Downstairs, the Ssion gets ready to perform. The women -- Erin Zona, Taylor Painter-Woof and Shannon Michaels -- drape narrow strips of knit material over themselves, duct-taping the unraveling strands to their skin to make sure they don't end up doing an accidental strip show. Their ringleader, Cody Critcheloe, is changing into some really short cutoffs. The word COLLEGE has been written across his ass.
Upstairs, the house lights go down.
A nasal voice permeates the room. I went to New York, I had a dream, I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing, I wanted to be a star, I wanted to make people happy, I worked really hard and my dream came true. This bit, recorded on Madonna's Virgin tour, plays on a loop. Finally, the Ssion comes walking up the stairs. It's still dark. Madonna's still talking. A projector kicks on, and the screen behind a platform lights up. Music begins. At the back of the platform, the women raise their arms and move their sparkly hands as though they're in a high-school play. Critcheloe is up front near the audience.
A guitar chord booms, and the performers fall to the ground. The song, "Gonna Faint," is about four anonymous boys of rock tempting Critcheloe to quit school and follow them. Animated video runs on the screen as the singers move crazily through '80s-inspired dance steps. In it, an illustrated Critcheloe is stolen by the Faint. The song concludes, I hate new wave, and I hate the truth/What I want is an ocean view. Everybody cheers. A lot has happened in a few short minutes.
What hasn't happened is the thing you'd most expect. Nobody has played an instrument. Each performer has a microphone and is really singing, but in spite of some serious punk-rock sounds, the music has all been prerecorded.
That's why there's some confusion as to whether the Ssion is a band. Three of the performers are students at the Kansas City Art Institute; the fourth graduated from there last year. Since they aren't playing any music, and they're all artists, it might make more sense to call them performance artists. Bands, after all, are composed of musicians.
It's Critcheloe who blurs the line. He is a musician; he's just not playing live. Critcheloe began playing music with his friend Gary Bobary Carver while they were attending high school in Lewisport, Kentucky. They'd met each other in a crowd, drawn together by their respective T-shirts: Critcheloe was wearing a Hole T-shirt, and Carver had on a Nirvana T-shirt in a town that considered rock and roll the work of a Satanic cult. "As their friendship blossomed and music took center stage in their lives," Critcheloe writes of himself and Carver on the Ssion's Web site, "the community began to shun them, thus they chose to call themselves the Ssion" (which, they noted, was like "mission without the MI and progression without the PRO!"). Soon, Critcheloe met two punk girls in the nearby town of Owensboro. They joined the band, adding the female scream to its sound. The group distributed some tapes they'd recorded on a four-track until Critcheloe graduated from high school. Since moving to Kansas City, he's continued to record with Carver during his summers back home, resulting in the album that the Ssion performed straight through at Your Face: I Don't Want New Wave and I Don't Want the Truth.
Even though Critcheloe has made the music that he and his three friends perform, some people who are part of the underground music scene are quick to call the Ssion performance art, not music. Critcheloe observes that "it's hard to convince anyone that it's valid because so many people are really attached to that idea of getting on stage with instruments. Boys especially. There's this attachment guys have to their guitars."
Critcheloe's history in Kansas City doesn't help his cause. He is known primarily for making zines and stickers labeled "Angry, Young and Rich." Critcheloe also made a video, starring Zona, Painter-Woof and Michaels (among others). It was called I'm Serious, and like "Angry, Young and Rich," it affectionately made fun of people who rigorously adopted the trappings of various subcultures. Throughout the video, he interviews superficial artist-characters about why they're mad and gets them to meet at the end for an apparently pointless revolution. Critcheloe's audience was close enough to this scene to understand the jokes as loving jabs, not vicious blows.
Now his target is music. This time around, Critcheloe's trusted actresses play backup vocalists -- it is important that they not be scenesters themselves. Most of the songs are about being in bands. Others, such as "I Live in NYC and I Am Beautiful," make fun of scene mongers.
In "Call Out the Lions" -- a song from the Ssion's new album, Opportunity Bless My Soul -- the band once again makes reference to Madonna, with the opening lines quoting her: Don't sit in the corner waiting for your chance/Make your own music, start your own dance. As the song nears its end, the instruments grow quiet before Critcheloe sings alone: Are we there yet? A few loud power chords later, as a picture of the Strokes pops up on the screen, he co-opts that band's lyrics and asks pointedly, Is this it?
Animation plays a critical role in "Call Out the Lions." Without the image of the Strokes, the words are merely about boredom. With the reference to the Strokes, however, Critcheloe's use of those lyrics becomes a hilarious poke at some highly visible subculture icons and the hype that surrounds them. There's always the possibility that an art-kid crowd might not take that joke well, but the room erupts with laughter the instant the Strokes appear.
"The animations help us complete the narrative," says Critcheloe, who masterminded the extremely lo-fi animation. "They say what we don't say on stage. When we say a certain word, or do a certain move, the animation's going to back that up for us."
Besides working on a new album, between now and February the group is making a musical to accompany the songs. Both onstage and in the animation, barnyard animals will transform into aristocrats. Critcheloe will be a cow, Painter-Woof will be a chicken, Zona will be a pregnant lion with a giant vagina who gives birth to a 30-foot snake, and Michaels will be a bag of oats.
Painter-Woof is making some of the costumes. "My schoolwork this semester has been almost completely dedicated to making this chicken," she says.
The backup singers are more a part of the creative process as time goes on. "At first we were Cody's actresses, but now we work together a lot more," Zona says.
We'd like to call this performance art, but it's hard. It's hard because the music is good and the shows really rock. We expected the Ssion to be funny. We did not expect to be playing back the songs in our heads the next day. But there we were.