Neal Medlyn’s Pop-Star Series, The 2015 Emerald Edition, looks at pop icons and the role they play in our consciousness. Over eight years Medlyn has created seven portraits of different pop artists. The series was presented as a complete set at the American Realness Festival in January in its North American premiere. Medlyn focused on artists such as Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and the night I attended Britney Spears. Using their music and interpreting their role in pop culture, filtered through a lens of fairy tales, literature, and personal anecdotes, Medlyn is reflecting back our own consumption of these iconic products. For his look at Spears, Medlyn delves into sexuality, abstinence, purity, memory loss, and confusion with a focus on her Blackout album. He explores the tension between sex, nudity, religious rhetoric, and how this all gets churned out of the pop music publicity machine.
Dressed in a negligee and what turned out to be some soon-to-be-aggressively-disposed-of candy underwear Medlyn stood before us as a performer with no memory of his wild behavior and frequent genital flashing. He performed alongside a sidekick named PeainaPod (Sophia Cleary) who wore diapers for elbow pads and was his “baby.” Frequently he was physically restrained by PeainaPod and once he was pinned down and still, plied with Bit O’ Honey candy. The show was structured such that we’d see Medlyn perform a number, be tackled by PeainaPod, and then subdued with candy several times as the sort of “refrain” of the overarching narrative.
With his Texas drawl and gentle features Medlyn’s interpretation of Spears songs was frenetic but fragile. Like a rock star half-heartedly giving it his all, but also somewhat dissolving before our eyes, Medlyn shouted out “What’s up Sacramento,” followed by the more direct observation, “My pussy’s hanging out of my motherfucking outfit.” He’d sing the Spears songs oscillating between determined pop star and vacant child. PeainaPod photographed him as he sang and he flinched as the camera flash went off in his face. Live photos were projected behind him as he muddled through his dance routine, disconnected from the feelings behind the moves. These musical segments reflected a life spinning out of control. But Medlyn returns again and again to the theme, “I’m gonna keep forgetting.”
He’s a mesmerizing performer and this shows most prominently in the bigger, wilder musical aspects of the show. When we moved away from the songs and into other narrative strands, things got a lot messier. I struggled to connect up the stories of bears, nuns, and the aforementioned “baby.” PeainaPod as Medlyn’s gadfly and carer could be a stand-in for a manager or family or the nagging world outside but it remained opaque for me. When PeainaPod referred to Medlyn as “Neal” at times I understood it to mean he was not playing Spears directly or at least playing her all of the time but the shifting between characters was not demarcated.
Perhaps harkening back to her earlier days as a child star and Mouseketeer, Peainapod and Neal engage in tickle fights and a cuddle party (with snacks and audience participants). The primary focus shifts to purity pledges (audience participation again as we all recite the pledge), abstinence, and as Medlyn says “I need to get to some special white places in my mind.” At this point, there’s no clear white space. We’ve all become part of the mess and meltdown and it is hard to look away from the destruction we have wrought.