A desire to participate in communal ecstatic experiences would appear to be an innate part of human existence. Almost every culture in every time has had some version of this: generally involving music and dance–rhythm appears to be hardwired; often involving mass invocations of fealty to a deity or ideology; frequently involving a Dionysian use of intoxicants, mood-alterents or psychotropics. Participating in such ritual experiences creates feelings of empathy, contentment and connection. The nagging worries over ego and time are temporarily abated. Humans will not only seek out this experience, they will engage in dangerous or ill-conceived activities in an attempt to approximate or approach this experience. Many of the marriages I see breaking apart in my family law practice are doing so because one spouse refuses to acknowledge this need or has engaged in damaging behaviors to meet this need.
As someone who is unwilling to drink the Kool-aid of religion or ideology and who foreswears intoxication (though not alcohol) and psychotropic or mood-altering drugs, there are few opportunities for me to engage in such communal ecstatic experiences. Yet such experiences are a basic human need and nag one to be filled–even if only on occasion. The rare times I obtain this experience is at rock concerts–and even then it’s a rare rock concert that reaches the level of a communal ecstatic experience. I think of such concerts as partaking in the Grand Church of the Secular Humanists and I will seek out (and travel distances) to obtain these experiences if I suspect a concert has that potential.
The punk rock concerts I frequented as a youth often met the criteria of being communal ecstatic experiences. Even now an occasional punk show–Green Day, Atlanta, July 2009–will allow me to transcend everyday worries and lose myself in a communal experience. However my juniors seem to have discovered an even better genre of music for obtaining this experience–hip hop-influenced dance music. Meanwhile my cohort of middle-aged, middle-class (at least), white folks scoffs at such music as piffle, as they shake their collective asses to geriatrics and jam bands. They’re the knuckleheads.
As noted in a previous blog, based on my intellectual interest in the application of fair use to digital sampling in rap music, the music of Gregg Gillis, who records and performs under the name Girl Talk, is something I am primed to appreciate on an intellectual level. However everything I had read about his live shows indicated that a communal ecstatic experience was almost guaranteed. When he announced his show at the Gaillard Auditorium for January 22nd, I bought my tickets within seconds of them going on sale. When my youngest daughter announced she was a fan, I stub hubbed her a ticket. I proselytized the show to every music fan I knew. I don’t believe my efforts sold one additional ticket.
The show may have been the most exciting, involving ecstatic experience I will ever have. This was Gillis’ first performance at a venue with seating and he wasn’t sure the format would work. It did. For ninety minutes, I didn’t observe anyone sitting, as 3,000 fans danced with manic glee. The intensity of Girl Talk’s cheerleading and dancing was intoxicating. He used play elements such as guns that shoot out toilet paper, confetti, balloons and beach balls to encourage audience interaction and maintain an energy level that troughed at levels which would be the peak at most other concerts. Video of the performance, subsequently posted to You Tube, captures the experience quite well. Here’s the encore finale (note the sheer level of stuff happening):
Additional video (the intro):
And the finale of the regular set:
My whole family (my eighteen year old daughter came with two friends and crashed the stage for the encore) had a blast. I would guess the median age was early 20’s with probably 95% between the ages of 16 and 30. Other than the ushers, my wife and I were the two oldest people I observed–possibly by a decade (I’m 48). I didn’t see anyone there within six years of age of my nine year old daughter. Yet other than the extremely raunchy lyrics in some of Gillis’ samples (she hears these words at home and knows better than to repeat them in public), this may have been the most wholesome rock concert I have ever been to. The Gaillard didn’t serve alcohol and, though a few folks snuck in flacks, I didn’t see anyone acting intoxicated or drugged. The teens and young adults around me were unfailingly friendly and gracious. I didn’t even observe the pushy/obnoxious behavior typical of concerts in which assigned seating isn’t formally observed. Since we weren’t using intoxicants or drugs, we felt energized, rather than like crap, the next day. No regrets over bringing my nine year old to a rave.
It took me a while to process and analyze why I enjoyed this concert so thoroughly. Slowly it dawned on me: on record, Girl Talk’s mashups provide the heady thrill of the consistently shifting connections between his varied sample; live Gillis’ art is simply the pleasure of providing an audience the architecture for a communal ecstatic dance experience. I know of no other artist who’s more focused on giving his audience this pleasure.
A recent student essay from one David McTiernan, edited by my favorite music critic, Robert Christgau, and published in the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever, does a better job explaining this live experience than I can:
What had started as intimate groups of ten to fifteen sexually frustrated college students ballooned into throbbing masses of thousands of sexually frustrated college students: as one Baltimore observer described it, “specifically: white, reasonably affluent minors with ‘x’s’ on their hands–dancing to a scraggly fellow triggering and stacking brief pop music samples on a laptop.” Not exactly your typical club scene. So what is it about Girl Talk that makes the young lose shed their inhibitions so readily? Perhaps there is a certain amount of inherent comfort in the familiarity of Gillis’s samples–while other jockeys might weave from a Wu-Tang sample to a Timberlake beat and oh so skillfully back into Wu-Tang, Gillis induces his fans to shake their asses and study history at the same time. They find themselves dancing to the music they heard their parents playing growing up and would probably be listening to if they were back in their dorms. One college student and avid Girl Talk fan notes, “I have heard some of my favorite songs sampled on a GT album and thought he actually managed to make the song better than the artist originally had.” Gillis gets his kicks from these juxtapositions: “Things like really overtly sexual rap mixed with clean-cut ‘70s pop music, stuff like that. You hear a guy rapping about having sex, and it’s set over James Taylor. I think it’s what makes the music fun.” In other words, the CDs these upper-middle class kids weren’t allowed to buy under mom and dad’s roof seemingly become okay to listen to when they’re combined with some more wholesome pop.
So, you say, “Girl Talk makes kids dance. I get it.” You have no idea. Gregg Gillis makes kids who never leave their rooms dance, and he makes kids who already dance lose all trace of reticence. Just as his publicist claims, this “visceral culture of audience involvement” always results in “the stage being mobbed with a sweaty mass of dancers who surround Gillis as he triggers samples.” Gillis lives his music, looking like some mash-up himself of a kid in a candy store and the guitar player for that metal band your cousin likes. Village Voice blogger Camille Dodero writes of her G.T.E.: “it was a lot of firsts: first time I’ve seen a laptop jockey make an entire club detonate into sweaty, colliding parts in less than 60 seconds (no joke) . . . first time I’ve ever witnessed a biomedical engineer get (rubbed with) more ass than a toilet seat.’ Or as an Irish celebrant puts it: ‘He tricks your body into dancing through an act of misleading brilliance. Those purists who would otherwise be inclined to shake their heads in disapproval can’t for the simple fact that their bodies are already moving, lured into an involuntary groove that betrays any rational analysis.”
The G.T.E. is clearly a release for both Gillis and his enthused audience. He breaks down the artist-audience barrier by engaging in the show himself, holding hands and dancing with the fans jumping all around him, pausing to pose for pictures in the middle of his live performance. Thrusting kids into such a volatile, rhythmic social environment brings the pent-up sexual curiosity buried beneath textbooks and text messages to the surface. Countless live reviews make the same point: that Gillis cares deeply about each and every audience member having the best possible time at his show, and for most, this time seems to include releasing a more deeply personal side of themselves. The physical element of Girl Talk’s music and of the G.T.E. translates directly into the level of physical expression that Gillis is able to draw from his audience.
“Girl Talk seemed to be more about my own experience. He wasn’t trying to impress the audience.”
“Once he let me have a swig of his tequila, and once he leaned over to ask me if I was having a good time and liked what he was putting together.”
“Gillis, nice guy, kept checking on us.”
“I honestly get the impression he is doing what he does because he loves it.”
And we love it too. How else could “a dude from Pittsburgh with a laptop and loose-fitting sweatpants have more pictures taken [on one night] than exist of every Beatles show ever played”? His performance itself is a manifestation of youth culture in general, of the techno-centric, attention span-deficient age thriving all around us. This isn’t your parents’ dance party.
From the stage, amid numerous occurrences of onstage sex and countless occurrences of onstage sexiness, one looks out at a sea of cell phones and digital cameras, flashing and beeping in rhythm with Gillis’ Frankensteined beats. At least one member of his entourage has the sole job of taking pictures of each out-of-control audience, which all eventually end up on Girl Talk’s website, with a dripping, shirtless, scruffy Gillis in the middle of it all, a big goofy grin adorning his gleaming face. The under-25 demographic seems most comfortable in this snapshot environment–reconstructing memories the next day from off-kilter Facebook photos, flashes of recollection mirroring the flashes of familiar melodies booming through Gregg Gillis’s speaker system. Another fan I spoke to says of her G.T.E.: “I feel like in our generation and people my age are all about multi-tasking and short attention spans, and his music really captures that. Life is constantly on shuffle and people are doing a million things at once, and I think his music caters to my undiagnosed ADHD.”
I see my peer making fun of bands like the Black Eyed Peas–another dance oriented hip-hop group I recently took my young daughter to see–for being shallow. That same peer cannot perceive what might be creative about Girl Talk simply mashing 373 other recordings together to create a seamless listening/dancing experience which regularly induces a communal ecstatic experience that does not require the use of inebriants or psychotropics. In fact, I saw less inebriation and intoxication at the Black Eyed Peas and Girl Talk shows than many of the shows I saw in 2010 that attracted my middle-aged, middle-class peer.
With nothing more than a PC–all my Mac-snob friends should know that Girl Talk rocks a Panasonic Toughbook–a light display, and an overwhelming desire to have 3,000 people experience the unity of an ecstatic dance experience, Gregg Gillis is creating an art that is based purely on a desire to provide communal pleasure. Those who would devalue such experience as being uncreative or unartistic are mainly proving they have lost touch with part of their humanity.
So make fun of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry all you want but note that their concerts are more likely to create a communal ecstatic experience than the Dave Matthews Band (a band whose recent live show I found somnolent) or even Vampire Weekend (whose recently live show was indeed lively), both of whom are respected by my peer. The men don’t know but the little girls understand.
 The title of this blog is a tribute to the cover of Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” from the Doors’ self-titled debut. While video evidence from Elvis’ and the Beatles’ early concerts would indicate they were often communal ecstatic experiences, it was Jim Morrison, the Doors’ lead singer, who appears to have been the first rock musician to deliberately attempt to create such experiences in his live shows.