'Sci-Fi Feminist Rock Opera' Tackles Big Issues With Humor

Feb 28, 2019

“2028: Proclaiming Earth to be a misogynistic dystopia, the art-pop super duo Princess prepares a rocket ship to find a better world. As only two white men could.”

Princess performs "Out There." 8 p.m. Fri., March 1. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side.

That’s the opening title card for “Out There,” the new video-plus-live-performance work by Princess – which is the collective name of both the fictional duo portrayed on-screen and the two real artists who’ll perform live music and vocals on either side of it.

Princess’ Alexis Gideon said this tongue-in-cheek show with a serious message is “a sci-fi feminist rock opera” partly inspired by concept albums like David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” and futuristically themed 2000 hip-hop record “Deltron 3030.” “Out There” premieres Friday at The Andy Warhol Museum before the duo embarks on a 39-city U.S. tour.

Gideon and Michael O’Neill first performed together as Princess about 15 years ago, when they were both young artists in Chicago. Gideon, an internationally known multidisciplinary artist, now lives in Pittsburgh. O’Neill is a Brooklyn-based musician who’s performed with internationally touring indie acts including Le Tigre and MEN.

“Out There” emerged from the pair’s long-distance efforts to make music together again. It was around the time of the 2016 presidential election, shortly followed by the January 2017 Women’s March and the rise later that year of the #MeToo movement. The feminist themes emerged unplanned as they traded work-in-progress tracks back and forth online.

Gender politics is not new to the duo. “Princess has always been about the notion of masculinity,” said O’Neill. “I mean, we've always been two men with a band name called Princess. We’ve always had this gender-nonbinary, gender-fluid, cross-dressing element to it, and the ideas of what it means to be a man, what kind of man you can be or ought to be, have always been part of the work.”

Still, if there’s one thing two white guys don’t want to do in 2019, it’s mansplain feminism. Even – or maybe especially – if they’re wearing skirts, unitards and eyeliner while they’re doing it.

But Princess is in on the joke.

“The fictitious characters of Michael and myself, Princess, foolishly decide they’re going to go and solve the problem of Earth being a misogynistic dystopia, and we follow them along their sort of trials and tribulations and they hopefully learn a lesson by the end of it,” said Gideon.

“The farce of the piece is that we’re two superhero-type men who think that we are the ones that can save the day,” said O’Neill. “When actually the thing we have to learn how to do is not be so intensely active, to play a more support role in the world, and with women in particular.”

“Out There” has a unique look. Gideon and O’Neill perform in costume, standing on either side of the screen, singing and playing keyboards and electric guitars live. Gideon took their videotaped likenesses and animated them stop-motion-style, which makes them look like herky-jerky paper cutouts traversing various outer-space landscapes. The colors are vivid, and the feel is arch, campy and even psychedelic as the characters blast off from Earth, get taken prisoner and have other adventures.

The music is energetic, danceable electro-pop, often supplemented by Gideon’s raps.

Gideon, who’s lived in Pittsburgh since 2013, is known in the U.S. and Europe for “video operas” like 2015’s “The Crumbling” and his Video Musics series; in 2013, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York City, featured him in a joint exhibition with the legendary William Kentridge.

The “Out There” tour hits primarily museums and small arts venues. Curators are impressed by Gideon’s aesthetic.

“It kind of walks this interesting line of being a bit D.I.Y. and rough, yet sophisticated in its editing,” said Ben Harrison, who curates performances at the Warhol. “There’s a punk sensibility to it, and a homemade sensibility, and yet [when] it comes together, it’s really polished.”

“Out There” makes its New York City premiere in April at the New Museum, where associate curator Sara O’Keeffe said she sees it as a novel way to address misogyny.

“What’s exciting about the project is it takes up these issues through science fiction and is really harkening back to seminal music videos, which you may recall from early MTV music videos or early concept albums like ‘Ziggy Stardust,’” she said. O’Keeffe added that she likes how Gideon’s video-plus-performance works blur the lines between traditional genres.

“Out There” emphasizes the irony of two male artists booking a cross-country concert tour to deliver the message that men should listen to women. Gideon (who identifies as straight) and O’Neill (who identifies as queer) felt that they should also have collaborators who are female or non-binary.

Musical contributors include JD Sampson, of feminist electro rock band Le Tigre, who wrote one song, and the band TEEN, which provides harmonies on a few tunes. Gideon also recruited Pittsburgh-based visual artist Jennifer Meridian to create the look of the “divine feminine” planet Princess visits during its adventure. Meridian’s hand-drawn, often abstract pastel-based work, as animated by Gideon, provides a stark contrast to Gideon’s photographic-based work.

Meridian said Gideon and O’Neill get it on women’s issues.

“I think the big takeaway for everyone is just to spend more time listening to women, people who identify as femme,” she said.

Ticket information for "Out There" is here.

WESA receives funding from The Andy Warhol Museum.