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Camp Classic

More than just gay culture for dummies, Scissor Sisters practice the art of subversion

Named for the act of two lesbians sitting, legs outstretched and interlocked, to rub their pussies together, New York's Scissor Sisters may be just what the "red states" fear most about the coastal "blue states." After all, as multi-instrumentalist/ bassist/group epicenter Scott "Babydaddy" Hoffman remarks, "It would only take a little white to turn that red pink."

However, Scissor Sisters refuse to be seen as either overtly political or merely taking advantage of the media-created, post-Queer Eye for the Straight Guy/The L Word, "new cool" trend, explains Babydaddy by cell phone after he has found a rare eddy in the traffic surrounding Union Square. "Let's put it this way: You ride a wave and eventually it will crash. So we've tried in every way not to ride those waves. We're honest about who we are. We know Scissor Sisters is slang for lesbian, but it's chosen to be fun, not follow the gay trend, so hopefully we won't crash on that big, pink, gay wave."

Who are Scissor Sisters? They're a group with a come one, come out policy that makes pumpin' and primped beats cloaked in melodies that can appeal to middle America as easily as Elton John, The Bee Gees, and Duran Duran do, but with a subversive subtext. That isn't inserted to trick people, but to leave a little something open to interpretation for posterity's sake. Nowhere is this crystallized more perfectly than in the hedonistic New York tribute video for the group's latest single, "Filthy/Gorgeous."

The too funky Scissor Sisters: Paddy Boom (left), Babydaddy, Del Marquis, Jake Shears, and Ana Matronic
Courtesy of Girlie Action
The too funky Scissor Sisters: Paddy Boom (left), Babydaddy, Del Marquis, Jake Shears, and Ana Matronic

The clip -- directed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch's John Cameron Mitchell and described as set in a "utopian whorehouse" -- is unlikely to be broadcast domestically (though it can be viewed on British Websites such as www.nme.com; the group may issue it on a live show/documentary DVD next year). Glam yet gritty, the video depicts a euphoric and depraved downtown New York few may have first-hand knowledge of but many can imagine. The equivalent of Scissor Sisters' musical orgy, it's a peek under the covers one could easily ignore in favor of their sheer pop precision.

Since our country isn't quite ready to televise the Sisters' freak show, however, interested parties are recommended to check out the group's romping posturing live and in the flesh. And to think it all began as something much more overt and dissident. Originally, producer Babydaddy and lead singer/lyricist Jake Shears (a falsetto-singing former go-go dancer christened Jason Sellards) played the cabaret and electroclash circuits as Dead Lesbian and the Fibrillating Scissor Sisters; Shears experimented with performance art personas such as "Jason the Amazing Back-Alley Late-Term Abortion."

But leaking stage blood and puking mouthwash while wearing a coat hanger-lacerated black garbage bag gave way to a less lurid approach. Singer Ana "Ana Matronic" Lynch soon joined the duo, and the group truncated its name and began steering their demos toward less overtly salacious material. Then the Sisters expanded to include guitarist Derek "Del Marquis" Gruen and drummer Patrick "Paddy Boom" Seacor. Musically, they drew from David Bowie to Sylvester, from George Michael to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and from Bryan Ferry to Cher.

The small New York imprint A Touch of Class decided to work with Babydaddy and Shears based on some instrumental demo tracks the duo had created. The resulting debut twelve-inch single, released in 2002, was the defiantly queer Babydaddy/Shears composition "Electrobix" paired with a disco-reworking of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" that recalls Barry Gibb's falsetto.

Almost immediately, the British press and public leapt on to "Comfortably Numb," propelling Scissor Sisters from unknowns to familiar ring tones. Part electro, part Survivor ("Eye of the Tiger") outtake, and part Bee Gees, "Comfortably Numb" quickly became a de rigueur DJ track, prompting the release of more singles, and more tours, to take place in the U.K. before the release of their self-titled album. Now no less a pop diva than Kylie Minogue is singing songs Babydaddy and Shears co-wrote, such as her latest single, "I Believe In You."

But unlike the flowing, gossamer, Stevie Nicks imagery on the cover of Scissor Sisters' debut, all is not a fairy tale in their world. The group's native country has not succumbed as quickly as Britain, where Scissor Sisterscurrently sits in the Top 10 of the British album charts; here their vivid visualizations are sometimes considered a liability.

"Initially, we had to talk down the idea of artifice before art," admits Babydaddy when asked about coming from a scene associated with Fischerspooner, an equally provocative and artistic band that the public first embraced wholeheartedly, but because of their emphasis on thematic, self-aware presentation came to view suspiciously as an art world construct.

"We presented ourselves from the beginning not as artsy and groundbreaking, but as pop songwriters in a long tradition," continues Babydaddy. "But we still deal with [questions of] style over substance because we like to dress up and enjoy beautiful album art; we like visuals that stand out even before you've listened, but we're still a music project first and foremost.

"To some in the U.S. press we've become a sound bite," he laments. "We're öthe new Village People,' or so we've heard. In the U.K., where öComfortably Numb' [first] broke and the album came out six months before it did in the U.S., we've gotten horrible reviews and five-star reviews. In the U.S., it's three stars. People don't want to commit, go out on a limb, and say something someone bigger than them will say the opposite of. I'd rather be a one-star band than a three-star band, because we're a band people have opinions about."

It's hard not to emerge with an opinion after listening to Scissor Sisters. Are they being sincere, or are they just being tongue-in-cheek? But the band does address a series of legitimate topics such as the effect of crystal meth on the gay club scene ("Return to Oz"), New York City politicians who are increasingly tolerant of the drag scene ("Tits on the Radio"), cruising ("Lovers in the Backseat"), and coming out ("Take Your Mama"). All of it is set to a catchy, updated, but not predated beat that marries swagger and commercial kitsch and is analogous in musical philosophy, though not subject matter, to Jheri curl funk duo Chromeo and French radio-filtering quartet Phoenix.

Scissor Sisters dress up because they are spotlight whores who love hamming it up and putting their quirks on display. After all, flamboyance, with its accompanying tinge of deviance, has long been an accepted rock convention. But the band also provides a mirror that questions whether people are honestly living out their own inner desires instead of conforming to them with images and sides from which to choose.

"After all, the best way to make change is from the inside, and we got our album into Wal-Mart unedited," declares Babydaddy proudly. "The label just decided the parental advisory sticker would come off and nothing else changed ... well, 'Tits' is spelled 'T**s' on the back, but that's a small price to pay to get our ideas across to Middle America."

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