Warm inside the art bubble: Allie X & Sugarpill at Star Theater

Plus a bonus Q&A with drag queen & PSU alum Sugarpill

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Allie X and her band perform for an enthusiastic all-ages audience at Portland's Star Theater on Thursday, August 24. Credit: Andrew D. Jankowski

Allie X, Sugarpill and She slay at Star Theater, mama

I’m feeling old as I wait in line on a Thursday night outside the Star Theater for Allie X’s concert. Most of the people seem to be 16–23 and look like they attend the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art or the Portland Fashion Institute with their en pointe Tumblr–worthy fashions and looks. I’m pushing 30 in a RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni graphic tee, exchanging knowing looks with the parents of the youngest attendees. The people in front of me like my shirt, which makes me feel like a Cool Dad™ who barely knows what the kids are into these days. The people around me discuss and compare pop paragons who rose during my first time in college almost a decade ago: Kesha, Katy Perry, Crystal Castles, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Charli XCX and others, ultimately coming back to tonight’s main attraction, Allie X.

Most people within my earshot heard of Allie X through Tumblr or Katy Perry’s 2014 Twitter shoutout. The people around me like Allie X because she’s “different,” but I can’t quite audibly hear everything they’re saying. They’re excited. They’ve followed her through Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube and Spotify. They’re ready for a show. They voted in the Twitter contest for her drag queen openers and gossip about the Portland–based winner, Sugarpill aka PSU student Alex Horsey. They’re excited. They engage regularly with Allie X on Tumblr, Twitter, on Spotify, on YouTube, on the internet platforms. I haven’t.

The energy tonight reminds me of the pop shows of my early 20s, back when Kesha-with-a-capital-dollar-sign played the Crystal Ballroom and when Lady Gaga played the Wonder Ballroom before Kanye West and Taylor Swift apparently psychologically destroyed themselves forever. There was, and is tonight, a sense that you witnessed a national-tier musician right before they blew up into stardom. I’m most reminded of seeing Tinashe last year at the Crystal Ballroom, before she did a remix with Britney Spears. To broad-stroke Matthew Singer’s review of Tinashe’s show, waiting in line at the Star Theater felt like Allie X, her fans and her record label are eager for something bigger.

I heard someone complain Allie X wasn’t at the Crystal Ballroom, but even though the entry line coiled around the block, Star Theater proved to be the right size for the all-ages crowd, which filled half to two-thirds of the venue’s capacity. The Star Theater’s pit in front of the stage was packed, and all booths and seats were filled. The stage was set with guitars and a corner-free, ultra-contemporary LED keyboard stand. There didn’t seem to be much room for the openers, PNW drag queens She and Sugarpill, to perform.

But perform they did. Seattle’s She is a bearded drag queen with a messy wig who lip-synced to a mash-up  of Cobra Starship’s “Hot Mess” and what I think was a Facebook-viral video that I can’t actually search for but which will nevertheless appear throughout my feed for a few weeks. After her number, the audience chanted Sugarpill’s name, who lip-synced, flipped and splits’d to Kesha’s “Blow,” “Learn to Let Go” and “Spaceship,” leaving the stage to twirl among the audience during the first two songs. Throughout this, Sugarpill stripped her costume layers: tutus, corsets and hair pieces fell, blurring her gender presentation like the time she won a title at 2015’s T:BA Critical Mascara ball.

After a brief intermission, out came Allie X’s guitar players, and after a theatrically-timed pause, pregnant with “Fuck it up, baby!” “Twirl!” and “I love you, Mom!”s from the audience, Allie X emerges in an expertly curated outfit (I’m no fashion expert, perhaps it was a black leather or vinyl designer piece?), perfectly straight dark brown (black?) hair and eye-eclipsing round sunglasses. She warmly greeted the screaming pit before she and the band started into “Bitch,” “Catch” and “Casanova.”

“Portland is one of the smallest selling and loudest cities,” Allie X tells the audience, but not in a disappointed way. She truly seems like she’s happy to see her eager fans, even if they haven’t packed in at standing room only. Observing in and outside the pit, Allie X is ready to take her X thesis to the next level, wherever that is. Her fans are screaming and singing along to every word she sings.

As she sings, dances and plays her instrument to songs including “Old Habits Die Hard,” “Paper Love,” “Need You,” “That’s So Us,” “Lifted,” “All the Rage,” “Vintage” and “Sanctuary,” I’m reminded of The Fame–era Lady Gaga by way of “Lovegame” and “Paparazzi”–reminiscent vocal intonations, captivatingly robotic motion and fan engagement.

Some of Allie X’s vocal moments would be seemingly easy to do as a produced effect: the higher pitched “waiting ’til I catch my breath”s in “Catch” sound on mp3 like they could be run through a filter, but really, Allie X sings between rock projection and Disney princess projection. It’s like watching an alternate universe where Gaga didn’t dye her hair blonde to distinguish herself from Amy Winehouse.

I almost called this review “Allie X and the Quest for Lady Gaga’s Legacy,” but that title felt reductive to both women, even if, based on reflections from MTV’s 2017 Video Music Awards, it seems like that’s what her label is economically after (like all record labels, to be honest).

Allie X and Lady Gaga are both highly talented, inspirationally confident women interested in technology, contemporary art and LGBTQ+ culture. Even if the stage tonight is a little too small for everyone performing, there’s enough room for all of these distinctively different artistries in American culture. As Allie X and her band return to cheers for their encore, “True Love is Violent,” I’m wondering how David Lynch failed to book Allie X for Twin Peaks‘s 2017 Roadhouse (like, maybe her instead of “The” Nine Inch Nails?).

As I step outside to process what I’ve witnessed, Allie X’s artistry unfolds in my mind and doesn’t stop. Is Allie X truly non-political, or does the line from “That’s So Us”—”We think that politics is such a waste of time”—hint toward an unspoken political manifesto? Can I come to that conclusion based only on one line in one song? Why can’t I get the whistling from “Paper Love” out of my head? Where would I fall on the Haruki Murakami vs. Japanese Literary Critical Institution in terms of cultural exchange vs. cultural purity and where can I find some of his work?

While I ask myself these questions and more, a one–armed woman in a shimmering sliver dress walks past me like a New York runway model. Something about Allie X’s music drew her out tonight, and rather than engage in intellectual voyeurism trying to figure out what drew her out tonight, I’ll let her and her experience with Allie X be what it is. At any rate, as I’ve gone on to encounter Allie X in other media since her Portland show, like in viral drag queen BibleGirl666’s “Casanova” lip sync at the U.K.’s Dragcon, I doubt this is the last any of us will hear from Allie X or her X World.

Related content: Interview with PSU alumni Sugarpill / Alex Horsey

Disclaimer: The author of this story held a PR-related internship with the Star Theater and Dante’s between December 2016–July 2017.

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