Queens of England

Why the British love the Scissor Sisters more than we do

"It's funny—it's the one black hole in our campaign," says Babydaddy over dinner on the final night of the Wembley residency. "We have a maximum amount of enthusiasm from the label, and I think they don't know what to do with a band like us. I think they're really in a tough spot right now, 'cause at least on the first album they could say it's just a U.K. phenomenon, and now, it's working in just about every other country—including Canada, which is almost always tied to the U.S. market."

The "Can they break America?" question won't go away. They might be too dance-y to get radio play, or maybe they're too campy. But these are just code words for "too gay." Homophobia is the last refuge of accepted blatant prejudice in a country that has laws banning gay marriages. It probably didn't help that the Scissor Sisters' initial volley, "Comfortably Numb," takes a deified classic-rock band and turns them into a flamboyant punchline.

So can a band named after a lesbian sex act crack the mainstream here? The Observer's McLean doesn't think so: "If 'Take Your Mama' can't be a hit in the States, maybe they'll never be successful."

Scissor Sisters
photo: Tricia Romano
Scissor Sisters


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  • Even the band dodges the issue. As showtime looms, Babydaddy digs into his pasta and mulls the challenge over. "When music is good and credible in the U.S.," he says, "you're supposed to strip everything else away and let the music speak for itself. That's kind of what Nirvana was, and in my mind, Nirvana was the ultimate credible band of a generation. There was no sparkly exterior—there was just guys playing music, and most everything else out there still goes by that model."

    Shears suggests that maybe they'd be bigger here if they were tormented: "I think our whole sexual side is optimistic and free, and I think that American audiences are so used to, and expect, dark sex, which mainly involves women." If the Scissor Sisters were closeted, "I don't think we would exist," he says. "I think we would be a completely different band."

    "Maybe it's too much," says McLean. "Too many ideas, too many genres fighting for attention. And they look funny."

    As big as they are throughout the world, the Scissor Sisters are most famous in England, where "Comfortably Numb" first broke. Over there, everything that turns Americans off is an asset. "Dance music is a mainstream part of our culture," says McLean. "We're less hung up on genres. Your radio is stratified." Their ultra-gay, ultra-underground, ultra-fab image makes them seem "exotic," McLean continues. "They come from a hardcore New York subculture. It was almost like they were beamed in from another planet."

    That percolating, infectious techno Pink Floyd remake launched an improbable career, one that has long outlasted its novelty thanks to the skillful songwriting of Babydaddy and Shears. The Sisters' self-titled 2004 debut record was the bestselling album in the U.K. that year, earning them three Brit Awards (analogous to the Grammys) and four Top 20 singles. Of course, this makes it all the more absurd to hear an American rock critic friend express a sentiment held by many back home: "Come on, can't we move on already?"

    "It's just strange seeing that level of interest in both places," Babydaddy says. "It's almost like it's this weird chain reaction, and we happen to go in one direction here, and went in the other direction in the U.S."

    It's as if we're in a parallel universe. Here—back on the Sisters' home planet—the band's debut sold a respectable 300,000 copies, on par with critical darlings like Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, and the Arctic Monkeys; compare that to 2.7 million copies sold in the U.K. That trend has continued with Ta-Dah—in the U.S. it charted at 19 and quickly disappeared. In the U.K., it entered at 1, while "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," co-written with Elton John, topped the singles chart for four straight weeks.

    This disparity extends to the road. While their U.S. operation is more modest—a much smaller staff and 3,000-seat spaces—the U.K. arena tour lasted three weeks and covered 13 venues, including halls that seated in the tens of thousands. At Wembley, they have all the trappings of a big-time band. They stayed at the Landmark, a five-star hotel. They have a bodyguard, on reserve mostly for Shears' public outings when crowds become too thick to manage. They have five big buses, a full staff of sound and lighting technicians, a four-person catering crew, a masseuse to tend to Paddy's and Ana's recurring injuries, a staff photographer, a wardrobe designer, and Trinity gal Aimee Phillips, who oversees special projects. And of course, there's their ever present DJ Sammy Jo, who tours with them everywhere. They don't just have an entourage. They have People.

    Their celebrity is evident in the press treatment they get: In England, they're gossiped about, constantly making the news, whether it's the full band appearing on the popular soap Passions or Shears spouting off about Sir Paul McCartney's ex-wife. Then there's the easy access to celebrities. They are friends with Kylie Minogue, and for most of the Wembley weekend, Shears skipped out on the hotel to stay at "Elton's place" because the superstar and his husband were out of town.

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