Dazed's ultimate guide to US creativity
As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series.
From a kid growing up in Kansas City to high drag priestess of New York, Alexis Penney's lived several lifetimes' worth of experiences already. After meeting fellow future pop genius SSION in high school came a move to San Francisco that proved to be the making of Penney, when he established a career in drag performance and DJing straight outta Frisco. Now performing, singing and recording in NYC, Penney dropped a startling debut album (think electropop-meets-shoegaze) and accompanying memoir last year (both titled Window). In conjunction with the premiere of his new video as part of Chez Deep's State of Sex guest-edit, we spoke to Penney about the United States (of which he has inhabited a great many), covering his disappointment with Obama, love of Joni Mitchell and a true story about becoming homecoming king that's got a plot arc to match all the best "triumph-of-the-weirdos" high school movie tropes.
Which living American do you most admire and why?
Alexis Penney: Kola Boof. She wasn't born here but she lives here and I so admire the way she fearlessly talks about her experiences in public. She's a force and a beautiful person.
Which living American do you most despise and why?
Alexis Penney: I choose to love even those I feel have chosen to use their lives to harm others. I genuinely pity people like George W Bush. That guy doesn't have an inkling what he really is or represents. Or Justin Bieber. No hope for that kid to really ever have a normal perspective on his existence in the world, without maybe going through so much horrible ego destruction by the universe. I pray for the white men, they are so unprepared to actually process the emotional reality of being an oppressor. The system doesn't work for anyone.
Whose face should be on the $100 bill?
Alexis Penney: I dream of a world without currency value, but maybe monumentally I would love to see Nina Simone, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey's faces somewhere everyone can see. Oprah is of course a corporate monster but I also feel like she has done so much to empower and educate so many.
What is your favorite quote about America?
Alexis Penney: "As we center behind the eight ball
As we rock between the sheets
As we siphon the colored language
Off the farms and the streets
Here in Good-Old-God-Save-America
the home of the brave and the free
We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards
Of some duality
Of restless multiplicity
(Oh say can you see)" – Joni Mitchell from "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter"
What three words define the States today?
Alexis Penney: Beautiful, bizarre, betrayed.
Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?
Alexis Penney: I guess you could say Cody Critcheloe of the SSION. I've gotten to see and experience so much singing and dancing backup for him, and that experience has been totally invaluable. And yeah we are still as close as we ever were, both of us living in New York now is really cool, he's like one of my oldest friends.
When and where are you the most happiest?
Alexis Penney: In the yoga studio I teach for, in my loft, on our roof, out with all the trees in my backyard, just walking around anywhere. I'm happy a lot.
What high school clique were you in? Do you stay in touch?
Alexis Penney: The weirdos, the poor kids, goth nerds, that kind of crowd. When I found punk there were like three of us from the "scene" at my high school and we all were pretty tight. I was homecoming king my senior year though. I had friends from all walks of life, like football player buddies and musical theater kids, and I think everyone who felt kind of weird rallied around me to get an underdog in, in the form of this makeup wearing gay freak. It was cool.
What food reminds you of home?
Alexis Penney: Garlic, onions, dill, chives. My mom always cooked with that stuff so anytime I smell it sautéed it brings me back to her house. I cook with the same stuff a lot, there's a lineage there.
What smell do you associate with the city of your birth?
Alexis Penney: Wet pavement and dirt before or after rain.
What's the best road trip you've ever been on?
Alexis Penney: Wow so many. My friends and I in high school drove down to McCallen Texas right on the border one spring break, I remember driving down past Corpus Christi on this palm-lined, two lane highway blasting Ashlee Simpson with the windows down in my Buick. Have had a lot of fun driving back and forth from SF to LA...so many.
Where did you first fall in love?
Alexis Penney: I met my first love in Omaha. We fucked in a basement (Jacob from The Faint's, ha) while we were both on tour, and fell in love between visiting each other in Kansas City and Oakland.
What would make you leave America forever?
Alexis Penney: Ehh I don't know. I have such vast critiques of this place but for what I do I feel I'm able to escape a lot of the bullshit really easily, because I am white and aware. I can't see how it could get less amenable here than anywhere else, but I do have fantasies about Canada.
What noise reminds you of the States?
Alexis Penney: Trains. I grew up near cola train tracks in Kansas and have lived in earshot of trains or subways in Oakland, SF and now Brooklyn. It's comforting to me regardless of the industry it represents.
What is your favorite American building?
Alexis Penney: I love the Freedom Tower, love the Empire State, love queering their intents and meanings to fit my values, but I will forever be in a relationship with the Sutro Tower in San Francisco.
Ultimate American film?
Alexis Penney: Bladerunner.
Most overrated US tourist attraction
Alexis Penney: I love tourist shit lol.
Most underrated US tourist attraction
Alexis Penney: Times Square! People talk so much shit on it and yeah it can be kind of intense and annoying but I think that's just because most people are uncomfortable with themselves around people. I love the life and energy of that place so much. It's so surreal and stupid and beautiful and hilarious and ugly. I teach by there a lot and always find myself wandering through it just to feel the vibes.
Favorite slang phrase?
Alexis Penney: My drag queen friends in Cali got into putting yeahs in funny places like "She's, yeah, tired tonight." I loved that.
What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure?
Alexis Penney: I don't feel guilty about it but I love classic rock radio. I always make cabbies put it on. It just brings me back to another era of musicianship and artistic desire. I can relate to those dudes.
Ultimate American album?
Alexis Penney: Hejira by Joni Mitchell. She's Canadian but it's about her driving across the country. So powerful.
What law would you change or invent?
Alexis Penney: Completely decriminalize drugs and close all the prisons. The war on drugs and our privatized prison system are just bald-faced institutionalized ways of keeping black people on the streets or locked up in prison. It's completely insane. There is an entire parallel reality for so much of the population of this country that is barely touched on in the media. Really sickens and saddens me.
Where in the States would you ride out the apocalypse?
Alexis Penney: Maybe back home around KC or a little farther south. Honestly, the weather in Texas is great.
When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?
Alexis Penney: It's been a long time. Maybe not since KC [Kansas City]. Cops in SF never hassled us – we would be straight up smoking weed on the street and they just walk by. Better shit to do, like hassle the homeless. My friend and I almost got arrested by federal railroad police for playing in the train yards in the west bottoms in Kansas City super wasted. We put on a funny show for them which had them laughing and just got a trespassing ticket.
If you could change one thing about the US, what would it be?
Alexis Penney: I would love to queer the idea of statehood and institution so that there aren't a whole legion of others that are forced to engage their energy and lives in reifying the states' existence but who are left out in the cold because of racist and unequal application of our laws and so-called rights. I would like this country to lead the world in actually atoning for the legacies of colonialism, genocide and slavery on which the entire western world grew to global dominance. I would like us to shine as a beacon of spiritual freedom and not imperially force capitalist materialist values on other countries with no regard but our own material gain. Gonna take a lot of work.
Which fictional American do you most identify with?
If you could vote for Obama again, would you?
Alexis Penney: No. I regret doing it the first time. I think it's great that every subsequent generation of black Americans knows that they can be president, but the institutions that the president represents are still so racist and imperialist, and it sucks to see him used as a token by whites who are like, See? Racism is over. Plus the fucker just keeps dropping bombs. He didn't come through on anything that he really promised, which isn't entirely his fault, our political system is such a joke. I am registered Green and advocate for everyone to be. Green Party represents so fully the values I stand for. If only we could empower them with numbers to be an actual legitimate force within politics. It may happen over time. I love Elizabeth Warren though. I would maybe vote for Hillary too.
If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after?
Alexis Penney: The things I have to lose nobody can take. Everything I own is just ephemera at the end of the day. Music, yoga, my life, that's all inside. I try not to attach to things. I've lost it all several times, to be honest.
What will America look like in 2050?
Alexis Penney: Well our coastline will definitely be tighter but I have faith that America will shift closer to the ideals on which we claim it was founded. We will fully recognize the Native American tribes that live under apartheid as sovereign nations, our prison system will be abolished, children will be taught that gender is a story we tell not a choice made for you, and that god is something that lives within each of us and every creature and thing. We will be looking toward a future where our developments are planned in accordance with the natural world of which we are a part, our military will be reformed as a service and sustainability corps working to atone for colonialism as healers and teachers, helping all people shift peacefully back to sustainable ecologies of living on our planet together. It's gonna be great.
Does the American Dream still exist?
Alexis Penney: Of course. See above!
Follow Claire Healy on Twitter here @clairehly