Judging from the last presidential election, not many Americans are ready to make Will and Grace as welcome in their neighborhoods as Ozzie and Harriet. The passage of legislation to tighten the definition of marriage suggests that being out of the closet in America may be acceptable only as long as homosexuals are abstractly gay. Being cuddly caricatures with the threat of raw sexuality removed is even better: Think Carson, the wisecracking fashion policeman on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or Ellen DeGeneres, the funny lesbian, on her Rosie O’Donnell-for-soft-butches talk show.
Yet because of their openness, New York City’s Scissor Sisters, a troupe of performance artists and musicians who don’t hide their flamboyant sexuality or celebration of campy gay culture, are fighting only some annoying misconceptions.
“Having gay members tends to throw people for a loop,” says drummer Paddy Boom, the lone straight male in the band, by phone from his New York apartment. “My mother included; I had to explain to her that it’s not a gay band. It’s like, ‘Mom, there’s gay members, but it doesn’t matter.’
“It’s about the music and about performance,” he continues. “The performance that the band gives is just about putting on a show. Nobody gives a shit whether you go home with a guy or go home with a girl. The sexuality of the band really has nothing to do with what the band is. People want to take shots — ‘a gay band,’ or whatever. It’s like, ‘Well, you’re really missing the point.’ Being gay has about as much relevance to the band as being straight does.”
Still, the group’s outrageous costumes and posturing obviously take cues from the drag shows and go-go dances at which two of its members — covocalists Ana Matronic and Jake Shears, respectively — once worked. So why have the Sisters (Matronic, Shears, Boom, Babydaddy, and Del Marquis) met with so little resistance from the mainstream?
Perhaps it’s because they just happen to sound like another gay icon whose kissing preference is conveniently desexualized: Elton John. In fact, in Britain, where people are notorious for adoring affectation, the group is popular enough to have opened for him in June. But while VH1 and mainstream radio stations are embracing the quintet’s “Take Your Mama” — a bar-band blues number driven by Shears’ crocodile-rockin’ falsetto — in America, the resemblance hasn’t yet resulted in the level of ubiquity John possesses here. The band’s buzz is certainly building, however. In fact, the Sisters recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording.
“It’s so crazy,” Boom says of the Sisters’ burgeoning US success. “I mean, that’s the ironic part, too, being who we are and what we are, that it would be catching on with these kinds of people. But now that it’s actually sort of happening, it’s a weird sort of contrast. It’s like the people that are embracing us right off the bat are generally not your average rock ‘n’ roll market.
“It’s so funny, ’cause in England it’s the exact opposite,” he goes on. “We’re like current mainstream, the here-and-now hip thing. Press and radio there will play anything; it doesn’t matter what genre it is. Versus here, it’s gotta fit into this little box. We’re not even sure what box we fit into over here.”
Such indulgence might explain the Sisters’ runaway success in the UK; their self-titled debut perpetuates the same genre-stitching seen elsewhere on the Euro-charts. Besides eerily accurate approximations of John’s piano-busking, an alienated-in-space Major Tom persona and a glammy-paranoid-drug-fiend guise appear, along with digital diva bursts and electrified synth decadence. In fact, the disc’s smash cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” sounds like the Bee Gees after spending too much time at Brooklyn’s now-passé electroclash nights.
Unsurprisingly, that scene also contributed to the Sisters’ evolution: After Shears met multi-instrumentalist Babydaddy in 1999, the pair performed under the moniker Dead Lesbian and the Fibrillating Scissor Sisters. The two eventually made the acquaintance of Matronic at a New York Halloween party — where Shears was dressed, according to legend, as a “back-alley abortion” — and the new trio made its debut just after 9/11 at the same club where Matronic hosted a cabaret show.
In an ironic twist, the Sisters had to relocate to the friendlier dance-floor clime of the UK in order to catch the ear of Gotham’s tastemakers. “The way it is now in the US for us is almost like the way it was in the UK for us, like, six, seven months ago,” Boom explains. “I was reading this book a long time ago. It was about how there’s people in society that are the seekers. They’re the explorer bees.
“Metaphorically speaking, there’s always been these explorer people,” he continues. “It started out in England the same way, and now it’s starting in the US, too. People who are a little bit ahead of the game, they’ve heard about us, and they keep up on music press and stuff like that. They’ve been hip to us for a while in the US, and they’re pollinating their own little scenes in their own towns.”
Boom acknowledges that the group’s music and image leave some thinking that the Sisters are “more flash than substance.” But a quick glance at his background quells such rumors: He went from air-drumming along with J. Geils and worshiping U2 to studying traditional African music in Guinea and Senegal and carrying on a “mad love affair with hardcore drumming music” in Brazil. His love of drumming, combined with the experience of his fellow Sisters, ensures that the group has the talent to transcend the scarlet letter of sexuality.
“Because of who we are and because of what the music is, it’s almost like the formula is set to work,” Boom says. “More than anything, it’s sort of inherent in the music that it’ll be at least decent, if not good. And when the crowds are really electric, then it just boils into — it transforms into something more along the lines of ecstatic.”