Franz Ferdinand are the archest dukes in U.K. pop right now, four Glasgow boys who have gone from indie darlings to mainstream heartthrobs over the past six months. They’ve got the package: foppish pouts, sideways haircuts, drainpipe trousers, new wave guitar licks, an assassination-linked name that smacks of sex and danger. They’ve even fluked into U.S. success, hitting No. 39 on the Billboard album chart on the strength of their breakthrough single, “Take Me Out.” They’re also straight guys. Except their next U.K. single, “Michael” (due out August 16), is about dancing with a hot boy, and liking it very, very much. A sexy boy with leather hips. Feeling his stubble on your sticky lips. When lead singer Alex Kapranos pants, “Come and dance with me, Michael,” he shoots his darts of pleasure through your heart. Live, he’s been known to change the chorus to “Come all over me, Michael,” but it’s a seductive song either way. Assassinatin’ rhythm, as Patti Smith used to say.
Franz Ferdinand have loads of other excellent songs, but “Michael” has become a clear-cut fan favorite. It’s the one lighting up the online fan sites. You can see a typical discussion on the great time-waster Song Meanings (songmeanings.net), where responses range from confusion to enthusiasm to blatant revulsion. One kid announces, “i ripped this cd on my computer, got rid of this song, and then burned the franz ferdinand cd sans michael on a new blank disc. i never want to hear this song.” Another adds, “i mean, this song is awesome dude, it’s one of my favorite songs . . . but yeah . . . it’s totally homosexual.” Some people post to ask if Franz Ferdinand are really gay. Some ask if Michael’s a girl. Some just want to know what the hell is going on here.
The lads of Franz Ferdinand seem a bit puzzled about all the fuss. Alex Kapranos has said he’s a bit surprised that “Michael” is the song people most want to ask about, since it’s so straightforward. He told the story behind it to the magazine Boyz: “It was one night when me and the band were out with friends from Glasgow, and we went to this warehouse dance party thing called Disco X. It was a very debauched night and these two friends got it together in a very sexy way.” Although the real-life Michael is chuffed about the name-check, Alex gallantly protects the other friend’s identity. “This guy’s girlfriend will kill him. Well, she won’t kill him, but she’s very jealous of the fling he had with Michael. So it’s a bit of a sticky situation.” When Boyz asked if he was tempted to join in the boy-boy action, Alex replied, “Everyone looked wonderful that night.” Spoken like a true rock star.
Part of the fascination with “Michael” has got to be on account of the band members themselves, who, it must be said, are 15 pounds of fuck-puppy in a 10-pound bag. No matter how much of a straight guy you are, watching these boys onstage makes your heart hurt a little. When they played Northsix in January, still an obscure indie band from way out of town, everybody was curious to get a glimpse of what they looked like. Their first two import singles, “Darts of Pleasure” and “Take Me Out,” were unbelievably sexy and slithery things, goosing old dance-oriented rock riffs that were right on the tip of your tongue (Blondie? The B-52’s? The Breeders?) as Alex purred one-liners like “You can feel my lips undress your eyes.” We could only hope they were half as hot as they sounded. But right before they hit the stage, drummer Paul Thomson came out to set up his kit, and you could feel the buzz go through the room—if the drummer is this hot, oooh baby, we’re in trouble. And we were.
In most of their songs, Franz Ferdinand capture romance in non-gender-specific terms, typified by the sweet and wistful tone of “The Dark of the Matinee,” where you rearrange your schedule to accidentally bump into your crush. When they do specify gender, they usually sing about guy-girl flirtation. “Michael” is their only blatantly homoerotic song. But it ambushes you on the album, because it rocks without any coy wink. Boys who like girls who like boys who like boys—it’s no big deal in this song. Alex isn’t bragging about walking on the wild side, which is why his passion drags you out onto the floor with him, for your pleasure, as he croons, “Beautiful boys on a beautiful dancefloor/Michael you’re dancing like a beautiful dance whore.”
Plenty of other straight bands have sung about boy-boy lust—it’s a rock ‘n’ roll tradition that goes back way before those sweet and tender hooligans the Beatles. (When Ringo sang the Shirelles’ “Boys” on the first Beatles album, he didn’t bother changing all the gender refs.) Nirvana were total queer-punk wannabes, in the tradition of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Lou Reed, and so many other straight rockers who crushed out on gay guys in their music, if not in real life. When Bowie sang “John, I’m Only Dancing,” he ditched any sense of shame about the fact that it turned him on to turn John on. Think of the Kinks in “Lola,” or Mick Jagger, sticking a very unconvincing “she said” into the orgiastic gender-crashing fuck-madness of “Let It Bleed.” It’s usually hard for straight bands to identify gay without getting self-conscious or even self-congratulatory, acting gayer than thou, but Franz Ferdinand breeze through “Michael” as if it’s no sweat. They’re beautiful dance whores, all right.
“Michael” cuts to the heart of new wave, which has always had a lot to do with straight kids trying to act as cool as queer kids. In the immortal words of Imperial Teen, “the prince wants to be a queen.” The world is crawling with nouveau new wave bands now—indeed, the first thing everybody noticed about Franz Ferdinand was that they were a Brit new wave band imitating the New York new wave bands who are currently imitating old Brit new wave bands. There are all sorts of theories about why ’80s-inspired new wave-ness and modness have come back with such a vengeance, but it’s the first guitar-rock trend in years that has had anything to do with sex. New wave’s eternal appeal has to do with its playful, humane pansexuality. It’s a safe space for kids to act out, to try on gay or straight or bi poses at will, without brutalizing each other. People who condemned Bowie as a sexual tourist were missing the point—he was a sexual explorer (or “lodger,” as he put it in the title of one of his best albums) because he was a sexual exile, like most of us, stuck in orbit like Major Tom and determined to make a home out of it. He built the floor that new wavers have been dancing on ever since, from Roxy Music to Culture Club to Pulp to the new waver indie kids currently shaking their hair at a club near you.
Franz Ferdinand’s beat has been compared to Talking Heads a few times, but that seems totally off—the obvious template is Blondie, whose rhythm section circa “Atomic” and “Rapture” the Franz lads have obviously studied in Talmudic detail, and their point of reference is disco, not funk. Their DOR frivolity is an explicit rejection of the clamped-down gender roles of guitar rock in the late ’90s. You can hear it in the discodelic stagger of “Take Me Out,” a song where Alex parades his body in front of a new crush, begging to be picked off the way an assassin takes out a target. And you can hear it in “Michael,” a song so giddy with lust that it takes you out as well. The real-life Michael seems to be keeping a low profile these days. Franz Ferdinand have 492 friends in their Friendster loop, but none of them are named Michael. (There’s a “Jacqueline,” though.) But he’s reportedly making an appearance in the new video the band is doing for “Michael” in Berlin. It’s about time. The rock audience needs him even more than he needs us. Come on, Michael—take us out.