666, Dude

Avril Lavigne and Tracy + the Plastics and the corruption of culture

Two weeks ago, I found myself standing among approximately 3,000 anxious people in the Southland Mall in the lovely city of Hayward, waiting for Avril Lavigne to take the stage. It was the umpteenth stop on her umpteen-city Malls Across America Tour. Specifically, I was sandwiched between an obviously stoned high school linebacker type wearing a Pantera T-shirt, which struck me as odd, and -- I shit you not -- a fuzzy-haired 40-ish guy wearing lime green short-shorts, who had drawn big blue X's on both hands to show off the fact that he was straight edge, which struck me as even odder.

As I looked around, however, I realized there were all kinds of oddities here: the screaming teens, sure, but also scores of brooding, older-than-you'd-expect dudes in dinosaur-rock T-shirts (Sepultura, Metallica, Aerosmith, Poison). When Lavigne dished out her juicy power-pop hits, people held up skateboards the way you raise a lighter into the air at a Scorpions concert (presumably this gesture is connected to Lavigne's song "Sk8ter Boi," although it's still weird). The most puzzling thing of all, though, was that throughout the show Lavigne's devotees held their hands up in the index- and pinkie-finger "Hail Satan" salute that, once upon a time, was the sign of choice for fans of brash metal. Look:

This scenario, to me, exemplifies our current cultural moment: making a pilgrimage to the hallowed halls of consumerism to celebrate rebellion via a 20-year-old, mass-marketed Canadian girl famous for her "punk" image ('cause, like, she's not gonna bow down to your puritanical traditions such as spelling, man), and showing your appreciation with a hand signal that used to say, "Yeah dude, 666!"

After the concert, as everyone poured out of the mall to grab a bite at Applebee's (or something), I felt unsettled, as if I had just spent an hour in a reality TV show. When one is nestled in the bubble that is San Francisco, especially when one neither watches cable nor returns phone calls to one's loving parents in Orange County, it's easy to become estranged from the, shall we say, pop ethos of this country. But that afternoon spent in a mall in Anytown, USA, watching one of our most popular pop stars brought it all back. For a good while afterward I was feeling down.

Tracy + the Plastics brought me back up.

Tracy + the Plastics is and is not a band. It is 26-year-old Olympia, Wash., native Wynne Greenwood's ongoing multimedia art piece, and it's a good one. Greenwood, an outspoken, out-of-the-closet feminist, uses her project to comment on subjects ranging from media to sexuality to our postmodern condition. At her show last Thursday at Bottom of the Hill, she took the empty stage as she always does, in the character of Tracy. Accompanying her via prerecorded video projection were Tracy's bandmates: the ab-fab, utterly spacey Nikki and Cola, also played by Greenwood. The show consists of Tracy bantering with her bandmates and the audience and singing over skittery, synthesized electro beats (Greenwood has a beautiful voice). You can get a taste for the whole thing by picking up a copy of Tracy + the Plastics' new CD/DVD, Culture for Pigeon.

Admittedly, the rhetoric surrounding Tracy + the Plastics is pretty pretentious. When she enrolled herself in an M.F.A. program two years ago, Greenwood started to articulate what she was doing with the band, which led to densely packed mission statements like "We are really interested in creating new mythologies about the construction of cohesive identities from fragmented parts of fragmented culture, and performing that through the relationships of our sounds and images."

The art jargon, however, does not infringe on the pure, visceral thrill of watching the ditzy Tracy talk shop with her ditzy virtual bandmates -- and it's these conversations, acted out in a "Like, you know, whatever ..." style of Valley Girl-speak, that elucidate the work. For example, during one vignette, Tracy chides Cola for having a cast on her arm and thus being unable to play drums, to which Cola obliviously responds, "I can't take this cast off until this gimmick is gone," and tries to scratch an itch on her injured arm. "Here, do you wanna use this shtick?" asks Nikki innocently, holding up a stick.

The bit got big laughs, as well as applause, because on one level the whole "virtual band" thing is a gimmick, and pointing that out relieved the tension some in the audience were feeling. On another level, however, Greenwood's project is also sincere, politically charged, and designed as a self-conscious gimmick in order to play up our increasingly self-conscious, gimmicky culture. As she writes on her Web site, "It is an interaction with a fragmented self. By fragmented, I mean a cohesive identity that's constructed from different, often conflicting, parts of society, culture, and the life that we relate to, because popular culture has no whole identity to offer its audience other than one that resembles the ruling class." Kind of highfalutin, perhaps, but you must admit, she's got a point, and I don't know of any other musicians expressing that point as effectively and originally as Greenwood.

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