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Shear Joy

The Scissor Sisters bring debauched disco and gay chic to the mainstream.

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Dance floor cut-ups: The Scissor Sisters sound like - an electroclash Bee Gees.
  • Dance floor cut-ups: The Scissor Sisters sound like an electroclash Bee Gees.

Judging from last month's elections, not many in America are ready to make Will and Grace as welcome in their neighborhoods as Ozzie and Harriet. The passage of legislation to tighten the definition of marriage suggests that being out of the closet in America may be acceptable only as long as said homosexuals are abstractly gay. Being cuddly caricatures removed from the threat of raw sexuality is even better: Think Carson the wisecracking fashion policeman on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or Ellen DeGeneres, the funny lesbian on her Rosie O' Donnell-for-soft-butches talk show.

Yet because of their openness, N.Y.C.'s Scissor Sisters, a troupe of performance artists and musicians who don't hide their flamboyant sexuality or celebration of campy gay culture, are fighting only some annoying misconceptions.

"Having gay members tends to throw people for a loop," says drummer Paddy Boom(pictured, left), the lone straight male in the band, by phone from his New York apartment. "They tend to think -- my mother included, I had to explain to her -- it's not a gay band. It's like, 'Mom, there's gay members, but it doesn't matter.'

"It's about the music and about performance. The performance that the band gives is just about putting on a show. Nobody gives a shit whether you go home with a guy or go home with a girl. The sexuality of the band really has nothing to do with what the band is. People want to take shots, 'a gay band' or whatever, it's like, 'Well, you're really missing the point.' Being gay has about as much relevance to the band as being straight does."

Still, the group's outrageous costumes and posturing obviously take their cues from the drag shows and go-go dances at which a few of its members -- co-vocalists Ana Matronic and Jake Shears, respectively -- once worked. So why have the Sisters met with such little resistance from the mainstream?

Perhaps it's because they just happen to sound like another gay icon whose kissing preference is conveniently desexualized: Elton John. In fact, in the U.K., which is notorious for adoring affectation, the group is popular enough to have opened for John in June. While VH1 and mainstream radio stations are embracing the quintet's "Take Your Mama" -- a bar-band blues number driven by Shears' crocodile-rockin' falsetto -- in America, this resemblance hasn't quite yet resulted in the level of ubiquity John possesses Stateside. But the band's buzz is certainly building.

"It's so crazy," Boom says of their burgeoning U.S. success. "I mean, that's the ironic part, too, being who we are and what we are, [that] it would be catching on with these kinds of people. But now that it's actually sort of happening, it's a weird sort of contrast. It's like the people that are embracing us right off the bat [in America] are generally not your average rock-and-roll market.

"It's so funny, 'cause in England it's the exact opposite. We're like current mainstream, the here-and-now hip thing. Press and radio there will play anything, it doesn't matter what genre it is. Versus here, it's gotta fit into this little box. We're not even sure what box we fit into over here."

This also might explain the Sisters' runaway U.K. success, as their self-titled debut perpetuates the same genre-stitching seen on the Eurocharts. Besides eerily accurate approximations of John's piano-busking, David Bowie's alienated-in-space Major Tom persona and glammy-paranoid-drug-fiend guise appear alongside digital diva bursts and electrified synth decadence. In fact, the disc's smash cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" sounds like the Bee Gees after a few too many nights at Williamsburg's now-passé electroclash nights.

Unsurprisingly, such nights did contribute to the Sisters' evolution. After Shears met multi-instrumentalist Babydaddy in 1999, the pair played these clubs under the moniker Dead Lesbian and the Fibrillating Scissor Sisters. The vocalists eventually made the acquaintance of Matronic at an N.Y.C. Halloween party -- where Shears was dressed, according to legend, as a "back-alley abortion" -- and the new trio made its debut just after 9-11 at the same club where Matronic hosted a cabaret show.

Paradoxically, to catch the ear of N.Y.C. tastemakers, the Sisters had to relocate to the friendlier dancefloor clime of the U.K. first.

"The way it is now in the U.S. for us is almost like the way it was in the U.K. for us, like, six, seven months ago," Boom explains. "I was reading this book a long time ago. It was about [how] there's people in society that are the seekers. They're the explorer-bees.

"Metaphorically speaking, there's always been these explorer people. It started out in England the same way, and now it's starting in the U.S., too. People who are a little bit ahead of the game, they've heard about us, and they keep up on music press and stuff like that. They've been hip to us for a while in the U.S., and they're pollinating their own little scenes in their own towns."

Boom acknowledges that the group's music and image leave some thinking that the Sisters are "more flash than substance." A quick glance at his drumming résumé quells such murmurs: He went from air-drumming to the J. Geils Band, and worshiping U2 to studying traditional African music in Guinea and Senegal and carrying on a "mad love affair with hard-core drumming music" in Brazil. His foundation in performing and entertaining, combined with the extensive experience of his fellow Sisters, ensures that the group has the talent to transcend the scarlet letter of sexuality.

"Because of who we are and because of what the music is, it's almost like the formula is set to work," Boom says. "More than anything, it's sort of inherent in the music that it'll be at least decent, if not good. And when the crowds are really electric, then it just boils into -- it transforms into something more along the lines of ecstatic."

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