The formula for a successful record in 2004 is as follows: imitate a series of unfashionable yet perennially popular artists from British pop/rock history, preferably of a laughably dated subgenre; cultivate an over-the-top, almost cartoonish visual image; tour as the opening act for an aging ‘80s act of dubious artistic merit; then immediately hit #1 in the UK. American indie kids will gleefully embrace the record due to its irony, as will legitimate fans of the music being resurrected.
The fact that Scissor Sisters’ debut recently topped the charts in England is not surprising in the least—it appropriates the sounds of the endless string of homoerotic male pop icons who have been so enormously beloved by the British public for decades: Elton John, Freddie Mercury, George Michael, Robbie Williams. (Scissor Sisters’ central figure, Jake Shears, who comes off as a wide-eyed, boy-crazed JC Chasez with a theatrical edge and a devilish smile, will undoubtedly be a fixture on that list in 10 years.) The record’s artistic success, however, is surprising, because Scissor Sisters make it seem so easy to concoct approachable, polished gay pop music showcasing a strictly mainstream palatability: just take Pink Floyd’s mellow stadium-rock anthem “Comfortably Numb” and perform it with all the trappings of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”, complete with falsetto harmonies and a thumping beat not heard outside of house clubs in a decade. Better yet, rework the skittering ‘60s soul rhythm of George Michael’s “Freedom 90” into a rocking Elton John-style party number about dragging your mother out to trashy clubs in order to come out to her and give her a taste of the lifestyle. If all else fails, throw in a couple of late ‘70s style macho soft rock ballads, the kind to which a young man dancing at his prom with the pretty girl next door might have secretly sized up the forbidden contours of the strangely appealing members of the football team.
Though the descriptions of these songs may hint at novelty, the album is fully committed to its breadth of ideas, allowing the songs to transcend their quirky individuality and ear candy sheen. The incessant and inescapably huge pop hooks act as a common denominator for the songs, allowing the record to move effortlessly between jaunty Wonder-esque funk disco workouts (“Laura”), swoon-worthy power ballads (“It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”) and upbeat piano rock (“Music Is the Victim”), without losing an overall character. “Tits on the Radio” even allows the otherwise ornamental performance artist Ana Matronic to take center stage for a bit of cheeky smut intended to take advantage of the non-visual nature of music broadcasting, but like Nico with the Velvet Underground, she adds some varying texture yet never penetrates the core of the band’s sound; Shears’ soulful background vox remain the song’s most memorable feature.
Scissor Sisters consistently delivers slightly naughty, sexy pop thrills with only a little dependency on high camp or the variety of drag queen feyness that afflicts most other gay acts who attempt wider appeal (the album’s weakest track, the shrill dance song “Filthy/Gorgeous”, proves to be the main exception). The band’s unabashed celebration of themselves allows the fun spirit of the music to prevail over any sense of politics or cultural adversity, and as such the record may represent the first truly “out” act in pop/rock history. Unlike his lyricist forefathers in the likeminded Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Pet Shop Boys, for example, Shears simply refuses to play the pronoun game, and his presentation of his lovers’ gender is never meant to be an issue. And, of course, the gestures made by Scissor Sisters’ stylistic ancestors were always coy intimations, not direct revelations.
Fortunately, the few lumbering homophobes left in the audience today can revel in how the sound of Scissor Sisters, with its revisitation of late ‘70s disco-influenced soft rock, is so dated and bad that it’s actually funny, and therefore acceptable to like. As with the phenomenon behind the Darkness earlier this year (and indicative of rock’s current reluctance to move forward), such ironic support will still catapult Scissor Sisters into high celebrity and success.