Pop music feels good even when the lyrics make no sense. Pop manipulates, no, permits us to feel more easily alive, intense. Through stick-in-your head harmonies, pop simplifies the murky, the complex, and the ambivalent into something that’s in all good, or bad fun. And, even when it’s about devastating loss and the darkest of days, cliché refrains can cauterize wounds, inviting us to sing as we scar. Hearts beat faster, fists pump higher.
Before Tina Satter (writer/director), Chris Giarmo (composer/performer), Erin Markey (composer/performer) and Kristen Sieh (performer) arrive onstage, we’re primed to feel big. Loud grooves, concert lights, drums, keyboard and a retro awesome bowling alley carpet cover the stage. Clad in nude leggings with some sparkle and a tight off-white turtleneck tank top, Satter offers a deadpan introduction to her semi-autobiographical show. It’s “kind of” (as is all of her work) about her sister. And, there’s a band (she learned to play drums for the show) and two characters, girlhood friends Samantha (Markey) and Shawna (Sieh) who also wear tights and glam-basement talent show inspired costumes. The title is based on a made-up candy from the days when she and her estranged sister were also in a band called “The Funks” that played two songs: one about cats and the other, a love song, called “Mozzarella Breath.” Satter then takes her place behind the drum kit and Shawna and Samantha belt out the first of eight songs. I missed the meaning of “Hellock’s Brimble,” but the line “all the darkness I can stand” rang out again and again.
I don’t know if Satter’s sister is alive. Satter herself offers a simple drum beat and a few sporadic insights: she sleeps on her parent’s couch, is constantly in search of internet service, and perhaps is an addict or mentally ill or someone who otherwise can’t take care of herself. Either way, she’s a long way from when they were close as kids and comes in and out of Satter’s life. Once, she even dropped in on a rehearsal (for the internet service) and noticed a version of herself on stage, “Is that supposed to be me?” The songs lament a time when Satter could see her anytime and loving her was as easy as showing up for kid band practice, or dinner, while living under the same roof.
Samantha and Shawna’s whispered sleepover camp exchanges and blow-your-hair-back duets evoke a parallel nostalgia for a long-lost female intimacy. They intermittently animate life-size spirit animal puppets (a plastic deer and a seal) in raw asides about things like discovering masturbation. Vocally virtuosic, Markey owns a range of pop-singer tropes as well as a high-pitched baby voice she gives to “Sealy,” one that uncannily sounds just like “Marcel the Shell.” Sieh, a founding member of the TEAM, is equally riveting, energetically bobbing atop bright white high tops on the roiling seas of adolescent desire. Neither holds back — ever. They sing with balladic fervor as if it’s closing night on national tour with pick-your-90’s poison: Prince, Tori Amos, Steve Winwood. All accompanied by the talented, thick-eye lined and animated Giarmo on keyboard and vocals.
But Ghost Rings is sad — really, sad. Satter watches on, a participant-witness to Shawna and Samantha’s doubling of the lost closeness with her own sister. Shawna repeatedly admits to Samantha that she’s having a baby, and, surprise! — it’s hers. All because she “set an intention” when the “seedling” took. To bring it home for Samantha, she tucks a stuffed panda down her fishnet tights. Possible male inseminators loom way in the background — a 48-year-old cousin? A middle school coach? Satter’s women fantasize about procreation without men, about holding a piece of another woman in their bodies. In language that is revelatory through its very strangeness, Satter echoes this desire when she recounts sleeping on her parent’s couch, where her sister once slept, trying to “make the air around me fit right.” Ghost Rings mourns an absent bodily intimacy with a sister, with sisterhood, while also ritually instantiating an alternative pop-theatrical song space devoted to its revival.
We learn that “The Funks” officially disbanded when Satter’s sister’s skirt dropped, exposing her in fishnets without underwear. Satter and their mutual friend laughed at her; she never came back to the band. It seems no coincidence that Enver Chakartash’s hip-snug, crop-top costumes render everyone’s edges exposed; adolescent vulnerability becomes re-physicalized across the women’s bodies.
For the final song, Satter emerges from behind the drums, stands in front of Samantha and Shawna, then lays down on her back. Here, she literalizes the show as offering, an attempt to re-inhabit vanished intimacy as well as the faded erotics of adolescent sisterhood. In one of the final songs, Markey intones, “I am wild, I am nothing.” Like a vestigial tail, or wing — that early intertwined connection with untamed girl selves and bonds is still there, but no longer enables us to swim or fly. Because of this melancholy at the core of Ghost Rings, we can’t ever really sing along as loudly as we might wish to. Instead, we long for the hard edges that have been burnished by the little lies of pop’s simplifying falsehoods.
I’m still haunted by the question of Satter’s sister’s whereabouts and whether or not I witnessed an elegy or an incantation calling her back. It’s probably both. A reminder of the days when you could call yourself a band without playing any instruments. And when spirit animals accompanied us, helping us to say the things we’re not supposed to talk about.