By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Pundits are so cute when they're confused. Recent events have shaken the chatterers' confidence--once buoyed by the sort of charmingly naive faith one expects only from small children and Paul Wolfowitz--in their innate ability to root out core American beliefs by analyzing the consumption of mass culture. "B-b-but, how can a nation that accepts Will and Grace into their homes lash out so viciously at gay rights?" they ask.
The first explanatory hypothesis, which posits a clandestine rural supermajority that doesn't own TVs and communicates solely via carrier angels, says very little about "Americans," whomever they are when they're at home, and quite a bit about the questioners' fundamental misunderstanding of how culture operates.
Still, such trite insights inevitably seep into the pop landscape they pretend to map. It was already hard this summer to listen to Scissor Sisters (Universal), the debut album from the New York trash-pop outfit of the same name, without images of gay marriage and queer-eyed makeovers flashing on your cerebral TiVo. And with a number-one U.K. album, the mostly-gay band must have wondered if, like the White Stripes before them, they'd sail back from the Old World to take the heartland by storm. But that which rocks London out, we've learned, doesn't necessarily play in Cincinnati. Now, with the Sisters stranded in the commercial netherworld between indie club and basketball arena, I can't help but hear singer Jake Shears's bitchy coda on "Laura"--"This'll be the last time I ever do your hair"--as anything but a collective kiss-off to a patronizing straight America.
A shame, because the band didn't just visualize crossing over to the middle-aged mainstream: On songs like "Take Your Mama," a New Orleansy piano-hooked number about a kid coming out to his mom during a night on the town, they conceptualized crossover as well. Though their gimmicky Bee-Gees'd cover of "Comfortably Numb" points to an aesthetic situated between camp and kitsch, they're much more assured in Honky Chateau mode than they are in disco fizz. Scissor Sisters doesn't revel in the fakeness or artificiality of pop--it accepts it as a language it shares with not just you, but your mom, too. Sometimes there isn't even any subtext to the delight they take in pop form; the straightforward ballad "Mary" could have wafted off a '70s Billy Joel LP, electric piano break and all.
That's the sort of retro craftsmanship that's led Seattle Weekly music editor Michaelangelo Matos to quip, "I didn't like Ben Folds when he was straight, either." But Folds's problem wasn't his MOR tastes, but his jerky will to power, his insistence that every demand for attention is, by definition, deserving of attention. (In other words, he was born to produce that William Shatner disc.) The Scissor Sisters are something friendlier. Much like Garth Brooks channeling James Taylor and the Eagles, the Sisters recognize that older radio pop is the true American roots music, no matter what Old Weird America historians insist. And yet, though the band speaks the language of popular culture, they do so with a distinctly Bohemian dialect that marks them as foreigners. They want to have it both ways, to sing about "Tits on the Radio" and get drunk off cheap Champagne with your adoring mom.
Of course, artists are allowed to do this. Pop is utopian, pointing us to desired destinations to which it can't yet transport us. Critics should be a little more discerning. They won't be, though; if the latest wave of rapprochement between "the gay aesthetic" and the mainstream has indeed crested, it's due to an acceptance of crass generalizations among culture industry custodians, not to concrete evidence. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans support some sort of recognition for committed gay couples, and mobilization against "gay marriage" owes more to lurid nightmares of armed U.S. marshals marching bare-chested leather men into your church and demanding the pastor's blessing than with the mundane reality of estate planning and medical release forms. Hardly the stuff of Leviticus-fueled jihad.
Besides, the reddest-stateliest of all music--country--is currently dominated by Big & Rich, a duo who don't rhyme with kitsch for nothing, and whose garishly spectacular videos come off like a Deep South remake of Xanadu. Not for nothing did Dylan Hicks wonder in these very pages about the possible gay subtext of the act responsible for "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)." When I spoke to the Scissor Sisters in New York last summer, Jake Shears waxed ecstatic over Brooklyn it-band TV on the Radio and wrote pop country off as plastic jingoism. But if the Sisters really want to make their mark on the security moms, they should swallow their snobbery and put out a call to John Rich and Big Kenny. Your mom deserves nothing less.