Queens of England
There are 3,700 Scissor Sisters fans, and they are all screaming. The New York City quintet are playing the Manhattan Center's Grand Ballroom on this late October night as part of the first round of U.S. dates to support Ta-Dah, their sophomore record. The front row, populated by hip, young gay men and their straight girlfriends, explodes when the house lights go down, and everyone howls at the top of their lungs when the Sisters finally arrive and break into "Take Your Mama." A perfect introduction to the bandwith an incessant hook and an upbeat sound reminiscent of 1970s pop, yet instantly fresh and newthe song may as well not have existed in the United States, never making a dent in the U.S. market despite peaking in the U.K. Top 20.
These hometown fans are typical of an American Scissor Sisters crowdfringy, urban, hip twentysomethings who love dance music, a nearly absent genre on American radio. The Ballroom masses sing along to every catchy lyric and melody, climactically exploding with glee during the band's hyperactive disco remake of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."
"Comfortably Numb" was the Sisters' first major U.K. hit. They have six or so.
Four weeks later and 3,000 miles away, there are 11,000-plus Scissor Sisters fans gathered at London's famed Wembley Arena, and they are all screaming. It's the first show in a three-day Thanksgiving weekend stand, and instead of East Village hipsters with spiky hair and jaunty scarves, these U.K. fans range from fairly chaste pre-teen girls who idolize Ana Matronic (Ana Lynch, the Sisters' glittery pop princess and sole female member) to middle-aged-mom types happily cheering on a guy named Babydaddy (Scott Hoffman, multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter) to thuggish guys who look like they'd be just as comfortable at a football match as they are watching Jake Shears (Jason Sellards, the band's flamboyant frontman and Babydaddy's songwriting partner) cavort around in shiny little boy shorts. This assorted mix of devotees all push toward the stage, wearing their requisite feather boas and bright pink bunny ears while clutching their inflated Scissor Sisters logosa pair of scissors suspiciously resembling splayed legs clad in high heels.
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Four hours before the show starts, I meet 50-year-old Mary Butler and 28-year-old Chris Bettin, who both took the day off work to come to their first Scissor Sisters concert. She works in shipping, and he's a warehouse manager. In America, they'd look more appropriate at a Bruce Springsteen gig. Mary explains why she loves the Sisters: "Their music just makes us smile all the time." Chris adds, "If we're really down, we listen to their music and start bouncing around."
Perhaps it's this sort of cheeriness that spurred Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher to deride the Sisters as "music for squares, man," as he did that weekend in Spina quote immediately pounced upon by the British press. Even the group's friend Beth Ditto, frontwoman for Northwestern indie-rock band the Gossip, complained more recently in Mixmag that touring with the Sisters was "a soul-sucking experience" thanks to crowds of "soccer moms wanting chart hits." "It wasn't gigs," she opined. "It was 'concerts,' you know, like when you're nine and New Kids on the Block come to town and you camp outside the mall all day to get your ticket."
It's a conundrum that any big band deals withthe bigger you get, the more watered-down your audience becomes. "The problem with playing places this size is you've really got people that aren't necessarily the most loyal fans," Shears says later over tea. "Just people that have heard a couple of your singles on the radio, and they want a night out, and they want to surprise their wife with tickets. You're still having to sell the show."
He didn't have to sell it to twentysomething front-row diehards like Celina Fowler, Nikki Cowles, and their gay boyfriend Max Sycamore, all already tipsy at 6 p.m., all wearing bright pink shirts, red and pink feather boas, and cowboy hats they bought right before the show. They like Ana ("Girl power!" Celina shouts), but Jake is their favorite. "He's sexy, he's gay, but he's got something for everyone," Celina says. "I absolutely love him," Nikki adds. "I'd eat him alive."
Max, silent for most of the conversation, suddenly blurts out a request should I see Shears backstage: "Ask him, 'Will you marry me?' "
Everyone in the arena loves Jake Shears, and no one cares a whit that he's gay. "We relate to campwe've never had a problem with it," says longtime U.K. music journalist Craig McLean, who writes for the Observer. "There's a long tradition of bands being out and proud."
"I think that's sort of a testament to the British public," Ana Matronic says. "They don't give a shit who you are as long as you make good music."
Every American article written about the Scissor Sistersthe band also includes drummer Paddy Boom (Patrick Seacor) and guitarist Del Marquis (Derek Gruen)mentions three things: Three of the five Sisters (Shears, Babydaddy, and Marquis) are openly gay, the music sounds like a cross between Elton John and the Bee Gees, and they are "famous in Europe"that universal backhanded compliment. But the Scissor Sisters are not just famous in Europe. Their first single from Ta-Dah, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," hit the Top 10 in eight different countries, and they are touring Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Essentially, they are famous everywhere but here.
"It's funnyit'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 countryincluding 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."
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 exteriorthere 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. Hereback on the Sisters' home planetthe 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-Dahin 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 modesta much smaller staff and 3,000-seat spacesthe 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.
It is a fame they simultaneously never imagined and always wanted. "When we started this band, our sights were not necessary on Wembley," says Shears over tea at the Landmark. "It was like, 'Can we get a Saturday night show at Luxx? Then the next month, 'Oh, my God, we got Berliniamsburg? Do you think they'll book us at Spa? Oh, my God! We're playing Amanda Lepore's birthday party at Spa!'"
"I used to dream about being in situations like this," says Marquis, strumming a guitar in one of the bland rooms backstage that serves as a practice area. "And so now they exist, not necessarily how I planned them, but sometimes even more fantastic than I could have dreamed."
This double life would almost seem cruel, except the band doesn't seem to mind a bit.
"Great. Great. Love it," says Matronic, who'd originally hoped for an underground career modeled after Bongwater's Ann Magnuson. She's putting on her makeup for the show while the hairstylist preps her Hollywood-quality wig, made of real hair, with fine lace for the hairline. "It's like being a superhero. You put on your cape, fly over to London, and save the day. Then you put your glasses and your three-piece suit back on, and you're Clark Kent back in New York. No one, none of us, got into this for fame, or celebrity, or riches. It was always about music and playing to as many people as wanted to hear it."
"I never want to be a celebrity," Shears says. "I want to be an artist. Celebrity-ness is like herpes, and once you have it, it never goes away."
This way, they have it both waysthey can be stars, then come home and go to parties at local clubs like Mr. Black and not be bothered. "It's almost as if I went to sleep and then I woke up, and I'm in New York, and everything that happened over here I can put to rest if I need to," Marquis says. "I couldn't have this existence follow me around in my home, so I actually really like the dichotomy."
Fame and occasional fortunemost notably the bling glistening off Shears and Babydaddy's wrists, gifts from Elton John himselfaside, being a rock star seems almost tedious. As the tour bus drives toward Wembley, Paddy Boom talks about how strange it is playing arenas: "There's almost like a vacuum that's been created, because it's like, 'Whoa, here it is, I've got it, I'm in a superstar rock band.' But the backstages feel like prison. It's a weird contrast. 'We're going down, here come the gates! Check, check, security!' "
He was half-joking, but you could tell he also meant it. Sure enough, as we pull into the arena the gates clank down behind us as the bus descends into a bottomless pit of cement and monster trucks. "Look," says Paddy as we get off the bus, walking like his hands are tied together and wobbling as if his feet are in shackles. "We're in prison."
"You know, I was just happy when we got a record deal," he continues. "I'm surprised that it's still getting bigger. I almost thought it could have been a swan song with Live 8 [during last summer's performance, they shared the stage with U2, Madonna, and Paul McCartney, performing to 200,000 people], 'cause this business chews up bands and spits them out. Today's love affair could be tomorrow's MC Hammer."
The Wembley trip is a family affair, with significant others and reps from the Shears, Baby- daddy, and Matronic camps, the latter proudly wearing self-made black T-shirts studded with "Mama Matronic" and "Papa Matronic." Having their families in town seems to chip at the dullness of the backstage viewa long, narrow hallway leading to a series of indistinguishable rooms painted a crisp white, with gray carpeting and bright fluorescent lighting. There are no windows, so were it not for a wall clock, you'd have no idea what time it was. You certainly wouldn't know that thousands of people are gathering just outside these rooms, waiting to be entertained.
To break up the boredom, photographer Kevin Tachman and Babydaddy's brother, Ben, embark on a mission. "Scissor Sisters Parking Lot!" they shout, heading to the lobby with a video camera and microphone, asking random victims the inappropriate questions featured in the heavy-metal cult movie. They lack the delicate interview skills one needs when approaching pre-teens and the shy British public, but they score when a little girl with bright red hair finally consents to a chat, clutching a giant pair of inflatable scissors. "Are you wasted?" Ben asks the girl, who looks no older than eight.
After Friday's 4 p.m. soundcheck, I hang out with Shears and his family, including his mom, Frida, a dynamic blonde Southern woman who's a well-known fixture among the band's fans. Jason/Jake Shears is much the same person I met over 10 years ago in Seattle when I was working at Bauhaus Café on Capitol Hill: bubbly, optimistic, and friendly. I had so many other friends who seemed far more obsessed with music and fame; I never would have pegged him to be a future rock star. "I must have known, 'cause I wrote a letter to myself when I was 16 years old," he says later. "It was like 'To the future me, I hope you're enjoying being a rock star.' I wrote it upstairs at Bauhaus. It was the night before we played a show."
Now, Shears is dressing for 11,000 fans for each of three nights at an infamous arena. He tries on a shiny blue sparkling suit and deems a simple, flowing, silky white shirt too gay, even for the Scissor Sisters: "No. Too Ice Capades."
Not unlike the Ice Capades, the Wembley show is a full-fledged production, as opposed to the straightforward club sets they play in the States. As at many large-scale shows, two gigantic Jumbotron screens flank the stage, which is transformed throughout the night to create different "scenes"there's a door that Jake walks through to mark the end of one segment; later, a giant theatrical mask drops down from the ceiling. The finale is an explosion of confetti, fittingly raining glitter on the audience. "The best thing about playing an arena is you get the sense of it as a whole show," says Matronic. "It's almost like a theater piece."
Though I've seen them play tons of clubs, they do seem better suited to arenas. "I love it, I absolutely love it," says Shears. "I just feel very at home in front of a big crowd. It's really about mesmerizing in a matter of 10 minutes at the beginning of the show, pulling that crowd inwhich is a challenge."
Each night ends with a costume change and an encore. The Sisters retreat to an eerily quiet backstage area to catch their breath before heading back out into the roar of the crowd. "The moment when we come back for the encore, and we do 'I Don't Feel Like Dancin',' and that was No. 1 here for like four weeksto see this sea of people, everybody's hands in the air, everybody freaking out, pumping their arms, really going for it, is such a mindfuck," Matronic says. "It's like, 'Wow! Whoa! I guess they like us.' It's a Sally Field moment. 'You like me, you really like me!' "
On Saturday, they enjoy a belated traditional Thanksgiving meal, and after the show, Aimee Phillips throws a party for the entire staff and a few of the band's friends, including the actor Sir Ian McKellen, hanging out in leather pants and a sweater. Shears drinks more than usual and chain-smokes, which he will regret the next morningand the next night.
"That show killed me!" he says after Sunday's final gig, staggering offstage with the crowd still screaming. The day had been more relaxed than the previous two; we'd gotten to the arena later, at six. But still, with a smaller, more casual wrap-up party backstage, we don't leave until 1 a.m.
I am going home the next day, exhausted from the nonstop weekend. I can't imagine how the band feels; they've been doing this for months on end. Even though the arena tour is over, the Sisters have a full week ahead of them, including TV appearances and other promotional duties. And there's still more touring to do: back-to-back New Year's Eve shows to play (in Berlin to an audience of over 1.2 million people, it turned out), along with tours of Japan and Australia, and a four-week U.S. run that starts in March.
In the gargantuan, cold cement garage of Wembley Arena, I say goodbye to Shears and the band before boarding the bus back to the hotel. I won't see them again for a while. After all, they are one of the biggest bands in the world.
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