by Mike Barthel
Around the time the last Scissor Sisters album, Ta-Dah, came out, I was in Maryland for a funeral. Some funerals feel sad like like a drizzle increasing to a steady rain, and some funerals feel sad like a punch in the face; this was the latter kind. A friend’s younger sister had died from a drug overdose near the end of her freshman year at college, and here we all were, in Maryland, to mourn her. The funeral had been full of absurdly fresh-faced teenagers in inappropriate sundresses and ill-fitting lacrosse-team-dinner suits, people wearing their expressions too lightly for the occasion, like they didn’t really know that death is done and final, standing around talking about how they were going to divide up the dead girl’s things-these people being, of course, the same ones, her friends, who hadn’t thought to call an ambulance when the girl passed out, just let her sleep until she didn’t wake up.
As me and the two people I’d driven down with, all of us old college friends, were making our way from the funeral home to the house for the reception, speechless at the whole incomprehensible awfulness of it all, we put on Ta-Dah to cheer us up. It had, after all, been described, not inaccurately, as sounding a lot like Emmett Otter’s jug band, and what’s more cheerful than that? But something about the brutal mood in the car made us pay more attention to the lyrics for “Intermission,” a seemingly light orchestral track done up with flutes and strings.
That is when you see the sign
Luminous and high:
Tomorrow’s not what it used to be
We were born to die
Happy yesterday to all
We were born to die
And good lord, it just killed us. Setting bleak lyrics against cheerful music is a too–easy trick for pop music to pull when it’s trying to seem artistic, of course, and it usually comes off like the Serious Artist wanted to write happy music without being thought shallow. But the dark turn of “Intermission” was such a genuine surprise (the phrases “Jake Shears” and “assless chaps” being very nearly synonymous, after all) that it was the perfect song for the moment. Maybe one of the most lingering questions of the human condition is how an awareness of horror and a feeling of happiness can peacefully coexist, and even if the lyrics didn’t give us much help, as a piece of music, “Intermission” felt like it had something useful to say. We are born to die, but hey, flutes are pretty!
That’s the thing about Scissor Sisters albums now: they’re about something very specific (Ta-Dah was written in response to the awful times their good friends went through even as the band was becoming successful and traveling the world) but feel like they can be applied more broadly. Which is sort of a problem for me and their new one, called Night Work. Because it’s about… well, let’s just let Jake Shears describe it:
I was at a sex party in Mannheim, I was on the dancefloor. It was six o’clock in the morning. I was wearing a little rubber wrestling singlet. I was having a great time. There was a cloud in the room, this cloud of man sweat, cigarettes, spilled booze, shit because people were getting fisted, and poppers. And piss! It was disgusting… The most vile place I’ve ever been. And I was dancing, and the DJs put on â€˜Walk The Night’ by the Skatt Brothers. It’s one of my favourites. It was one of those revelatory moments for me when I realised what I wanted the album to sound like and how I wanted it to make me feel.
As a pop listener, this is fantastic! Who wouldn’t want their music to sound like that, right? (Answer: lameazoids!) But as a person trying to connect with a work of art, it makes it maybe more problematic, maybe. I mean, it’s not like you can play in bands in New York for half a decade and not come in contact with a scene or two sorta like this (especially if you played Siberia at any point), but I am, nevertheless, a grad student engaged to someone I’ve dated faithfully for ten years.
So what’s my way in to an album about polyamorous nightclub-based sexual deviancy?
Shears wasn’t mischaracterizing his plans: the album is very much about the darkly sleazy experience of a good night out. It’s most explicitly expressed in the penultimate track, “Night Life,” which is kind of like the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” for club kids. While most songs about going out tend to be dismissive of the experience (think Blur’s “Popscene”), Shears paints clubbing as a space of liberation: “Beneath the surface, some say it’s worthless,” he sings, but “you can find your life in the nightlife.”
But what life, and what night life? I read “life” as “being creative and/or intellectual,” and “night life” as “hanging around with smart, cynical, and funny people who like to drink and eat and dance.” It’s the kind of thing you take for granted when you’re in New York, maybe, but once you spend a lot of time off the hipster highway, you start to realize how unusual it is to find a group of people like that. (Because they’ve all moved to New York, duh.) And you start to realize how hard it is to maintain the conviction that culture is important, and that intellectual/creative ambition is important. Lord knows that cool people have their problems, but having an environment where peculiarity and caring too much is accepted and even valued makes a huge difference to an endeavor like writing that can take years to develop properly. It’s easy to see these oddball qualities as problems when you’re the only one who feels that way, but having a good night life, a good place to feel at home in the dark, lets you, as Shears puts it, “crawl up all your hangups to the underground.”
But here’s the problem: the album’s not about that, at least on the surface. It’s about fucking! That’s pretty clear: fisting and poppers and piss, etc. “Harder You Get,” for instance, is essentially a power top anthem, and that’s not exactly uncharacteristic of the album’s general theme. So am I appropriating someone else’s culture by reading rubber wrestling singlets into my simple desire to make Holocaust jokes in mixed company? I tend to feel that the very fact that I’m concerned about it means that I’m being reasonably respectful, and certainly while Shears’ particular version of night life seems fun, I am happy to leave him to it. But of course I would!
Nevertheless, I think I can make a good case for why the manifest meaning of the album is treated in a way that deserves to cross over to more vanilla climes, and that case revolves around a comparison with another work celebrating sexual licentiousness: John Cameron Mitchell’s movie Shortbus. Though it was based on a real thing which was maybe different for those who were there at the time, for people like me just watching the movie, Shortbus seemed to be about a very 90s sex-positive sex club where people of all races and sexual orientations could come together to explore their desires in a safe and nurturing blah blah blah etc. One character experiences her first orgasm in the course of the film!
It was that kind of movie, and it was just awful. It made sex look boring, like therapy, clean and respectful and in the same sort of category as working in a co-op or rescuing shelter animals. The female orgasm was like an abandoned puppy: it just needed love and attention and it would finally feel safe enough to emerge into the sun-dappled light.
In contrast, Night Work has essentially the same message of “hooray fucking!” but without giving up the transgressive pleasures that animate sex and art-the pleasures that make pleasure special. Instead of portraying sex and art as socially redeeming activities that should be done publicly as a way of finding your true self, the Scissor Sisters endorse the idea of closed spaces as stages, as enclosed domains of play where you can perform a more pleasing role than you’re allowed to in everyday life. The self you display in the club is a different one than you display at brunch, and there’s no contradiction there. By placing this affirmation of freedom within the artificial context of dance music, it sends the message that there’s no reason for glamour to negate meaning. Glamour or night life here becomes like agar, a disgusting reagent that helps something new grow, or that helps existing things coalesce. But Shears makes clear that this magic can’t just happen in any club: “If there’s no spirit,” he advises us, “then don’t go near it.” Merely being disgusting is not enough. There must also be a certain energy.
My favorite song from Night Work is probably “Skin Tight,” musically a great example of the kind of ecstatic synth hymns the Scissor Sisters have written for Kylie Minogue in recent years.
But thematically, the song it reminds me of is Jonathan Richman’s “Closer,” which is about how he snuggles up to his wife in bed so enthusiastically that she runs out of room. Shears’ depiction is dirtier, of course-”nothing will slide in between you and me”-but with sentiments like “wrap me in your love,” it’s essentially the same idea. The rubber and latex of fetish gear are dirty, sure, but also intimate, a way of bringing two people physically and emotionally closer, and it’s a wonderfully tender ballad for an album that is mostly about wangs.
Night Work is a great album for the way it decouples passion from any sort of objective judgment about whether the object of that passion deserves it. Your fetish is your fetish, your camp is your camp, and so your choice is how to pursue it, not what it’s attached to. Because at the end of the day, when it comes to art and love and sex, it’s the passion that matters, not the justification; the energy itself is what gives the impulse power, especially in the face of irrational wrongs: fight fire with fire. The desire can be dirty or silly or inconsequential, as long as it’s strong.
Pop’s incessant paeans to passion wrap a superficial art in a cloak of Important Themes, but most pop songs are actually about fucking, which is why we love them, and most desire is dirty and selfish and depraved. It’s not clean and neat and classy, like the mastering on a hit single; it’s sleazy and tacky and nonsensical, like the lyrics of a hit single. But that lowness does not prevent passion-for culture, for art, for entertainment, for human contact, for orgasms-from being fundamentally good, and maybe even better when it comes from a dirty place. In a culture that thrives on self-righteousness and protestations of purity, such moral vulnerability is rare, and all the more valuable for its rarity.
And it’s the same energy that found us in the car in Maryland in 2006. When everything real around you is awful, there’s always the fake and the artificial, which is to say art. In the harsh light of day, we’re face to face with the banality of teenage evil, trying to reconcile our need to continue to trust human beings on a day-to-day basis with the apparent fact that, just as we suspected, college freshmen are such irredeemable creatures that they can be casually responsible for another person’s death. There’s nothing good you can say about that which is also true. So you have to make something up. It doesn’t have to be a lie, necessarily; “Intermission” isn’t a lie, it just sets the truth to music that softens the blow.
“Night Life” isn’t a lie either, even though it doesn’t talk about all the possible problems that can result from getting fisted by strangers in a nightclub while snorting poppers. Like all art, it just lets you see things from a particular perspective, effective because of its focus and convincing because of its passion. It inflects the world in such a way that it becomes tolerable, even enjoyable. And if you can make the world enjoyable just by singing a song about it-well, then it can’t be all bad.
Mike Barthel has written about pop music for a bunch of places, mostly Idolator and Flagpole, and is currently doing so for the Portland Mercury and Color magazine. He continues to have a Tumblr and be a grad student in Seattle.
Photo by craigyboi, from Flickr.