Performance Art as Pop-Music Protest by Ben Horowitz, The Star Ledger

The Star Ledger – Spotlight Sunday, December 14, 1997
By Ben Horowitz
Star-Ledger Staff

Performance art as pop-music protest

A diminutive woman towers above the crowed in the small New Brunswick bar as projected images screen recklessly across her long skirt. Supermodel Cindy Crawford, Da Vinci’s “Portrait of a Lady.” An X-ray of a human spinal cord.

Ten feet tall if she’s an inch, the woman stands on a stilt-like platform railing against slavish consumerism in ominous, resonant bits of pop-ish melody as a three-man band crunches out an anarchic yet lyrical guitar barrage.

Welcome to the world of Suran Song in Stag. Not exactly your typical band name, but then, this is hardly your typical band.

Suran Michelle Song, the group’s 27-year-old lead singer and songwriter, earned a degree in sculpture from the Parsons School of Design in New York and spent several years working as a performance artist and teaching (including a stint as an art teacher at P.S. 13 in Elizabeth) before switching to music.

“When you’re doing performance art, you’re in a ghetto playing for people who have been in college for 12 years,” says Song, who lives in Lakehurst. “This opens it up to a wider audience.”

Song, whose lineage is Korean and Greek, has a message to spread: “It’s about how things are shoved down our throats. I’m trying to shake up the advertising images we honor. You’re so tired at the end of the day, you come home, open a catalog, watch TV and let yourself be sold things, instead of going out and finding what you want.”

Suran Song in Stag ­ a reference to Song’s being the only woman in the band ­ was formed two years ago with three savvy Central Jersey rock musicians: bass player William Weis, 27, of Bridgewater, who played in Mister Thumb and Nomen Nudum; drummer Jason Reynolds 28, of New Brunswick, who played with Mister Thumb and X-Vegas, and guitarist Dave Urbano, who has been replaced by Brian Sugent, 27, of North Brunswick, a longtime member of the punk band the Blisters.

The band’s tight, post-grunge guitar ravings, combined with the visual art, suggest a cross between Sonic Youth, the Pretenders and Laurie Anderson. The dreamy, jagged, hard-pop song “Kissing Judice” is characteristic of Song’s anti-mass-culture stance.

“It’s a cold war against us, Judice…,” she sings. “Catalogued clothes, catalogued cars, catalogued fun, catalogued stars, catalogued porn, catalogued hearts.”

The band played the song during a recent appearance at New Brunswick’s Budapest Cocktail Lounge, a neighborhood bar that has become one of New Jersey’s best original music clubs over the past year. During the performance, which featured songs from the band’s debut CD, “Shiny Objects,” Song poured beer onto the front of the long sheet serving as her makeshift skirt, where slides projected cartoons, milk advertisements, naked women and former TV news anchor Jim Lehrer.

Song, who works as a digital artist for SimStar in Princeton, also takes on the unrealistic depiction of women in our culture, in which they are encouraged to “celebrate what you are not,” she says. Crawford and Pamela Anderson, the actress known as much for her plastic body parts as for her talent, figure prominently in the images accompanying these songs, including “Pamela’s Secret,” which features pictures of a bra and panties followed by the image of an ancient fertility goddess.

Song does venture into more personal areas, but even these songs are protests. The haunting rock tune “Date,” for example, speaks in blunt terms to a sadistic young man who physically assaults a woman in his car. In concert, the song was accompanied by images of a diseased mouth followed by a child’s drawing of Little Red Riding Hood.

The band’s catchiest song, the light, hummable “Fuquan,” pays tribute to a 7-year-old pupil of Song’s in Elizabeth, NJ. Fuquan, who was raised by his invalid grandmother after his father left and mother became a crack addict, still managed to get himself to school each day.

“He was hard to handle, yet very endearing,” Song says. Her song celebrates his tough independence while acknowledging the troubled world in which he lives:

“Don’t line up when the whistle blows.
Don’t spit out what you’ve started to chew.
Don’t just walk when you can run them all down.
Don’t just bark when you can bite off the heads.
It’s later than you think.”