Gimme That Old Time Androgyny

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

The New York Dolls
One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This
Roadrunner

Scissor Sisters
Ta Dah
Polydor

You needn't be queer to get off on queerness, any more than you need be a vegetarian to eat a carrot. Androgyny can be a style of dress or of mind, and pop once absorbed it with such eagerness—say, 1971-73, the High Glam Era—that new audiences were created and existing ones destabilized. Glam's orgiastic impulse was to derive spectacle and tension from pansexual display, while its cultural impulse was that of ambitious concept artists and hit-seeking hustlers to hold pop to its highest promises: that it would include everyone; that through it we would experience others' fantasies; and that through theirs, we would come closer to our own.

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

Why on earth would David Johansen, middle-class boy from Staten Island, have once stepped into platform heels, wrapped himself in halter tops, and poofed out his hair? Because he was drawn to otherness and outsiderness; because some Siamese knot tied him to Little Richard, Lou Reed, Lesley Gore; because he loved both the Rolling Stones and the Shangri-Las; because streetwalker rags and eyeliner made him feel fearless and magnetic. His own boy-girl ugliness gave him pleasure; and as a go-getting, all-American boy-girl, he knew plenty would pay to feel, through him, that same pleasure.

Johansen's outfit was the New York Dolls: a whole group of ugly-beautiful boy-girls, and one of the greatest rock bands ever. On their two studio albums (1973 and '74), they took hard rock and girl-group, love and lipstick, graffiti and teen psychosis, and blowtorched them into concise and irresistible urban squalls. In Johnny Thunders they had a guitarist who earned his name, in Johansen a mouthy menace who sang as if sticking a wad of gum in your ear.

Following their Morrissey-sponsored reunion concert of 2004, the Dolls went into the studio and came out with One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, a strange, sad, very rough, and pretty album. Apart from their appearance, the Dolls' original novelty was to mate early-'60s pop imagery and influence to early-'70s decadence and noise—yet sound lovably, vitally human at it. One Day transmits that same adolescent romance and post-adolescent raunch through middle-aged wisdom and desire. So you have, on one hand, vaguely nostalgic songs like "Plenty of Music" (Spectorian chords and castanets) and "Dance Like a Monkey" (modified Bo Diddley beat) between the sheets with a beer-flavored heartbreaker like "Maimed Happiness," with its lovely subdued guitar solo vibrating hurt.

The album's levels are balanced. Almost every song is an attack, yet you're not worn down; the feel is playful, and the play has feeling. Guest vocalists Michael Stipe ("Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano") and Iggy Pop ("Give Me Luv") sound like auxiliary Dolls rather than celebrity drop-ins. Lyric snatches are comprehensible ("pagan monkey in a dress," "flesh-colored underwear," "jumpin' 'round the stage like teenage girls"), but you get the album's love, lewdness, and humor more from Johansen's voice and the band's unstudied reconstruction of classic Doll parts—as with a Sam Fuller movie whose very style exudes grime, no matter the action on the screen.

Some will say that since only Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain are left from the original band, this new version (adding guitarist Steve Conte, ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sami Yaffa, drummer Brian Delaney, and keyboardist Brian Koonin) are the Dolls in name only. Some who witnessed the band's legendary early shows at the Mercer Arts Center in downtown Manhattan in 1972 will say the soul of the group was Thunders, now dead from drugs; others that it was Arthur "Killer" Kane, towering bassist and leukemia victim. But any fool can tell you that the Dolls' soul resides in Johansen, their indomitable and visionary front man. And that the Dolls, therefore, are alive and well in '06.

 

Scissor Sisters are, in a sense, New York Dolls 2.0: Though their primary success has been in England—where they are huge—they came together in Gotham. And they are most definitely dolls. Named after a lesbian sex act, they pursue the outrageous within musical terms once defined by Elton John and the Bee Gees, then abandoned in fashion's passing. They seek to return provocative pansexuality to the top of the pops; they want to flame brightly and bag hits. In an America veering between assimilating queerness and gagging on it, could there be an edgier pop ambition?

Ta Dah is lighter in tone yet weightier in feel than the Sisters' 2004 debut; it incarnates the Spirit of '76 with all the flesh and presence of now. A 15-second acoustic doodle (air-kiss to the Bellamy Brothers?) overtures the disco bump of the lead single, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'"—a collaboration, no surprise, with Sir Elton himself. The album that follows is so witty and thorough a reanimation of late-'70s mirror-ball dance-hall pop—comping piano, thumping bass, sex in the bathrooms—that it's hard to believe Arif Mardin isn't at the control board and the mics aren't dusted with cocaine.

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.

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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