Cutting through labels

March 9, 2007


An argument can be made that no genre in the history of popular music has been more unfairly maligned than disco. In Chicago, it even set off a riot, during the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" at Comiskey Park in July 1979.

Cultural critics are still debating whether that event was a bonehead publicity stunt gone wrong or an eruption of homophobia and racism prompted by a sound that was largely crafted by gay and African-American artists. It's a question that hasn't escaped singer and songwriter Jake Shears, the leader of New York's Scissor Sisters.

"Disco means so much more than just music," Shears says. "The word is kind of equated in Europe with fun and dancing, and all of the night spots are called discotheques. To me, a discotheque is a place where you can go and be free to do what you want. But it's really a broad word -- a loaded word. I think writers use code words, like 'disco' and 'flamboyance,' and there are a lot of code words that are used instead of 'gay.' I don't want to say there are labels slapped onto us, but sometimes I think our music can be dismissed because of all these words."

Shears has a point, and when I mention it's amusing that the Scissor Sisters are described as "revivalists" or "performance artists" more often than they're called "musicians," he laughs. "You're right, and talk about dismissive!"

To be sure, the group, which takes its name from a slang phrase for a lesbian sex act, incorporates elements of burlesque in its theatrical live shows. But focusing on that at the expense of the music does the band an injustice.

Driven by an absurd but undeniable disco version of "Comfortably Numb," the group's 2004 debut was the best-selling album in the U.K. that year, and it won a devoted cult following in the U.S. And Shears says it all happened by accident.

"I sing all the time, and I just happened to be singing that Pink Floyd song one day when we were just learning how to record in [keyboardist/bassist] Babydaddy's apartment. We didn't even know if we could write songs at that point, so we were just using this tune as an experiment to test the equipment -- it was us trying to figure out how to plug a keyboard in, and I think you can hear that: It's really a horribly produced song!"

Plenty of fans would disagree, but there's no denying the group's second album, "Ta-Dah," represents a leap forward as a smart, inventive, sly and very groovy effort that is as likely to evoke the benighted heroes of disco (Chic, the Bee Gees, ABBA) as a slew of unexpected '70s hitmakers (Supertramp, Leo Sayer, Paul Williams).

"The goal was that we had to make a great pop album to follow the debut," Shears says. "It was as simple as that. It was almost like this record was a kidney stone or something -- something we had to pass. It was a really difficult record to make because sometimes, that was not the record we wanted to make. But we had set this goal of making a great pop record, and we stuck to it."

What is Shears' definition of a great pop song? "Something that's very accessible and can appeal to people on multiple levels -- it's broad enough for anyone to pick up and find something enjoyable in it. That to me is pop music."

At the same time, the Scissor Sisters aren't averse to having a message: "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," Shears' hit collaboration with fan Elton John, and "Kiss You Off," which features vocals by bandmate Ana Matronic, are both anthems of self-empowerment with the subtext of seizing the moment and finding joy in life even when things are difficult -- just like the best disco songs in the '70s.

"There are always going to be stories in the music, because the songs have to come from somewhere," Shears says. "That's why it took us a year to write this album: We were waiting around for songs to happen. They have to come from the right place, and if they don't come from the right place, it's probably not a good song.

"We feel like we did what we set out to do with this album, and we succeeded in most places. You know, people said some of the same things about David Bowie for years -- that he was a novelty act -- and 30 years later, we look back and we know better. I don't know if Scissor Sisters will be around for 30 years -- I'll always being doing something creative, but I don't want to be 60 and still doing Scissor Sisters! But I do want the group to have a really strong body of work, and I hope that there are going to be five, six, seven or eight great Scissor Sisters records."


Reasons for living

Since the advent of YouTube, rare is the day someone doesn't send me a link to some cool music video: "Hey, have you seen this footage of the Feelies at C.B.G.B.?" Or, "Dude, check out this clip of John Bonham!" I generally don't pass them along, but this one is too good to miss.

Created by New Yorkers Bob Castrone and Brian Levin, the Post Show is an online sketch comedy troupe -- think "Saturday Night Live" without a budget or TV cameras -- and it's the force behind the short film "No Direction, Period," an hysterical spoof of Martin Scorsese's overly reverent 2005 documentary, "No Direction Home." The premise: Bob Dylan is such a genius, he not only created his own incredible catalog, he wrote every song that's been a hit in the last 40 years.

With Castrone doing an amazing job channeling the legendary musician, and the team mimicking all those classic Dylan-on-film scenarios, we hear Mr. Zimmerman croon that he ain't lookin' for no golddigger and that he did it all for the nookie, as well as explaining the genesis of the Black Eyed Peas' biggest hit: "A lot of people don't know this, but Joan [Baez] had a little hump below her shoulders, a little hunchback. She was self-conscious about it, but I thought it was lovely -- a lovely lady lump."

"No Direction, Period" can be streamed online for free via the comedy Web site


 7 tonight
 Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine