This past Friday night, at an extremely sold-out Austin Music Hall, Gregg Gillis (better known by his nom de DJ, Girl Talk) presided over a two-hour dance party (as part of his current national tour) that could have easily gone twice that long without the gathered throng -- starting with the crowd of people dancing on stage, an engaging hallmark of any Girl Talk show -- losing any enthusiasm or diminishing in its collective desire to dance.
The Girl Talk live experience is, if you're doing it right, of the dancing-with-abandon variety, in which you reach out across the various age/gender/walk of life gaps that exist at a Girl Talk show, simply because his appeal involves such a broad spectrum. In our party Friday night, this ethos was best embodied by a 30-something university librarian who found a willing dance partner in an (alleged) 20-something biologist wearing a headband, a basketball referee's shirt, and plastic light-up American flag sunglasses, bearing a fair arsenal of flexible glowsticks. Fashion me a necklace out of glowsticks while we dance? Sure, why not?
The typical entry point into the Girl Talk discussion is whether Girl Talk's brand of mash-up constitutes actual art, or whether it's too derivative a project to be considered more than putting other people's art together into a commodified package. I'm of the school that what Girl Talk is doing is art -- specifically, the art of collage, taking a deft ear to hear the connections between different musical styles, finding the seams in which rap and pop and metal and several generations of new wave cannot only co-exist, but punctuate and underscore and embellish one another.
To be fair, the crowd assembled in Austin Friday night was there to dance, not to ponder the sonic pastiche that Gillis brings into the milieu. (And definitely not in any statements as grad-school speak-laden as that one.) The show opened in the same way that Girl Talk's latest album All Day does -- with a particularly inspired pairing of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and Ludacris' "Move Bitch," assertive at the edge of aggressive, and not quite revved up to fully danceable BPMs, but announcing arrival nonetheless.
The show relied on a healthy number of the mash-up collisions unveiled on All Day, revisited and reconfigured with enough difference to avoid the syndrome of the live show sounding just like the studio album, but with enough recognizability to trigger knowing smiles and synced dance responses from those familiar with the album.
Again, though, as evinced by the ridiculous extremes in rave wear adorning some of the showgoers -- shirts with light-up graphics being the worst offenders -- the crowd was there to dance and find escape through the continually-shifting ground of Girl Talk's various sets.
And, though the project of finding how autotune-reliant '00s rap fits with fey '80s British synthpop is fascinating to the more intellectual Girl Talk fans, there's also a comforting familiarity for the different generations who find themselves at a Girl Talk show not necessarily needing to deconstruct everything. So, when Pitbull's "Hotel Room Service" is hilariously yet rightly paired with Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough," 20-somethings and 30 and 40-somethings arrive at the idea of what's augmenting what from different vantage points, but there's a universal recognition among those at the show that the pairing works, gaining a multiplicative effect as a result of their convergence. Both songs are fine by themselves as simple, celebratory pop songs, exemplary examples of their own genres, but twinned together at Gillis' turntables, an alchemy happens that makes them more than just the simple sum of Song A plus Song B.
In the end, though, Friday night with Girl Talk was about two images in the same space -- a shirtless Gillis at the front of the stage, emerging after a near-relentless hour and a half behind the mixers, exhorting the crowd to make noise, and the computer projection above the stage, visible to all in the concert hall, to celebrate that it was "Friday Motherfucking Night," actually going as far as to call the gathered masses "freaks." (It was, incidentally, about the point in the evening where everyone's pretty much okay being called freaks.)
In the grand scheme of it all, it's hard to know what kind of music we need in 2011. The '60s gave us protest music in an era where protest addressed a collective need, the '80s gave us American punk and rap to meet the Reagan-Bush overdrive head on, and the '90s gave us various shades of nihilism in response to a Clintonian center that sold itself to the left as left. We're now in an era in which we thought we'd arrived at post-partisanship, before discovering (and seeing in the Tea Party-tinged midterm elections) just how completely wrong we were in that hope.
Girl Talk might not be conclusively what we need in 2011, but Friday night was reassuring in that such a cross-section of people could agree on being in a single place together to willingly, happily share an experience, even in something as base and simple as "Friday, woooo," "There's something in this for everyone to like," and, for a great number of revelers, including at least one librarian, "Glowsticks are decidedly fun."