Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Good and the Interesting of 80/35

Over the Independence Day weekend Anne and I traveled to Des Moines to attend the 80/35 music festival, named for the Eisenhowerian intersection of the two interstate highways in central Iowa. The festival’s name is evidence of the practical common sense and unpretentiousness of its location. While other festivals are named for a garble of fun to pronounce but meaningless letters – Lollapalooza, Bumbershoot, Bonnaroo – this festival’s name is nothing if not utilitarian.

80/35 could be called a third rate alternative music festival. Its headlining acts would find themselves charged with the mid-afternoon task of waking up the dehydrated and sunburnt crowd at most major festivals. Its mid-card and lower-card acts have virtually no name recognition. More precisely, while “third-rate” may describe the drawing power of 80/35 musical line-up, it was actually a charming and well-run musical adventure. 80/35 is situated in a city park that borders a fun little sculpture garden. It does not involve trashing some godforsaken field in the middle of nowhere. And, I’ve never witnessed such courtesy and lack of anti-social behavior within the mob-like anonymity of thousands of young people grouped together. Let’s face it: I’m now at the older end of the spectrum of festival goers and 80/35 indulged my creature comforts.

The highlight of this festival was getting to see two bands I’d never heard before but that had been highly recommended to me. Both of the bands exceeded my expectations.

The first band was the New Jersey punk outfit Titus Andronicus. They opened with “A More Perfect Union,” a complex and mesmerizing song that feels like a homesick ode to their home state. In all honesty, I have no idea about the song’s larger meaning, but the song does seem to play with powerful themes of nostalgia and utopian longing and how these emotions can be used, abused, and even exploited. (Or maybe I was just thinking of Independence Day.) “A More Perfect Union” also contains a wonderful little shout-out to New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.

Titus Andronicus played a long set and dazzled on-stage. While punk rock is known for short and direct, two-minute numbers, Titus Andronicus creates longer songs that somehow manage not to feel watered-down and sprawling. Titus Andronicus had a fantastic stage presence that combined humility with energy and exuberance. The spirited playing of guitarist Amy Klein, who sported a tour T-Shirt of Des Moines’ own indie-group (and 80/35 performer) Poison Control Center, was especially noteworthy. She also happens to have a great blog about indie rock with a little feminism thrown in.

Listen to “A More Perfect Union” by Titus Andronicus
Listen to “Upon Viewing Bruegel's ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’” by Titus Andronicus

The second band I really enjoyed seeing was the folk-rock ensemble Okkervil River. I had never heard their music before this festival, but I knew that their most recent album had received excellent reviews and that they are signed to the Jagjaguwar record label that is known for releasing Bon Iver’s albums.

Everything about Okkervil River was enjoyable and pleasing to the ear. As I listened to them, I couldn’t help but compare them to The Decemberists. However, I found that Okkervil River possesses in moderation all those characteristics that, in excess, make The Decemberists tiresome. Like Colin Meloy, Will Sheff of Okkervil River is dramatic and literary, just not overly so.

Listen to Wake and Be Fine by Okkervil River
Listen to Lost Coastlines by Okkervil River

Other bands I enjoyed seeing perform at the 80/35 Festival included Gold Motel, Pink Mink, and the flamboyant and entertaining dance-rock band of Montreal.

The most interesting performer of 80/35 was actually the festival’s headlining act, Girl Talk. How thoroughly post-modern to have a headlining act at a music festival who does not play any instruments or sing or even write music! So, what exactly is Girl Talk?

Girl Talk is actually the stage name of 29 year old Greg Gillis. Up until a few years ago, Greg Gillis lived a double life in Pittsburgh, PA. By day Gillis worked a biological engineer for a biotech company. By night and on the weekends Gillis flew all over the United States and even all over the world playing his own unique brand of dance music created entirely from samples. His laptop contains thousands and thousands of digital music files containing parts of popular songs. What Gillis does is to create what is known as “mash-ups” by layering two or three or four or five recordings on top of one another. Gillis’ style involves rapidly inserting and removing parts of songs. It never stands still.

It was reported that his most recent album contained samples from 379 different recordings. Over any given five-minute stretch, Gillis may sample from twenty to thirty different songs. Yes, I did mention albums. He has released five albums, each consisting entirely of other artists’ copyrighted material. These albums can be downloaded from his website. (You get to choose how much to pay!) Gillis believes that what he does is covered by the legal principle of “fair use” and has supposedly never faced a lawsuit, which is incredible because he’s sampled over from over 1,000 different songs. Girl Talk has been critically well-received. His releases have appeared on all kinds of best-of-the-year lists and his 2006 album The Night Ripper was included on The AV Club’s list of the best albums of the decade. Gillis has been able to quit his day job. The Girl Talk project, that includes headlining this music festival, evidently pays the bills.

So, what exactly is a Girl Talk concert like? His stage includes a table, a monitor, and his laptop computer. He claims to mix all of his samples live. This may or may not be true. With one hand on his mouse, Girl Talk dances behind his laptop. Every so often he removes an article of clothing. The audience comes on stage and dances right alongside him. There are lights and confetti cannons and beach balls. It is a big dance party. You can see what it looks like here. Or here. Or here. Or here.

The music that Girl Talk samples is mostly hip-hop and rap, top 40, and rock. It is all popular music. In the thirty minutes of his performance that I listened to, Girl Talk sampled from about twenty different hip-hop songs I could not identify as well as songs by Beck, The Ramones, Nirvana, BeyoncĂ©, Tone Loc, Young MC, Miley Cyrus, Kylie Minogue, and dozens more I’ve probably already forgotten about.

You can find a huge number of his recordings as well as “concert” footage on YouTube. Some of his mash-ups are rather famous including his mixing of rap lyrics from Notorious B.I.G. with the music from Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” (The joke is that he is mixing something “big” with something “tiny.”) He also mixes “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones with an annoying song called “Black and Yellow” by rapper Wiz Khalifa. His vocal samples are drawn very heavily from rap and hip-hop and contain all of the racializations, misogyny, and glamorization of recreational drug use and excessive demonstrations of wealth that are so common within that art form.

Was Girl Talk entertaining? Not tremendously. He was a bit baffling at times. It was about ninety degrees out when he took the stage after the sun had been beating down brutally all day long and he took the stage wearing a hooded sweatshirt and warm-up pants. The sweatshirt stayed on less than five minutes, but c’mon now. His microphone work was astoundingly banal. Before clicking his mouse he grabs a microphone and says, “What is up Des Moines? Right now we are going to party. It is summer and we are outside. I said, it is summer and we are outside. We are going to party right now.” The rest of his microphone work consisting in exhorting the audience to jump or put our hands in the air and every remark of his was peppered with the verbal reminder that this all happening “right now.” The two words “right now” came out of him like some awkward verbal tic.

It is my tendency to look at things and inquire as to their meaning. I may be at fault for assuming that things have meanings. Girl Talk himself would probably deny that there is any meaning to what he does other than getting people to dance and have fun. He denies that he is offering any commentary on music and claims only to sample from music he enjoys. However, if John Cage’s 4’33” means something – (something about performance, something about the relationship between performer and audience, something about silence and whether silence is possible, etc.) – then I think Girl Talk probably means something.

I do think that the audience’s role at a Girl Talk “show” is performative. The audience is invited up on stage and surrounds and even swallows Greg Gillis. Meanwhile, Girl Talk’s role is at once minimalist and maximalist. Clicking a mouse is a fairly minimalist activity however the soundscape caused by this small act is large resulting in several songs piled on top of one another. The idea of the audience being up on stage is indicative of the “cult of self” that dominates American culture. The everyday events in my life deserve to be posted as a Facebook status update. I will tweet my daily activities in real time. Someday I might be the focus of a “reality” television program.

I would further say that Girl Talk is highly performative in the sense his music is probably best enjoyed by people who are familiar with the canon from which he draws and that, as a result, what is actually being observed is our own conscious recognition of the music. If you know none of the songs, it will appear jumbled. To actually enjoy Girl Talk I would argue that you have to enjoy that you recognize the music. Case in point, the loudest ovation at 80/35 came when Girl Talk sampled in a selection from teen pop sensation Miley Cyrus’ song “Party in the USA”. The guitar lick at the beginning of this song is just about the catchiest thing in the world. I’ve never heard this song on the radio. I don’t own any of her music. I would never pay to see her in concert. But this guitar lick is somehow familiar to me. What people at 80/35 – people who also don’t own any Miley Cyrus and paid money to come to this indie rock festival rather than a Miley Cyrus concert – were cheering was not the guitar lick as much as the fact tha they recognized the guitar lick. (There is further irony here. That Miley Cyrus song is about conquering homesickness by recognizing pop music!) I would posit that the more extensive your popular music knowledge, the more likely you are to enjoy Girl Talk.

Finally, I think this music says something about multitasking, short attention spans, and media saturation. There is no development in his music. There is no narrative arc. A song comes in and it is gone 15 or 30 seconds later. A verse and then no chorus, not to mention no second verse or third verse or bridge or solo. I think to enjoy Girl Talk one has to almost feel that there is something too slow about listening to only song at once. Let’s hear Nirvana and 50 Cent. Let’s hear Notorious B.I.G. and Elton John.