Courtney Love, it goes without saying, ain’t the person she used to be. It’s not just that cut ’n’ paste face of hers, either: Once rock’s most notorious anti-heroine, the onetime Hole frontwoman has since transformed herself into the sorta self-obsessed, Anna Nicole Smith-style celebrity she once mercilessly mocked. For Cody Critcheloe, however, Courtney’s evolution into a parody of her former self is no grounds for dismissal — it’s reason to love her all the more.
“Courtney’s entered this weird level where she’s embraced her persona so much that the lines are completely blurred,” the 22-year-old singer of trash-punk trio the Ssion (pronounced “shun”) gushes over the phone from his home in Kansas City, Mo. “I want to meet her so bad, even if I don’t get to touch her. I just want to watch her in action, name-dropping, going crazy and just becoming this character to such an extent that it becomes her real life. Now that is fucking art!”
If it seems strange that Critcheloe is admittedly obsessed with Love, it makes sense after hearing the new Ssion’s full-length debut. On the exhilarating Huggy Bear/B-52’s hybrid Opportunity Bless My Soul (Version City), Critcheloe and gal pals Shannon Michaels and Taylor Painter-Woof create a chaotic, dance-punk concept album about a megalomaniac rocker who wants nothing more than to revel in everything that’s revolting about the fame game. “Daddy, daddy, oh can’t you see/I’m not high on drugs, I’m high on me!” Critcheloe sings on the melodramatic rave-up “Let Me Hear You Cry,” and, just as with Love and her freak-show persona, it’s hard to know where he ends and his character begins.
“We’re poking fun at, but really embracing, the idea of the American Dream,” explains Critcheloe. “It’s sorta along the lines of American Idol — and you know I can relate to that! If I hadn’t discovered punk rock, that’s exactly what would’ve happened to me. It’s the scariest revelation: I would’ve auditioned for that show like all those other gays trying out who are like [adopting queenly tone], ‘I don’t care if they don’t take me because I am fierce and this is gonna happen for me regardless!’”
But even if he’s never had the chance to utter those words to Simon Cowell, things are happening for Critcheloe.
Originally formed in rural Kentucky during the mid-’90s, the Ssion’s current incarnation didn’t emerge until Critcheloe moved to Missouri to attend the Kansas City Art Institute. There he met Michaels and Painter-Woof, and the reconfigured lineup began performing at art galleries, rock clubs and house parties in support of I Don’t Want New Wave and I Don’t Want the Truth. On that endearingly amateurish EP, Critcheloe’s fascination with stardom first emerged on such tongue-in-cheek anthems as “Name Dropping” and “I Live in NYC and I Am Beautiful.”
Somewhat ironically, it was when he relocated to the Big Apple for a semester in spring 2002 that his own ascent to indie prestige began. After befriending Angus Andrew of the Liars, the PiL-poppin’ rockers with whom the Ssion had previously played a basement show, Critcheloe suddenly found himself near the center of the city’s rock elite. “The first day I got to New York, Angus introduced me to Karen [O, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] and everyone,” he says. “Then a month later their bands got huge and everything blew up. It was really like a being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time sorta thing. They’ve really helped me out.”
Indeed, both bands have been crucial to the Ssion’s exposure: Critcheloe went on to animate the video for the Liars’ “There’s Always Room on the Broom,” and the Yeahs enlisted him to do the artwork for their album Fever To Tell. “Do you realize how many dumb indie rockers I could fuck if I just told them I did the art for that album?!” he jokes. Still, it was a gig opening for both acts — at the height of their impossibly huge hypes — that ultimately garnered the Ssion the most attention.
“For that show, we made this life-size papier-mâché Tori Amos effigy that we filled with fake blood,” he recalls, clearly proud of the performance. “This was supposed to be the coolest crowd in New York City, right? So we brought Tori Amos onstage and started beating the shit out of her. Blood was everywhere. People in the audience were pissed. Afterward, they were all upset, like, ‘I don’t even think you can call ’em a band!’ and ‘They need to pick up a guitar and learn something!’ It was awesome!”
If their performance that night didn’t exactly make the Ssion New York’s Next Big Thing, it confirmed that the band’s hilarious, high-drama shows demand nothing if not extreme reactions. Camping and vamping their way through a multimedia, mini-rock opera loosely based on the narrative of Opportunity Bless My Soul, onstage Critcheloe & Co. blend punk and performance art in ways that’d impress John Waters, Le Tigre and Hedwig. With the music prerecorded karaoke-style, they’re free to engage in choreographed dance moves, fondle their barnyard animal costumes and even, uh, give birth to giant stuffed snakes while singing should-be hits like “Madonna, Sean and Cody Critcheloe” and the glitterball whirligig “Who’s Your Favorite, Baby?” In other words, it ain’t your typical rock show.
“I know people watching us are like, ‘What the fuck!?’ It is like a high school play from hell in a way,” Critcheloe says unapologetically. “But a lot of [people’s confusion] is because of my Yeah Yeah Yeahs connection, they really expect us to sound like them. But we are so not that at all.”
The Ssion is a top-notch punk band nonetheless. They may not wield guitars onstage and rage against The Man, but Critcheloe, Michaels and Painter-Woof do something even better: They create a spectacle that’s queerer — in every sense of the word — than anything you’re likely to hear this year. And to hear Critcheloe tell it, bringing that presence to Middle America is as important as dancing his mess around.
“It just worries me to think that there’s gonna be some fuckin’ kid in the middle of Nowhere, USA, who’s gonna figure out they’re gay and they’re not gonna have any cool resources to pull from,” he says. “They’ll have — what? — Celine Dion? Or they’re gonna see Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and think, ‘Oh, this is where I fit in.’”
If there’s one thing to learn from the Ssion, however, it’s that those pushed to the margins find their own ways to fit in. Throughout the party-ready Opportunity Bless My Soul, Critcheloe subverts, inverts and perverts meanings until they’re entirely his own. Cribbing notes from his record collection, he appropriates everything from Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop” to Meatloaf operettas and Ricky Wilson geetar riffs until he’s come up with a DIY sound that, while entirely made of rock recontextualizations, is entirely his own. It’s the sound of a band discovering, as they ponder on one of their song titles, what makes a man start a band.
And if Critcheloe is to be believed, Opportunity Bless My Soul is only the beginning. Due later this year is a second album, tentatively titled Wild and Romantic, that he predicts will finally earn him much-deserved fame. “We’re gonna create something so big and so awesome and so huge that no one can fuck with it. The next album is gonna be the one,” he says, then laughs. “It’s gonna be the one that lets me meet Courtney — and she’s gonna hate us!”
The Ssion will perform at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Sunday, Feb. 15, with Numbers, Bobby Conn, Trin Tran and DJ Titos. Call 313-833-9700 for info.Jimmy Draper is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]