all words: Morrissey Nicks
all photos: Jeff Martin (from Tuesday show) and Ben Droz (from Wednesday show)
“Penguin Prison.” For real. For. Real. Say what you want to about the merits of irony in a band name, and the merits of playfulness too, for that matter. It doesn’t matter. “Penguin Prison.” Any band with that shitty of a name must – MUST – come hard in the paint with their music to compensate. They must hit the audience with some sort of pitch-perfect recall of late-80’s synthpop; some sort of from-the-blue summoning of high-energy, hand clapping, shit-eating-grinning unabashed radio pop friendly dance music.
They did exactly that. Though I only caught two songs, I caught enough to know that I was stupid as hell for not catching more. These guys, with their infectious energy and locked-in live sound were an excellent palate cleanser and warm up act for the monstrosity that is Girl Talk. Though it will pain me to type it into Google, I will be seeking out some more Penguin Prison music. And then clearing my browser history to cover my tracks.
Girl Talk: There are real people – I know some – who, when you bring up Girl Talk, will tell you that they are “so over him,” that “his shtick has run its course.” They listened to him when he was fresh and new, sure. But that was a long time ago, those halcyon days of 2007. Back then, they will tell you, the novelty of his show was still novel. These days, they say, it’s just a bunch of 20-year-olds marauding around for one another in trite 20-year-old costumes – neon-rimmed Oakleys, ironic facial hair, bandannas of all descriptions, flat-billed hats, Zubaz. They will tell you that Girl Talk is no longer trying to do something interesting with his music; he’s just a cheap simulacrum of his former self, riding out his once-creative niche, phoning in the same spectacle night after night. He is, they will tell you with a sigh, boring.
Fuck these people.
Girl Talk is for the PBR-slamming, neon bandanna-wearing 20-year-old in all of us. That small voice in the backs of our brains that doesn’t vocally bemoan the plight of contemporary society when we see a guy with an LED T-shirt and L.A. Lights. The force inside us that, when we hear Katy Perry on the radio, tells us not to turn the dial, but to turn the volume up. And if that Oakley wearing neon pixie isn’t part of your pantheon of inner-children, then fuck you too.
Gregg Gillis arrived onstage to the sound of his pseudonym being played progressively faster, working its way from an indecipherable moan to a fast-paced chant. This time and pitch-stretching effect was used several times throughout the night, and it was effective every single time.* After letting the tension build for a bit, he dropped a huge drum beat on top of the sound, followed shortly by the main riff of a recognizable pop song. Then, a rap verse from an unrelated song. After the rap verse, he interspersed the hook from another recognizable pop and/or rap song. Occasionally, he would gate the audio, so that every 16th note was silent. This pattern – or slight variations to this pattern – continued, basically unabated, for an hour and a half. Whenever a new element was introduced, cheers erupted from some of or all of the audience.** We knew what was coming; much of the set closely mirrored the material from his new record, so the more astute listeners knew exactly what was coming and when. It didn’t matter. We ate that shit up every time.
On several occasions, Gillis took the opportunity to squeeze in some new material or rework his old favorites – an early pairing of Biggie’s “Juicy” verse and Kanye’s “Runaway” beat was a pleasant and welcome surprise. But for most of the show, he was focused on giving the people what they want: Daft Punk, Miley and “Ante Up,” heaping servings of Ludacris, Big Boi, and M.I.A. And from the look of his permanent megawatt smile and his unbridled enthusiasm, he was genuinely happy to be doing so. In fact, after putting on the same type of show 100 nights a year for almost 5 years, Gillis still looked like the happiest and most excited person in the room. The biggest change I can sense from seeing him a couple of times over this span is that he has embraced the role of DJ a little more firmly. He used to wear a shirt that said “I’M NOT A DJ,” but now it seems that he’s embraced that role a little more, yelling standard DJ pablum into the microphone more frequently and carefully arranging his set so that the BPM steadily increases throughout the night.
As he has grown more popular, Gillis has invested more money and energy into the spectacle of his show. What used to be a standard table holding his laptops has now become a custom stage. Behind him is now a behemoth, seizure-inducing LED screen, complete with flashing .gif-type images of everything from a clip-art cat to old concert footage, to various Girl Talk logos, to old-fashioned strobes. Every 10 minutes, a stage manager somewhere yelled RELEASE THE KRAKEN and an onslaught of balloons or confetti or toilet paper was unleashed from behind the stage, astride the stage, or above the audience. We ate that shit up too.
When I was a kid, my stuffy suburban white-collar Episcopalian church youth group went to a downtown Baptist service where everyone was standing up, singing, dancing, clapping their hands and their knees and screaming hallelujah. I thought, “wow, what a powerful and unique experience this is.” And it was, for me. But for the regular congregation, it was Sunday. I found last night’s Girl Talk show a lot like that church service: we knew what we were in for and most of us knew the hymns by heart. But we still packed the dance floor past capacity, we still sweated through our clothes, we still danced like crazy, we still lifted our hands to the heavens and marveled at the wonder of the world, delivered to us from the duct-taped computers of Gregg Gillis.
*which is, of course, a convenient metaphor for the whole shitamarie.
** depending largely on the popularity of the original song
MORE PHOTOS BY BEN!