talk teased the crowd. Steve Perry sang, “just a small town girl,” several times before there was enough space for the crowd to belt out, “living in a lonely world.”  
Girl Talk was more accommodating at the show’s end. The whole audience sang along to John Lennon’s “Imagine” as the not-DJ closed out two hours of paradoxical performance — a thrillingly unique creation made by stealing music from other artists, a live performance that is essentially iTunes on steroids. But Girl Talk’s electrifying shows still bring in the sweaty, dancing masses for a reason: they are a riotous good time.