Gimme That Old Time Androgyny

The New York Dolls and Scissor Sisters still find veins of rich material in the old velvet goldmine

Attitudes are ironic but not desiccated. "She's My Man," "Kiss You Off," and the piquantly served "Ooh" purvey the insoucience their titles promise. "Lights" has the sound of Gamble and Huff, David Bowie's shade hovers over "The Other Side," and the Beatles, as in the '70s, provide phantom presence: "Land of a Thousand Words" is a gravely melodic ballad with fab harmony, while the most thickly disco-fied song is named, for no obvious reason, after "Paul McCartney." Now and again an ominous shadow of synth or strings will loom, but the funny, testy falsetto of Jake Shears always arrives in time to undermine seriousness. Ta Dah does not strain for its grooves or stoop to nostalgia: Each atmosphere slides on as creamily as a velvet glove in a wet dream.

What's interesting about the Dolls and the Sisters in tandem is that they revive glam style in both its street-level, working-class guise and its U.K.-sponsored art-school stripe. Their commonality, aside from sass and soul, is the faith that musical pleasure and image play can cross lines of sexual orientation and cultural generation. It's a twist on the feel-good piety that one may empathize with another's humanity by "feeling their pain": Dolls and Sisters are predicated on the far less dubious, far more liberating assumption that we are capable of feeling each other's pleasure.

Viva la glam: Scissor Sisters strike a pose
Joseph Cultice
Viva la glam: Scissor Sisters strike a pose

The American ethos today is one of arrogance and self-interest, and clearly something's got to give. Our salvation lies in synthesis—of cultures, viewpoints, styles—and mainstream pop is uniquely suited to both achieving synthesis and purveying it as a commercial product. If that's true, and if pop has power, then feeling another's pleasure seems like a meaningful act. And in a great pop tradition, the New York Dolls and Scissor Sisters—bands boisterous and loving enough to turn each open-eared listener into a spiritual queer, an honorary drag queen—make meaning fun.

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