“Just put your faith in me and strange as it may seem, I will build a dream for you. Big as I can dream.” Cody Critcheloe stares into the camera wistfully, all wide-eyed and a little coy, letting the sentiment hang in the air like a dare… or a promise. The words he sings carry the weight and yearning of an earlier age, but his elfin take on the bittersweet Roy Orbison classic (“Big As I Can Dream”) winks at surreality. You can see the riddle in those heavily mascaraed eyes – a pop portal awaits.
Suddenly, the whole world shifts and now we’re inside a diner, mere background noise to another embodiment of Critcheloe. A jukebox lights up and a new dream starts. The music shifts to an upbeat, featherweight funk hook, finger-snaps and all. Over the next few minutes, the song careens between superpop and electro distortion, with implied nods to The Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”, George Michael’s “Faith”, Raiders of the Lost Ark, American Idol and a rainbow of worlds in-between. Most triumphantly, a new genre is born: kitchen cowpunk!
It’s a smorgasbord of sound and vision that adds up to one astonishing statement: “Comeback”. Most artists make music videos; Cody Critcheloe, the supercharged talent behind SSION, makes glittering fantasias. And for this single – his first in six years – the awe-factor had to be full on. Following 2011’s Bent, he returns in the spring with a wildly ambitious new album in the shape of O, proving he is more necessary a creative force than ever in the splintered world of pop.
“I guess you could say it’s like my modest take on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’,” laughs Critcheloe of his expansive opus while meeting for tea in Chinatown, New York City. In person, he’s slight, clad in relaxed leisurewear and extremely serene. Of course: only someone this centred could captain so many ships. Despite “Comeback”’s deceptively effortless feel, Critcheloe says making the video was anything but. “It was a seven-day shoot with two months of pre-production planning,” he says. “We shot it in Kansas City. You know, getting a space and painting all the props – just getting everything together. And this was a video where I styled everything. But usually, the edit on those videos goes really quickly. Because it’s so mapped out, nothing is left to chance.”
Creating maximal impact on a minimal budget is a SSION specialty, and one reason why Critcheloe has been a pillar of the queer dancepunk underground for almost 20 years now. SSION has technically existed longer than most Gen-Z pop stars have been alive, but, fatefully, its spirit intersects with the brash punk energy fuelling today’s youngest, candyhued cloud-rap artists. Started as a band while Critcheloe was in high school, SSION soon transformed into a bold, all-encompassing audiovisual project, one that still functions in a deeply organic, hands-on fashion to this day.
Born and raised in post-grunge-era Kentucky – an “all-tobacco-farming, crystal meth kind of place”, he says – Critcheloe spent much of his childhood miles from any kind of cultural hub, but had a soft spot for riot grrrl and punk. “I was very much alone, up in my room drawing, or on a four-track making songs or modern art. Then, when I got my driver’s licence, I started driving on weekends to this neighbouring city that had a mall. There were these punk-rock girls who were, like, five or six years older than me, and they became my best friends and taught me everything – like, everything.” While attending art school by scholarship in Kansas City, Missouri, Critcheloe solidified the SSION concept and eventually tested it out in NYC, just as the rock revival and electroclash wars were beginning (hint: read Lizzy Goodman’s scene memoir Meet Me in the Bathroom). “Because it was so gay, it got lumped in with electroclash. I think people were pretty homophobic at the time,” says Critcheloe. “Now you show up with a laptop and people are completely happy, but then, if you were doing any kind of canned music you got a lot of shit. I walked into it very naive.”
Eventually, time and trend caught up with SSION’s trailblazing ways and, after several increasingly ambitious releases and videos, Critcheloe became an influential figure and star of all trades, a beloved pop rebel whose gift for blending the glam and the garish has influenced global shapeshifters from Robyn and Mykki Blanco to Hood By Air. He’s a true cultural magpie whose work touches upon the worlds of fashion, art, punk and high-trash culture, much like his designer friend and fellow Kansas City alumnus, Jeremy Scott. And, of course, the music itself fascinates. With spiky synths that rip as hard as Suicide but hooks sugarwhipped to Kylie perfection, Critcheloe proudly defies musical categorisation, only adding to his intrigue as a true icon of the leftfield.
On O – so named for its “optimistic” qualities as a symbol – Critcheloe continues to indulge SSION’s many sides and whims. “There’s always a push and pull between his desire for super-clean, accessible, straightforward production and this scuzzy, blown-out noise,” says producer Nick Weiss (also of Teengirl Fantasy), who worked on the album alongside singer-producer MNDR and Sam Mehran. “Cody is always drawn to kind of wretched sounds and feedback, as much as he loves an incredible pop hook and 4/4 rhythm. He has a rocker spirit, and since rock has been dead for a while, we need to find new ways to channel that spirit into something people – especially queer people – can relate to right now. At the end of the day, Cody is a total punk.”
Mehran remembers the moodboards Critcheloe created to demonstrate the sounds he was after. “Each one would have, like, a picture of a few suave dudes hanging out at a party in the 70s, next to a picture of a cow, next to a picture of an exploded car, next to a bowl of cocaine, next to Germs frontman Darby Crash, next to a picture of Liza Minnelli. He’d be like, ‘I know it seems crazy, but I want the songs to sound like this.’”
“I feel like Cody deals in this unrecognised currency of sensuality and subconsciousness that we all know, but it doesn’t have a clear box” – Robyn
You hear the pop dissonance first and best, of course, on “Comeback,” which starts out with frothy snaps, floats into disco, and eventually descends into a riotous Germs cover. “It was the first song we did for the album and I approached it like a mixtape – I wanted the chorus to have this Kylie feel but we were also into a lot of digital hardcore,” says Critcheloe. “I was like, ‘Oh, we should have the post-chorus poke fun at this current EDM drop and make it sound like Atari Teenage Riot.’ Let’s go really in the red and just fuck it. Let’s make something really incorrect then go back to this pop structure and fuck with the form.”
Fucking with the form also meant working with a motley coterie of collaborators and guest features. “I was surprised that people were so willing and available to make it happen,” says Critcheloe. Highlights include Ariel Pink on “At Least the Sky Is Blue”, a standout sad/pretty track and future single, as well as the absurdist Jesus & Mary Chain send-up, “Marc & Me”, in which the singer fantasises about a trashy night with designer Marc Jacobs, in the spirit of fan-fiction and old zine culture. (“I’m surprised he hasn’t asked me to design some handbags or something!” Critcheloe quips.) The iconoclastic Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux also makes an appearance alongside Melissa Burns and Contessa Stuto on the blistering “Dogs on Asphalt”, which features the priceless lyric, “Please, please, please let me be your puppy / Don’t you wanna be my doggy?”
Herrema is a longtime personal hero of Critcheloe’s, making her inclusion that much more meaningful. “I’ve been a fan of hers for so long, and the day she came to record was the first day I’d met her,” he says. “She’s so funny, so cool – we were just hysterically laughing (while we were) doing the track, it was rad.” Former Hole drummer Patty Schemel – another page in Critcheloe’s book of legends – appears on percussion alongside Sky Ferreira on the album’s nervy centrepiece, “1980-99”. “Hole was the reason I learned to play guitar,” says Critcheloe. “It’s funny, because I read every Courtney Love interview and she’s very empowering to women, which I think is amazing. But I’m also like, ‘Does she realise how many gay guys started a band because of her?’”
All these stars aligning make O feel like a triumphant homecoming. But this welcome return almost never happened. “There was a point after the last record where I was like, ‘I don’t really want to do music for a while – I’m going to focus on being a director,’” says Critcheloe. “I had this moment where I thought, ‘I’m in my 30s now and I should be serious. I don’t want to tour any more.’” Though he soon found himself writing songs again, Critcheloe’s musical hiatus led to him teasing new visual tricks out of pop – by shaping some of the most inspired videos in recent years as a creative director for Perfume Genius, Charli XCX and Robyn, to name a few.
Robyn enthuses over Critcheloe’s unique insight into others artists’ creative processes. The Swedish star was introduced to SSION’s video for “High” through a friend and felt drawn to “(Critcheloe’s) alternative response to pop culture”. For her 2015 video “Love Is Free” with Maluca and La Bagatelle Musique, she had a “breaking the fourth wall” premise in mind, but opted to let Critcheloe run free with his instincts.
“I feel like Cody deals in this unrecognised currency of sensuality and subconsciousness that we all know, but it doesn’t have a clear box,” says Robyn. “It’s funny and sensual. I love that place in between, and finding other people who do too is very satisfying.” Somewhere between the video’s kaleidoscope of rooms, metanarratives and fixation on lovers, bees and the weird, sticky beauty of honey, an unforgettable visual treatment prevailed.
Critcheloe was also an early advocate for rapper Mykki Blanco, whom he cast in his 2011 “Bent” film/music project at MoMA PS1. They reunited in 2014, when Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air commissioned SSION to create a film. The result was HBA’s “NO LEASH”, a psychedelic hellscape featuring Blanco as a kind of E!-spawned antihero in 12 minutes of pure post-consumerist chaos. Dubbed an “Americana dream sequence” by Blanco in an earlier conversation with Dazed, it’s a tragicomic look at what life looks and feels like when celebrity fixation replaces basic decency. “There (were) a lot of issues that we were touching on at that moment – about the world and what we saw happening socially, in pop culture, in human rights, in the perspective of us versus them,” says Oliver. “That’s all in the film.” He credits the premise as “pretty much a Cody dream”, and left Critcheloe to his own savvy devices in bringing his vision to the screen. “He’s one of the only people I trust in this way.”
“NO LEASH” marked another feat of economy, ingenuity and wit, with a little help from Critcheloe’s contacts in Kansas City. The ostensibly conservative midwestern city flourishes as an affordable harbour for queer and experimental art – you just have to know where to look. “I think that city has always had a true desire for the arts, so they are very aware of creating spaces for communities to flourish,” Oliver continues. Alongside Blood Diamonds and Jeremy Scott (who bonded with Critcheloe over Myspace and eventually took him to see Madonna), the Kentuckian is one of its proudest former residents, still revisiting old stomping grounds for video shoots and live performances. And, of course, old friends.
“It was so cheap,” Critcheloe says of his stay in the city. “I had 3,000 square feet of studio space – all utilities included – and it was $900 a month. I had two roommates. It was a great place to be 23, 24 (at that time) and be an artist because the internet existed, so you could still get your stuff into the world. You could still connect with people. I really got to create this special utopia in the middle of nowhere. I still love it. Relationships I’ve made with this community mean being able to have resources to do, like, crazy videos.”
It’s a hopeful takeaway for anyone trying to make big art in small towns. When you lower the entry cost of living as a fledgling artist, beautifully insane dreams without compromise become possible. You just have to be a master hustler. Or, as Oliver puts it, “Being cute is cute. Being gorgeous devours anything cute.” Learn how to adapt like Critcheloe – a new generation already is.
“From his albums to his live shows, paintings and drawings, he has an Elon Musk level of creative energy and dynamics,” says Blanco, who says SSION has been a formative influence on his own work. So much of Critcheloe’s ongoing viability stems from his multi-hyphenate status. Long before pop stars with creative direction deals were a norm, he was doing it the hard way: making bright, noisy songs, paintings and props, learning how to take up space in all kinds of outlandish ways.
One of the most beloved moments within SSION’s archive of ‘live’ performances took place on Kansas City kids’ show Whoop Dee Doo in 2007. In the peculiar segment, Critcheloe sings “Heaven” in front of a classroom sporting something like a vaudeville villain haircut and leather jacket before transforming the set into a bizarro Village People-esque dance party, which at one point features a spirited group toothbrushing session. When future producer Weiss stumbled on the footage, he was intrigued. “At the time it was rare to see another gay person in the DIY music sphere, and even more rare for that person to be making something that was actually wildly gay,” says Weiss. “To see him use pop music in such an imploded, handmade and clever way that was funny enough for kids to enjoy was really exciting to me.”
In 2018, when sometimes nothing feels fun any more, it’s even more imperative that handmade, funny, form-fucking pop is given a platform where it can be fully expressed – and that the rebels behind these movements can sustain their work through our support and, perhaps most vitally, collaboration. Because, in the words of another restless pop soul, “when the world was at war, we just kept dancing”. Let SSION be the dance therapy, art school and sonic balm for our politically ravaged times.
SSION’s US-wide tour starts tomorrow.
Hair Tomi Kono at Julian Watson Agency using Bumble and bumble., make-up Kanako Takase at Streeters using M.A.C, movement artists Nico Brown, Burr Johnson, Marquise Hitchcock, Aarron Ricks, Quentun Stuckey, Darrin Wright, photography assistants Mike Broussard, Chris Villafuerte, styling assistants Kenny P Paul, John de Peralta, hair assistant Jinn, make-up assistant Arisa Kawamura, studio manager Chris Smith, production MAP