We Don’t Talk Enough About How Scissor Sisters Queered Up the UK Charts
So we’re doing that now, with Babydaddy, reliving the flamboyance and LGBT inclusivity his band shoved into the mainstream.
Photo via Wikimedia
I don't know if you remember what 2004 was like, but people were still buying albums from HMV and Woolworths, and most of those albums were pretty vanilla. Take a look at the UK's top ten bestsellers that year, for instance, and you'll mainly find dull juggernauts by the likes of Keane, Katie Melua and your boys Maroon 5. But, weirdly enough, the UK's number one album of that year was nothing of the sort. Enter Scissor Sisters' self-titled debut – a gorgeous Day-Glo mermaid bursting out of a sea of beige sludge.
As the New York crew return this month with "SWERLK" – a defiant pro-nightlife charity single released one year after the Orlando nightclub shootings – it feels like time to take a closer look at their impact. Inspired by the likes of Elton John and David Bowie, they brought bold showpersonship back into British pop, injecting the mainstream with some much-needed LGBTQ inclusivity along the way. Named after slang for a girl-on-girl sex act and with a lineup including just one straight dude, the band sold out arenas, performed on Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage and scored a hit with a song about coming out to your mum by getting her pissed on cheap booze (the still-irresistible "Take Your Mama"). Crucially, they occupied that space between what your aunt would casually hum to on Radio One and the glittery heritage of underground queer clubs, somehow managing to tie the two together. So, what happened?
"Our success was both very unbelievable and believable to us," says Scott "Babydaddy" Hoffman, one half of the band's core songwriting duo, speaking to me now. "At the beginning it was just a matter of, 'Hey, do you think we can make enough money to keep on doing this as our job?' But as it was happening, we felt something. We felt that people enjoyed coming to our shows, and we felt that we enjoyed doing it. This kind of interchange between us and the people we were performing to just made sense. And the more we did it, the more we saw this reaction happening. So by the time we were standing up in front of a Glastonbury crowd, it was just like, 'Oh cool, they kept asking for it, so we kept doing it. And that's amazing.'"
In America, where they're from, Scissor Sisters have always remained a relatively cult band, but there's no simple explanation for the huge crossover success they achieved here in the UK. Their spangly cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" benefited from a certain novelty value – how many thick globs of 70s prog get reimagined as slinky electro-disco? And songs like "Laura" and "Mary", with their classic-sounding melodies and reassuring warmth, surely appealed to retro rock fans who'd loved Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Yet, Hoffman says, UK radio only started playing Scissor Sisters when "they couldn't deny people were talking about us – we kind of had to push our way in". For a while, the band felt genuinely unstoppable over here. "Filthy/Gorgeous", a lusty electroclash banger that rhymed "acid" with "flaccid", became a top five smash. And in 2005, they headlined V Festival – arguably the UK's most shamelessly mainstream music festival – and landed a place on the Live 8 London charity concert lineup alongside Madonna, Paul McCartney and Mariah Carey.
Hoffman attributes the UK's love affair with Scissor Sisters partly to a shared "obsession with musical culture" in its widest sense. "In the beginning, Scissor Sisters was about bringing a fantasy to life," he explains. "Through our albums and live shows, we wanted to bring people into this world that we were a part of… that's how we grew up on music." Obviously it helped that the band's two lead singers could eat up a stage: Jake Shears, a former New York go-go dancer, and Ana Matronic, who'd cut her teeth on the San Francisco drag scene. Neither looked like someone you'd bump into at Sainsbury's Local, but for music fans from the UK, a nation that had produced pop eccentrics like Boy George and Dead or Alive's Pete Burns, they both fit right in.
It's an overused word, but Scissor Sisters were definitely camp: in 2005, they opened the BRIT Awards by performing "Take Your Mama" backed by giant Jim Henson puppets. At the height of their success, they caught the eye (and ear) of Kylie Minogue, and ended up co-writing one of her most blissful and iridescent singles, "I Believe in You." And it's a safe to presume their tour's wardrobe supervisor knew a thing or two about keeping latex fresh and fragrant night after night.
"We were about flamboyance, which can obviously be connected to queer sensibility," Hoffman suggests, drawing parallels with their musical heroes. "Bowie was a flamboyant character, but only at times a queer character. Before Elton was known as a gay performer, he was simply a flamboyant performer. So I do think there was an element of queer sensibility in Scissor Sisters, but maybe for us it was a reaction to the shoe-gazing, dress-down culture in bands of the time. The UK was ready to embrace that, whereas the US tends to be very cool about these things. It wasn't until Gaga came along that people started going to shows wearing lobsters on their heads. In the UK, it felt like dressing up and flamboyance was always part of the culture."
Still, even though Scissor Sisters fit snugly into this lineage of beloved queer icons, that doesn't mean they were hugely transgressive. Rather, they were the sort of band you could take your mum to sing along to at the O2 arena, but who would also be blasted out the speakers at Heaven on a Saturday night. Perhaps it was this middle-of-the-road reputation that led to their third album, 2010's Night Work, which saw them embrace their sexuality more overtly and zero in even further on queer subcultures in what felt like a statement. "Well I think I need a rubber tonight," Shears sings on "Whole New Way", a song about taking your chances in a gay club's dark room. The album's cover art was a homoerotic Robert Mapplethorpe photo of a male ballet dancer's pert ass, but the music failed to connect with the British public in quite the same way.
"I think Jake was more prepared to take risks than many people in our situation would have been," Hoffman says today. "He was in a place where he wanted to feel more sexual. I think he felt that the band had been safe for a while – we went out on arena tours and saw a lot of nans and kids in the audience; people were expecting something that almost felt like a Muppet show. So I think there was a bit of rebellion in that record. Maybe times were changing with us and people wanted something edgier. Queer culture was something that was going to be more accepted and even cool for people to immerse themselves in, and I think we saw that. But at the same time, some of our more conservative fans were saying, 'Why can't you just be the band that we always loved?'
Among queer pop fans, though, Night Work is well on its way to cult status – whenever I post about it on Twitter or Instagram, friends and followers can't wait to declare their love for the album. Indeed, Hoffman says people ask him about it nearly as often as their huge-selling debut. But it's the band's initial impact that defines their legacy. Scissor Sisters broke through at a time when mainstream pop culture was much less inclined to push the envelope: there was no RuPaul's Drag Race, no supposedly "gender fluid" photo shoots featuring A-list pop stars, no Miley Cyrus declaring her pansexuality. Scissor Sisters might not have been boundary-smashing pioneers, but they still offered a beacon of inclusivity to anyone who felt alienated by the overwhelmingly heteronormative music scene of the mid-2000s, and for that they should be saluted.
Scissor Sisters released one more album, 2012's underrated Magic Room, before announcing a hiatus that remains ongoing today. "SWERLK" is simply a one-off gesture to the "community that supported us" and was damaged by Orlando. But Hoffman says the band will reconvene one day. "We're still friends and we still hang out. When we do come back, whether it's for an album or reunion tour, we'll be doing it for the right reasons." Asked about the band's impact, he's pretty modest: "Our entire career has been one sort of fan shout-out after another! I think we are a truly postmodern band; we are a band that wouldn't exist without our influences." Fan favourite "Let's Have a Kiki", Hoffman says, was partly inspired by Paris Is Burning, the seminal documentary about New York's drag ball culture. "But," Hoffman adds, "if we actually paved the way for queer culture to bubble up in any kind of way, that's just great."