Named after the act of two lesbians sitting with legs interlocked, rubbing their genitals together, New York's Scissor Sisters are exactly what the post-election "red states" fear most about the bicoastal "blue states." After all, as keyboardist/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 exploitative of the media-made, post-Queer Eye for the Straight Guy hype, Hoffman explains via cell phone from Manhattan's 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."
Scissor Sisters are a five-piece band with a come-on, come-out policy. Their primped, pumpin' beats are cloaked in melodies that could appeal to middle America as easily as Elton John, the Bee Gees, and Duran Duran. The Sisters, however, insert a subversive subtext -- not in an effort to trick people but to leave a little something open to interpretation. Nowhere is this ambiguity crystallized more perfectly than in the hedonistic New York tribute video for the Scissor Sisters' latest single, "Filthy/Gorgeous."
The clip -- directed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch's John Cameron Mitchell and set in a "utopian whorehouse" -- can be viewed on British websites such as www.nme.com, and the group may issue it on a live show/documentary DVD next year. Glam yet gritty, it depicts a euphoric, depraved downtown New York few have firsthand knowledge of but many can imagine. The equivalent of the Scissor Sisters' musical orgy, the video offers a peek under the covers one could easily ignore in favor of the group's gleaming pop precision.
Since commercial television isn't quite ready to televise the Sisters' freak show, however, interested parties should check out the group's posturing romps live and in the flesh. Despite their stage show's ab-fab veneer, the Sisters' shtick first began as something much more overt and dissident. Originally, producer Hoffman and lead singer/lyricist Jake Shears (a falsettoed former go-go dancer christened Jason Sellards) played New York's cabaret and electroclash circuits as Dead Lesbian and the Fibrillating Scissor Sisters. At the time, Shears was experimenting with edgy performance art personas like Jason the Amazing Back-Alley Late-Term Abortion.
Fortunately, leaking stage blood and puking mouthwash while wearing a garbage bag gave way to a more accessible approach. Singer Ana "Ana Matronic" Lynch soon joined the duo, and with a truncated name, the group laid down a couple of demos of less overtly salacious material. The Sisters expanded to include guitarist Derek "Del Marquid" Gruen and drummer Patrick "Paddy Boom" Seacor. Musically, they drew from a colorful palette of prime-time prima donnas: from David Bowie to Sylvester, from George Michael to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, from Bryan Ferry to Cher.
The small New York imprint A Touch of Class decided to work with Hoffman and Shears based on some of the duo's early instrumental demo tracks. Their resulting debut 12-inch single, released in 2002, featured the defiantly queer Hoffman/Shears composition "Electrobix" paired with a Barry Gibb-toned disco reworking of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."
Almost immediately, the British press and public leapt on to "Comfortably Numb," propelling the Scissor Sisters from unknowns to ring tones. Part electro, part "Eye of the Tiger" outtake, part Bee Gees, "Comfortably Numb" quickly became a de rigueur DJ track, prompting the release of more singles and a tour to take place in the U.K. before the release of their self-titled album. By 2003, the band's cachet was soaring as the high priests of pop caught on; Hoffman and Shears recently co-wrote überdiva Kylie Minogue's single "I Believe in You."
But unlike the gossamer Stevie Nicks imagery on the cover of their debut LP, all is not a fairy tale in the Scissor Sisters' world. The group's native country has not succumbed as quickly as Britain, where Scissor Sisters currently sits in the top ten national album charts. Here in the U.S., their explicit visualizations are sometimes considered a liability.
"We presented ourselves from the beginning not as artsy and groundbreaking but as pop songwriters in a long tradition," Hoffman says. "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 the new Village People, or so we've heard. In the U.K., where 'Comfortably Numb' 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. 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 the Scissor Sisters. Are they spectacularly sincere or just tongue-in-cheek? The band does address legitimate topics such as the effect of crystal meth on the gay club community ("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"). The dance floor drama is set to catchy, updated beats that expertly marry swagger and kitsch, analogous in musical philosophy to Jheri curl funk duo Chromeo and French radio-filtering quartet Phoenix.
Sure, they may be spotlight whores, but flamboyance, with its accompanying tinge of deviance, has long been an accepted rock convention. The band provides a mirror that questions whether people are honestly living out their own inner desires or replacing them with outdated, oversimplified standards.
"The best way to make change is from the inside, and we got our album into Wal-Mart unedited," Hoffman declares 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."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.