Saturday's 80/35 headliner is not a musician.
When mash-up artist Girl Talk (real name: Gregg Gillis) was announced as a headliner for 80/35 back in April, this fact was a common criticism. Gillis doesn't play any instruments. He crafts his songs by mashing together samples of popular artists - like adding The Notorious B.I.G.'s vocals over the piano from Elton John's "Tiny Dancer."
Gillis said he's heard the same criticism since he started fusing his songs together a decade ago.
"I've heard people say this is the end of music or creativity," Gillis said during a phone interview. "That gets me excited. I wanted a project that would change people's way of thinking about performance.
"People will passionately love or hate it, but I want them debating it."
Twenty years ago, Vanilla Ice using a Queen riff was major news. Fourteen years ago, The Rolling Stones pretty much derailed The Verve's career over a sample in "Bittersweet Symphony."
But on 2010's critically lauded "All Day," Gillis used 373 samples (including the Stones' "Paint it Black") without a single lawsuit or cease-and-desist letter. In fact, he's gone his whole career without flack from artists, and regularly plays festivals alongside musicians he samples. (He used Of Montreal on "Feed the Animals," for example.)
So what keeps him in the clear? For one, he doesn't actually sell his music. All Girl Talk albums are free to download on illegal-art.com. Gillis makes his money from his live performances, frantic parties known for heavy use of confetti and lights, and for bringing audience members on stage to dance around Gillis, who strips down nearly naked while putting together songs on a laptop in the middle of the stage.
"I never wanted my stuff to be competition for them," Gillis said. "I don't think anyone would pass up the original artist because I used it in a Girl Talk song. If anything, there's been the potential for someone to get turned on to something new."
Labels and management for other acts approach him about using samples of rising artists, but he continues to seek out his own material. Top 40 and oldies radio are still his most common source of inspiration, though he admits YouTube and Pandora have changed the way he does things. It seems kind of silly to refer to CDs as old-fashioned, but Gillis said that's his preferred method of consuming music. MP3s only start to enter the picture when he's saving something to sample later.
As he makes crowds of hipster kids dance like crazy to an old Hall & Oates or Billy Squier song, one could understandably assume Girl Talk's music is steeped in irony. But that's not the case. Gillis said he's a fan of everything he uses - songs he grew up with, hits from his teen and adult years, and oldies that were in heavy rotation on the radio. Some fans might only be enjoying Crystal Water's "Gypsy Woman" because it's in a Girl Talk song, but it's only in a Girl Talk song because Gillis enjoys it.
Money-makers, like licensing a track for a commercial or movie, are unlikely options for Gillis, so live shows are his focus, and where he pulls in his cash. No matter what state the music industry is in 30 years from now, and no matter what part he had in that change, it's unlikely Girl Talk will be headlining oldies shows in 2040.
"It's never really been something I've been concerned with sustaining," Gillis said of his career. "I'm excited to change at some point, drastically. I know I can't tour at this level forever. I just take it day by day. It's been surprising enough that I've been able to do this for four years without working a day job."