Sweat and Blood: Musical Theater with Girl Talk and Gwar

by by David Adler

illustration by by Becca Levinson

That Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel was sold out on Friday, February 25, for Girl Talk, né Gregg Gillis, reflects little about the quality of the music itself. Concertgoers, sweaty and packed to the point of immobility, had instead come to get down with their friends and maybe even bump into an attractive stranger—the shirtless man bent over his two laptops onstage meant very little.
Over the last few years, Gillis has undergone a remarkable self-transformation from crowd-pleasing mash-up artist into the marketable brand he is today. For his fans, the enjoyment of the music is now merely an added bonus to having the opportunity to take part in a sort of cultural tradition of going to see the massively famous DJ, who grew to prominence after his 2006 album Night Ripper exploded across the nation. His music is a colorful collage of melodies and rap verses that combines genres from several decades. But in his most recent release, All Day, it seems Girl Talk has made this collage so messy that listeners have to struggle to find their way. The mash-ups on display Friday night were so convoluted that the music was largely unrecognizable. Occasionally the crowd would erupt with excitement when a memorable melody surfaced, but in mere seconds the excitement was muted as the song was mutilated. In Gillis’s attempt to blend so many songs together into one whole, he lost sight of the reason why fans signed up in the first place: they trust him to feed them throw-back anthems and party songs that they can recognize and dance along to—essentially, music that can serve as a conversational safety net when flirting with the cute girl at the party. The sounds that come off All Day may work with the headphones on, but in the context of a concert, the nuances of every transition are so blurred that the music just sounds sloppy and disorganized.
As the mash-up craze fades into the distance of cultural relevance, Gillis’s concerts have gotten progressively more extravagant. His early shows featured a geeky Gillis at his PC, showing off his extensive knowledge of pop culture and savvy DJ techniques. He now employs so many extra embellishments—from confetti and balloons to rolls of toilet paper propelled onto the crowd to a massive light board at the back of the stage—that it’s clear Gillis has shifted his primary focus away from the music in order to give his audience a larger experience—and keep them interested. The addition of these accessories is no surprise: while he could get away with showing up with just a laptop in hand when he was playing in some kid’s basement, fans paying $35+ to be packed shoulder to shoulder into a large-scale venue expect Girl Talk to bring the party. And ultimately, he did just that. The crowd burst with screams as confetti fell from the ceiling; fans even took pieces of toilet paper home as souvenirs. But this added showmanship shouldn’t mean giving up the music and creativity that originally converted so many into his loving legions.
The just-press-play DJ style that Gillis has adopted in his recent shows is a letdown for fans looking to see Girl Talk at work, as his early creativity has been largely sacrificed in his attempt to provide the crowd with the same sounds that come off his album. But for most of the audience, the music stopped being important long before they walked through the doors of the show—all that mattered was that there were loud sounds to get freaky to. The over-packed crowd at Lupo’s was having a great time, and surely Girl Talk’s next visit will sell out just the same, so that’s a job well done. I just wonder whether the crowd would have even noticed if Gillis had not shown up at all and simply let his album play start to finish.

GWAR is a band that should be kept away from the squeamish; the blood, semen, and vomit on display at their Wednesday, February 23, show at Lupo’s left many in numb disbelief. The metal group, now in their 27th year of touring, is renowned for their over-the-top costumes—the lead singer as “intergalactic humanoid barbarian,” bassist with war paint and oversized Styrofoam warrior’s armor—and for the brutal onstage massacre of politicians and pop culture figures using rubber props attached to masked men. The result, of course, is fountains of fake blood that drench bloodthirsty crowds who revel in the violence.
The band built a reputation early on in their career as innovators in the genre of “shock rock,” acquiring a massive fan-base through their highly controversial performances that pushed the boundaries of tastefulness. Albums like Phallus in Wonderland and lyrics like “Ripped out guts / Gouged out eyes / If you kill them / They will die” demonstrate GWAR’s dedication to vulgarity. While this focus on provocation can be inane and cheesy, I left the show on Wednesday covered head to toe in fake blood, with memories of debauchery that I could never forget—for better or worse.
For their second song, a fake Sarah Palin emerged from the back of the stage, strapped to some metal contraption. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the next president of the United States,” lead singer Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie) asked the crowd, “Should we disembowel her?” The crowd erupted with cheers, throwing fists into the air. Palin’s intestines were then carved to pieces, red and green blood spraying across the venue onto excited fans who clearly knew what was coming. Next up was Lady Gaga, who GWAR ridiculed for her ‘fashion-forward’ attire, dressing her as a toilet bowl. “Oh my god, Lady Gaga is eating fecal matter,” Urungus screamed, “What should we do?” The crowd demanded her death, and so, swords in hand, the band proceeded to disembowel the pop star as her breasts projected blood in thick streams onto the audience. For their encore, Brockie came out onstage and said in shocking matter-of-fact manner, “Now it’s time for me to bleed my AIDS-infected blood on you from my giant penis.” And so he did, holding onto his prosthetic penis for good aim. The fans, not one bit surprised by such antics, held their hands up to receive his gifts.
It’s an incredible feat that the members of GWAR, now in their late 40s, are able to continue to put on such hectic over-the-top shows night after night. However, the bluntness of all of these antics, together with the bored commentary of the lead singer, imply that perhaps the band has gotten tired of its own performance. The murderous acts onstage may have changed over time with respect to who was on the wrong end of the disembowelment, but it was clear that GWAR is not making much of an attempt to evolve artistically. Their music was played dispassionately; the band walked casually on and off the stage, too old to muster the energy to make the music come to life. The mosh pits in the crowd were weak, and the demographic was a bit confused, split between twenty-something metalheads screaming for more blood and dads standing quietly towards the back in Patagonia parkas, reminiscing about the first time they saw GWAR twenty years ago. Still, I walked away like most of the crowd: thoroughly entertained and impressed by the quality of costume design and the sheer amount of fake blood. The highlight of the show definitely came when one eager fan who managed to find his way onstage approached the bassist to prove his fandom, at which point the bassist punched him in the face and tossed him back onto the crowd. It’s good to know the spirit is still alive, even if it has gotten a little too old.

DAVID ADLER B’14 wears Patagonia.