The Best Concerts of the Year: Girl Talk at First Avenue

Music Features Girl Talk
The Best Concerts of the Year: Girl Talk at First Avenue

Being trans in a public space can often feel like a shortcut to feeling out of place. Even in spaces without any outright malice, it can be mentally taxing to just exist, dwelling on what sets you apart from so many others in a crowd—a hyper-awareness of the added layers of meaning your gender expression holds. Concertgoing, sometimes, can exacerbate this. I may get even more protective of my body than usual as people press closer together, more self-conscious of the space my body takes up in a mostly cisgender crowd.

But concertgoing as a trans person can be freeing in its own right in the best circumstances. It can be a night to escape your reality, or a chance to better come to terms with your gender through music. I’ve especially tended to feel the latter going to shows from female and/or trans musicians. But in 2022, I found my most gender affirming concert in an unexpected place: a Girl Talk show.

Girl Talk, the artistic moniker of Gregg Gillis, has been one of the biggest names in mashups since his breakthrough album Night Ripper in 2006, which firmly established his anarchic approach to smashing together brief samples across decades of rap, rock and pop into euphoric record-length mixes. And though he hasn’t released a full-length in that style since 2010’s All Day—instead lending his production to the fun collab record Full Court Style with Wiz Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T, and Smoke DZA earlier this year—Gillis never goes more than a few years without bringing the same sugar-rush mashups that put him on the map to a live setting.

Despite being an avid Girl Talk listener since my early college days of (futilely) trying to imitate his style in Audacity, I had never actually seen him perform until this year. Part of that was due to Gillis mainly playing festivals in the late 2010s, and part of that came from skipping his set at 2017’s Panorama Festival to camp out all day for a spot close to Frank Ocean. (Can you blame me?) When Gillis finally did announce his first headlining tour in ages in 2020, I was elated to finally make up for lost time. Then, as you might expect, the show was delayed to 2021. Then April 2022. Then, mere days before the rescheduled date, back to May 2022 due to a positive COVID test result in the touring party.

Suffice it to say that finally getting to see Girl Talk live became far more of a journey than I had ever intended it to be—and that’s before accounting for the years I spent transitioning since getting into the man’s music. In the weeks leading up to the concert, I know I likely wouldn’t have a chance to see a show from him again for some time. So—in spite of my typical trans anxiety with concerts, or perhaps because of it—I came up with a plan to make it one worth remembering.

For the unfamiliar readers, Girl Talk’s crew has a reputation for bringing up a posse of audience members each show to dance with him onstage, all while balloons rain down and confetti cannons are fired into the crowd. I’m dead-set on being one of these dancers, and will do anything I can to make it onstage. I read up on tips on how to catch the crew’s eye from fans. I break out an especially form-fitting top and leather leggings. I even model my eyeshadow for the evening on the album art for Night Ripper, hoping it’ll make me stand out more. (Another key workaround to any nervousness I have with going to shows as a trans woman: using the night as an excuse to show off revealing femme outfits and extravagant makeup—leaning so fully into feminine gender expression that I override any fears of being a gender interloper.)

My plan works, almost too easily. Some time before the set begins, a man with a bandana covering his face leans over to me and whispers, almost covertly, as if setting up an illicit meeting, asking me if I want to be onstage, and directs me to a side-stage entrance when I enthusiastically agree. As more people congregate around me, a realization hits me, one not unfamiliar in my years of concertgoing: I’m the only trans person there.

But the panic of this thought is brief. As one woman begins amping up everyone around her, I realize a group of girls naturally drifted toward me, and this woman is speaking to all of them rather than any of the men nearby. She begins directing her hype at me, as if I’m a close friend, and I realize I’m being included in this tight-knit group of women—seen as a woman before anything else. Before I’ve even hit the stage, the energy of the whole night shifts. The show becomes more than the solitary evening I expected; I’ve been told I belong to a kind of girlish experience to which I’m rarely ever invited. And I feel the usual tension of hyper-awareness loosen up within me in an instant.

Gillis leaps onto the stage, and starts blasting the pairing of The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” and UGK’s “Int’l Players Anthem” that kicks off Feed The Animals. When the organ on the former drops, the crew gives us our cue to rush the steps that put us onstage. From there, it’s 90 near-uninterrupted minutes of uninhibited dancing and communal joy, where the only people in the world who seem to exist at that moment are Gillis, our group onstage and the packed crowd cheering us on.

I find myself naturally gravitating toward the same group of women who surrounded me earlier—after how eagerly they welcomed me into the fold, why would I want to do anything else? There are the girls who find just as much release and joy in screaming the most cathartic girly hooks of the night, like that of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” back at me, knowing I’ll find the same girlish ecstasy they feel. There’s the girl who is all but directing everyone, making sure every woman—myself included—on our side of the stage gets their shot front and center in the limelight to show off their moves. And then there’s the girls who egg me on to shake my ass and erupt in deafening roars when I give myself fully to this dance—this last type of girl, in actuality, is every girl on that stage. Amid the booming mashups and inflatable palm trees dotting our dancefloor, every girl there has a body worth celebrating that night, and it’s become our unspoken pact that we have to give our fellow women their due with the time we have.

I could spend just as much space as I already have praising Gillis’ masterful sequencing in this live setting, jumping from familiar snippets like Feed The Animals’ combo of Three 6 Mafia’s vocals on “I’d Rather” with the hook to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” to unreleased pairings like Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” over Grimes’ “Oblivion” or Cardi B’s “WAP” over Blur’s “Song 2.” But, as joyously unpredictable as the set could become at any given moment, it’s these moments of connection—of feeling like I’m an organic part of the crowd around me, not the insular and withdrawn person I can often be—that hover in my mind the most. A Girl Talk show isn’t just the samples dropped or the flow of the set: it’s the ways the girls onstage look out for me as if I’m one of their own. It’s the joys of having a safe environment to express our female sexuality, and to find support and encouragement in whatever that may look like. It’s the times I reach out from the stage for another woman’s hand at the front of the crowd—those moments where we seem to be saying to one another, “I see you. I recognize you.”

I’ve had this theory, for years, about why trans people—especially those who grew up in the age of deconstructive internet media—may gravitate toward mashups. A complete trans life is made up of disparate parts: a span living one gendered path, before veering off into a more fitting possibility, but still shaped by those earliest passages all the same. Like Girl Talk’s mashups, we hold the jigsaw pieces of seemingly incongruous eras and styles in the entirety of our personhood. But when those pieces come together, they fit just as naturally for us as any singular cohesive picture of a cisgender person’s life. Our trans lives, as fragmented as they may be, are worthy of celebration all their own.

When the show’s ephemerality becomes all too real—after Gillis closes the set in a cacophony of vocal chops and loops, climbing the table his laptop is perched atop to scream into his mic one more time—the women I’ve spent all this time with disperse, as I do, out into the night, becoming strangers once again. I wonder if I’m part of their memories of that evening—this unknown girl they found all by herself, that they saw beaming and ecstatic in their company. I wonder if they realize how much I felt like I belonged, being seen as one of them.

Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis who has contributed to sites such as Stereogum, SPIN, Little White Lies, and Bitch Media, and previously wrote as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She also regularly appears on the Indieheads Podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.

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