Sun April 18, ConWorks, 7 pm, $8/$10 (all ages).
Like many things, it's simple and it's not so simple. A woman sets up a screen on a stage and plays a clunky video of herself--or rather, of herself playing a series of characters--as she stands at the forefront. And that's it. I mean, there's her stumbled, stifled conversations with herself, an awkward breath of humor and, of course, the music--but for all intents and purposes, that's it. Sure, it's an interesting crutch to hinge a performance on, but how long could it really last? And more importantly, how have Tracy + the Plastics been able to volley this seemingly transparent gimmick into a four-year-plus career, more visible now than ever?
It's been over a year since Wynne Greenwood left the moist blanket of the Pacific Northwest for grayer pastures out east in New York--benefited by the support of a hot-shit new label (indie fancy-pants Troubleman Unlimited), celebrity associations, and, most importantly, getting the hell out of Washington State. In that time, Tracy + the Plastics--a band that fragments Greenwood's multiple personalities into three remote manifestations (Tracy, Nikki, and Cola) by way of those video projections--has gone from electroclash semi-obscurity to high-art acceptance, typified by her inclusion in the prestigious Whitney Biennial this past month. And aside from geography, the logistics haven't really changed all that much. But in the insular world of Plastics, actual change is somewhat irrelevant.
"I grew up in the suburbs on the West Coast, Redmond to be exact, surrounded by slurbs (a real dictionary word for suburban landscapes) and it's there that I probably find most of my inspiration," says Greenwood via e-mail. "I am not inspired by this city-landscape at all really. The invisible spaces between people here, maybe. The community spaces you are forced to create to remain sane, yes."
These sorts of intangibles are at the heart of understanding Tracy + the Plastics as an evolution, with a focus of not so much specific progression as a sort of spiraling rumination. A realization. What appears at first to be simply a clever (if short-sighted) performance device becomes--in the hands of its gifted creator--a source of circular meditation. In creating what amounts to a window into the lives (however fictional) of characters as real as their carbon counterpart--the surprisingly lifelike Tracy--Greenwood has opened a dialogue that suggests the possibility of endless self-reference. Granted, a construction like this one might feel a little navel-gazey, but this is high art we're talking about--Whitney-approved--and should be treated as such. What at surface may seem like something of a limited scope instead presents itself as a means for a challenging exploration.
"But wait," you ask, "weren't we talking about a band?" Therein lies the most tangible case for the power of Tracy + the Plastics' continued relevance: the music. Greenwood's songs are marked with thoughtful and subtle intricacies--an obscured emotional landscape only expounded upon with her latest release, the CD/DVD release Culture for Pigeon.
"It has affected me to be in a constantly changing place like New York, because it has made me vulnerable and a bit uncomfortable," explains Greenwood. "[I've] been in some vulnerable spaces this past year, and I think that totally helped shape this new record. That and not wanting to make the same record I've already made--to experiment with ways of writing songs, of playing emotions."
Skewing the familiar security blanket of unwavering, insistent electro-thump, the audio component of Culture for Pigeon brilliantly segues Tracy + the Plastics from the guilt-by-association of their past with its conspicuously thoughtful compositions--a thoughtfulness consistently present in Greenwood's previous works, but occasionally buried by the weight of unrelenting tempo. Put simply, Culture for Pigeon is just a lot slower than previous records--and with that kind of breathing room, the very intent of the project is casually called into question: illuminating the greater melancholy of Greenwood's relentless quaver.
Adding to the upheaval on Culture for Pigeon is the deliberate concentration on its multimedia component--an elemental constituent of the band's craft that until now was mainly a contrivance of their live performance. With a second disc of Greenwood's video work, the suggestion is that of a focal shift--the film is less a supplemental piece as a work in tandem. With the vast majority of the album's liner notes devoted to the video work, it's clear that Tracy + the Plastics are beginning to forcibly unite their until-now disparate fragments. Coupled with a somewhat autonomous Greenwood composition, the main feature is of her polystyrene personas Nikki and Cola--the Plastics--at band practice. Marked with her familiar video interplay (stifled conversations, intentional video editing, etc.), the film also marks Tracy's two-dimensional debut--a character usually reserved for live-action frontwoman.
"Including the DVD was a weird decision," says Greenwood, "because the music does stand by itself and the focus of this package wasn't the videos. I just really thought it was time to explain some things. In some respects I felt like putting Tracy into a video w/Nikki and Cola was her death. That's not how she's supposed to be. But it's an experiment. And it'll lead to a result."
Clearly, the monster that Wynne Greenwood has created is something different than just a multimedia flourish to a rock performance; Tracy + the Plastics aren't a light show, and they aren't just a gimmick. Tracy + the Plastics are a different beast altogether. Almost by accident, Greenwood has placed subtle question marks in the gears of a simple definition: Is Tracy + the Plastics serious performance art posing as comfortably consumable pop music, or is it pop music philandering with the pretensions of high art? And are the two mutually exclusive? With little more than a few cheap wigs and a video camera, Greenwood has mapped a reality that continues to skirt the line between the two with frustrating grace--only complicated by her recent credibility. Since when did simple get so complicated?