What Is a SSION?
Cody Critcheloe Wants to Shoot White Light All Over Your Face
You're probably asking yourself, "What is a 'SSION'?" Well, for starters, a SSION probably wouldn't exist if John Waters, Leigh Bowery, Darby Crash, Pee-wee Herman, Madonna, and/or Boy George hadn't already paved a few roads for a young SSION to drive his big gay pickup truck down. Also très importante, SSION isn't pronounced "sigh-on"—it's pronounced "shun," a name that pays tribute to the ideals of "passion, confusion, and illusion." SSION began as the high-school queer performance/visual art project of a then-16-year-old boy named Cody Critcheloe living in Lewisport, Kentucky. Critcheloe attended the Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, and now, 15 years later, SSION is an art/music/film collective based in NYC. SSION is often, and probably BEST, described as sleazy gay disco meets punk rock theater, with Critcheloe forever the primary character and mastermind. His vision is pure and strikingly original—he's transformed Los Angeles art galleries into black-and-white wonderlands and live music venues into no-budget Broadway stages. Critcheloe's voice has a sweet, smoother-than-Prince consistency, with lyrics ranging from cartoonishly funny to sarcastic, to sassy, to crass—think Hunx and His Punx, but far less nasally and bratty. It's deliciously catchy dance pop that gets stuck in your head like all good pop music should.
But maybe this mustachioed maniac is best understood through his finest craft: the music video. SSION's YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/thession) is a Technicolor fever dream—a fantastical rabbit hole I've fallen into several times, losing hours watching the 40-plus Critcheloe-directed videos made for almost every song on the 10 SSION albums. He's also directed beautifully weird videos for Peaches, Santigold, and Gossip.
Here are short descriptions of five of my favorite SSION videos.
"Earthquake" is SSION's brand-newest video. It's self-described as a "love story between an enigmatic instigator and an alien-brother-lover resulting in the purest form of magik with a bit of feminism and Las Vegas showmanship thrown in for good measure—all shot in Kansas City." There are cameos by a black Santa, a fat angel, and a green witch. It ends with Critcheloe taking a shower in honey while still wearing his cowboy hat and blood-red lipstick.
"Clown" is a Madonna-esque dance song seemingly obsessed with fame and the concept of "fool's gold." It's also probably Critcheloe's most Leigh Bowery–inspired makeup moment—his version consisting of a black triangle on his forehead that connects a highly blackened unibrow to an even blacker nose, ending in a no-bullshit black handlebar mustache.
"A Wolves Eye"
The vocals and synth in this song are slowed down to a creepy, hellish pace. Bearded men wearing only loincloths writhe around an outdoor fire in a ritualistic dance (it's all very David Lynchian). Suddenly, a blue witch wearing nerd glasses appears in the middle of the fire's flames. She's scary—up until she rubs a hot s'more all over her face. Mmm, marshmallows and melted chocolate!
I will always love this video because it stars Critcheloe's real mom... Wait, no it doesn't. There was a rumor going around the internet that the woman in the video was his mother. I believed it. I believed it for a long time. It's really some dude who works at Kansas City Magazine. Anyway, Critcheloe plays a sleazy, leather daddy–looking hairdresser who gives "mom" a makeover after licking her face—turning her into a tough, blond biker chick. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, with Critcheloe admitting, "It's so hard to be bad/When you're sweet as pie/I may wear this leather jacket/But I ain't afraid to cry."
This is one of the earliest videos, from 2006. It's a crude combo of green screen and hand-drawn sets that look like they were created with markers, colored pencils, and crayons. It reminds me of video artist Ryan Trecartin and the show Pee-wee's Playhouse (if the Playhouse had ever featured a drawing of a low-rent Tom of Finland man wearing a pink anarchy T-shirt popping up in the windows, instead of Pee-wee's singing puppet flowers). It's all about sex. "Gee whiz!/Street jizz/Feels more dirty than it really is/Late at night, in the park/Gonna shoot white light all through the dark." YouTube and the world in general are nothing but better with SSION shooting white light all over its face.