Gregg Gillis sits in the library of Terrace Club; a few minutes ago he was eating potatoes. He is of average height and has enormous white teeth. He speaks rapidly and giddily, as though school has just been cancelled.
“I’m a composer,” he says, looking across the room. “Well, not really…I don’t want to sound like a prick. My girlfriend’s not around today to keep me in line.”
He laughs and goes on.
“I make songs out of other people’s stuff, but they’re my own,” he says. “I want kids to hear a Girl Talk track and know who put it together.”
Night Ripper, Gillis’s third and most accessible album, is mimetic of its creator—earnest, intelligent, occasionally dorky, stunningly difficult to pin down. It’s pastiche of the highest order, built of blips and jerks from a thirty-year span of pop and rap and lo-fi rock.
“Some people don’t know, but I’m from Pittsburgh, born and raised, and there’s a certain credibility to that,” Gillis beings. “I’d have a hard time driving to Madison, Wisconsin, and putting on a show if I weren’t grounded that way. I don’t know how they’d take some mash-up dude from Brooklyn, a guy making a big ironic statement.”
He looks around again and rubs his neck. “So where am I playing?” he asks.
Downstairs he takes me through his routine. There’s really only the laptop—a bulky thing in an even bulkier case. He runs his fingers along it.
“I pull up the tracks I want before a show,” explains. “When I’m on the plane or whatever beforehand, I look to see what I need. Just today I added Cyndi Lauper and took out something else. Then once the show starts I get the playlist program going. Things filter in and out; I have a safety that catches me and overlays a cut on the sixteenth of a beat. It’s designed for parties, but sometimes I’ll mess up.”
People are walking in and out of the club, and he stops to say hello or collect his thoughts. Later in the evening we’ll talk more, as drunk folk push by and inquire—loudly, unabashedly—about when ‘that chick Girl Talk’ is going to start, and if she’s hot. He’ll eventually lose his shirt and crowd surf through most of the dining room. By Sunday morning he’ll be back on his way to western Pennsylvania, to his girlfriend and a day job at an engineering firm.
Girl Talk prompts discussion—combine Biggy and Elton John, “Laffy Taffy” and eight-bit electronica, and you’ll spark a debate or two. It’s a diverting proposition, really, and one that serves Gillis well throughout Night Ripper. Upon the first track’s perverse reconception of “Bittersweet Symphony” and the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song),” the work’s lack-of-pretense becomes imminently clear—that snarky Jacob’s Ladder of a beat actually enlivens the Verve’s triumphal strings, makes them whole. Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” emerges a repointed, hard-luck Bildungslied; James Taylor gains some rhythmic cojones; the guitar solo to Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” folds upon itself cathartically, reflectively. The mix is ever-thoughtful, and schizoid, and somehow strangely soothing in the manner of a back-of-the-yearbook photo collage.
Thus Gillis achieves, in many ways, an emotional resonance foreign to typical dance fare. These are, after all, the songs to which we dry-humped and pole-vaulted and otherwise cavorted throughout middle and high school. Pop music does not require context so much as it creates it. Cultural theorists like Theodor Adorno describe such songs’ “standardized” infrastructure; what he and others ignore, however, is the very infinitude this structure permits. Good pop ditties are fractals, wherein each kernel of the overarching melody embodies and elaborates upon the piece-as-whole. You can, in other words, reconstruct The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” from its opening guitar noodle—all of Jeff Mangum’s anguish, his wide-eyed remembrance of Anne Frank, is contained within the first few bars of “Holland, 1945.”
Girl Talk must apprehend this on some level, but he complicates the process, prompts a conversation between and among time periods and genres. He’s the MC of a vast Top-40-meets-indie-rock colloquium.
On Saturday night, we are pushed toward him. Everything inside is sweating: the lights, the walls. Kids drag on cigarettes as if surfacing from dives. We can’t see a goddamned thing.
Matt and Kim go on first, and they’re intriguing in their own right. Just a few bass whomps and an ice-pick synthesizer jabbing, lunging. The guy’s voice is beyond nasal, and he’s pretty well coked-up, or doing a convincing job of feigning coked-up-edness, and all the while Kim hammers away and irradiates cool.
Their songs go something like this (from “Yeah Yeah”):
You stole tapes and a flashlight On a summer night from my carI felt something in a lightning storm/ With heavy rain and thunder like melted storm, yeah/ When everything seems to wash awayI want to put just two feet on the Ground, ground, ground, ground, ground!
But no one seems to care about the words. At the end I escape to the foyer. Gillis is tailing a Terrace officer, doing his best to carve a path through the crowd. He’s got the laptop and a Budweiser; he’s holding that orange-and-green T-shirt from his promo pictures. Earlier I ask if he enjoys his shows. He thinks before he answers.
“I do,” he says finally, “but it’s work, too, and I’m there to entertain. That’s why I used to get naked in the past—I figured the music couldn’t stand alone, so I needed to be ridiculous. People connect more with it now. They know the words. And so I’m content with just taking my shirt off, with dancing all up in the crowd.”
Concert videos verify this. When a particularly catchy moment arises—when, for example, Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” swoops in beneath the inimitable refrain Everyday I’m hustlin’, hustlin’-hustlin’-hustle-hustlin’-hustlin’—he likes to step back and throw his hands in the air, as if to say the stuff isn’t his to begin with.
“You know, I guess it’s not an uncontroversial thing I’m doing,” Gillis says wryly. “People ask if there’s a race component and I answer sure, there’s a race component. I’m not trying to make a statement with that in particular, but everyone more or less finds one anyway.”
He pauses, nods, reflects on the role cyber communication plays in his career.
“The internet…I mean, I love it…it’s probably made me and a whole slew of bands,” he says. “But they [online journalists] can definitely pull stuff out of nowhere, and mostly it’s false, and I wonder who the hell thought it was O.K. to print.”
His music leads, invariably, to issues of boundaries and ownership. The first is easy enough to anticipate: where does the proprietary end and the public begin? But that’s more for the corporate suits. To the audience, it’s a problem of turf.
In front of the club a sea of non-members surges. They’re angry. After ducking outside for a phone call, I run into a guy in shorts and aviators. I pass by, and he spits on the back of my neck. “Fuck you, you hipster shit!” he screams. I show my stamped right hand to the bouncer. “This dude’s important,” the guy goes on, “so you better let ’im in.”
On the opposite side of the door the members are angry, too. “Terrace for Terrans!” proclaims a friend with glasses as thick as mine. Another points to a girl in rodeo garb, then gags and draws a finger across his throat.
Gillis is on the mic, imploring. “Y’all can get down anywhere on the floor,” he pants. “There’s no need to beat up your neighbor. Get close to your neighbor.”
The Martian stomp-clap of Clipse’s “Grindin’” picks itself up and dusts itself off; it grows louder and louder, heavier and heavier. A couple makes out by the piano, and kids are talking and passing a bottle around the couches. Others are disgusted—by the growing stench, by the onslaught of outsiders, by the sneers of insiders. Equal numbers are entering and heading home.
Yet still there’s the dance floor. From my corner I can’t catch Gillis, but the glow of his laptop plays on the ceiling. Fleetwood Mac bleeds in, and a girl cries out that she loves the song, and her friends agree. They huddle for a spell then break for the center, the loadstone. A few guys decide to help; they puff up their chests and begin making room, making room. When I turn away they’re hardly any closer.
The whole place is seething and pushing inward, pushing upon itself, frantically, desperately—as though, at any moment and without explanation, the music might stop, leaving the revelers staring at nothing but themselves.