Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears on What Makes Something ‘Gay Music’
Shears talks Kylie Minogue, George Michael, Big Freedia, Jane Fonda, and having his Confessions on a Dance Floor moment for his new dance album.EntertainmentMusic
In the middle of recording the songs that would go on to form his second solo album, Last Man Dancing, Jake Shears got an idea: “Wouldn’t it be fun if there were no downtempos?” The endlessly escalating result finds Shears, by his own reckoning, going “deeper in a certain way with dance music and club music than I ever have before.” If his preceding album, 2018’s Jake Shears, largely mined the rock and glam leanings of the band that made him famous, the Scissor Sisters, Last Man Dancing leans heavily into the disco and house that was just as present in his on-hiatus group’s DNA. Its structure is intentional, with the first half devoted to effervescent and lighter disco outings (like the lead single “Too Much Music” and the title track), and the second half getting darker, faster, and more electronic, as it veers into house territory. Many of the songs on the back end are mixed seamlessly (by Boys Noize, who also did production work on the album), and the result is what Shears refers to as “my own little Confessions on a Dance Floor moment” in reference to Madonna’s similarly blended 2005 album.
Last Man Dancing also features vocals from the likes of Kylie Minogue, Big Freedia, and Amber Martin (on the furious “Devil Came Down to the Dance Floor”); and production from Le Chey, Ryland Blackinton, and Vaughn Oliver. There’s a spoken cameo of sorts, from Jane Fonda. Given all this, how closely aligned dance music is with queer people, and the fact that Last Man Dancing is being released at the beginning of Pride month (on Friday), I focused my conversation with Shears on the perceived gayness of his music: the queer inspiration, the queer audience, and whether he thinks the label fits at all. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Jake for years.) An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: I hear what I believe are quite a few references on this album. That may be inevitable—this is pop music, after all—but I wonder if you think about them as you’re conceiving the songs, or if that’s something you only hear when you play them back?
JAKE SHEARS: Everything’s pretty intentional. On my first solo record, [there are] Bowie Easter eggs all over it—lyrical puns and little riffs that drop in. I’m sure that there’s the other side, too, which is this stuff that just sort of comes out naturally, and you don’t know where it comes from necessarily.
Because the history of dance music is full of queer creators and listeners, I wonder then if you think of your music—especially the dance music on this album—as gay music?
I remember starting with Scissors and having a real chip on my shoulder about it. Like, “What’s gay music?” I feel like the music itself will always transcend that. But there’s no escaping where you come from. I remember having a conversation with [producer] Stuart Price about 10 years ago and him telling me basically like, “You’re never going to get away from yourself. You’re never going to be able to fix it. You’ve got to be true to who you are, what you’ve done, and what you’re into.”Yeah.
You know, I’ve never been big on messages in the music or getting on a soapbox or preaching to the choir about anything. I always just want to do it, and I try not to think about it that much. I know I do come from the culture and I’m very influenced by it and have made my own marks on it. But I hope that there’s more to it than that.
I think it’s a tricky balance. Being gay isn’t a personality, but it can define a lot of it, and certainly leaning out of it can come off as shameful or dishonest. Fundamentally, I think we can only theorize as to why dance music is so popular with gays, and yet, I was into house music as an 11- or 12-year-old, before I was willing to admit that I was gay or knew of any connection to gayness and house music.
Yeah. Jane Fonda’s workout when I was 3 years old, that’s all I wanted to watch. What was up with that? That spoke to my soul. It’s strange to think about. How are these things in our DNA? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sex, coming out when I was 15 in ‘93, and AIDS. I didn’t sweep it under the rug at the time. I was super involved in my queer youth outreach and doing parties for teenagers and trying to instill safer sex practices among people my age. But I do think back and I’m like, “Oh, my God. What the fuck was that?” I don’t necessarily know if it’s something I’ve entirely processed yet. I wonder how that has shaped me. I grew up having nightmares about having sex.
Speaking of sex, listening to “Really Big Deal” made me wonder what fame has meant to navigating the anonymity inherent to hooking up and cruising. Has being famous changed the way that you hook up or does it make you self-conscious in any way? I mean, I think about George Michael cruising bathrooms well into his career—he didn’t seem to care.
No, he didn’t. When I was 21 in Barcelona, the bathhouse was really fun, but by the time I was 25, I didn’t really feel like I could go to them anymore. I’m single now, and it’s not easy. I’m pretty chill. Like, none of it’s a big deal, but I’ve been on Grindr and the dating apps and stuff, and it kind of stresses me out a little bit.
I imagine it feels like you have another layer of surveillance.
Yeah, and I don’t really have much luck with it. On Grindr, I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that people think I’m catfishing. People just don’t really respond. Or maybe they know it’s me and they’re just not interested because people have a lot of preconceived notions about who I am and what I’m like, I’m sure. What can you do? It’s been harder for me to meet people lately. All the smaller gay bars in London are kind of gone. It’s just like mostly big gay parties. Ticketed events. And it’s just not as sexy to me. In New York in my twenties, I could just go to a bar on a Thursday night and end up making out with a stranger or whatever. I don’t know how to do that anymore.
In “Really Big Deal,” I get a little bit of George Michael in the verses. Is that a fair assessment?
I think he’s sprinkled around the record. I think there’s a lot of George Michael-y moments. Sometimes I’ll get stuck when I’m writing something, and think, “Oh, what would George Michael do?” And then it just comes out.
“Sometimes I’ll get stuck when I’m writing something, and think, ‘Oh, what would George Michael do?’ And then it just comes out.”
Kylie Minogue is on this album and a friend of yours. She’s a superstar. Your frequent collaborator Elton John’s a superstar. Is there a secret to connecting with people who exist on that global scale? Does their stardom fade away when you’re one on one?
People are superstars, but I still feel like in the end, people are just people. That’s a really pat answer, but also, those are two people I’ve known for 20 years now. And it goes back to just connecting a long time ago and having experiences that go over decades.
There are friends of mine that are just incredibly talented fucking people. I just love what they do. Kylie and I bond with a passion for [being] just total show ponies. We love what we do. We love making music. Making a good tune makes us really happy.
How did Jane Fonda come to be on this record?
We ended up becoming friends. She started throwing parties in Los Angeles at her boyfriend’s place, monthly parties. It was one Thursday a month, and they were dance parties and they were just fucking great. Those takes [on the album] are from when I was working on a little project with [director/photographer] Luke Gilford. It was a while back, and she did this voiceover for me. Then, when I was making this, I got to that point on the record and I was like, “God, I need something like that thing I did with Jane.” And then I was just like, “Why don’t I just go back to raw takes of that?” I went back, sort of reconfigured it, made that, and then I sent it to her and was like, “I’ve put you in a techno climax. What do you think of this?” She just told me to have at it.
When listening to this album, I was thinking of Frankie Knuckles’ contention that house music was disco’s revenge. That was true at the time, especially given the hit to disco’s reputation at the end of the ‘70s in mainstream culture. But disco revivalism has been so profitable and frequent that I think it’s fairer now to say that disco is disco’s revenge.
I don’t think it’s ever gone away. The sound of it changed, but it never went away. It’s always been part of my musical vocabulary with just about everything I’ve done in one way or another. And it’s still there.
Tell me about working with Big Freedia?
Moving to New Orleans, I was like, “I would love to work with Freedia on some stuff,” and then finally when things were opening back up, her management got a hold of mine and asked if I’d be interested in doing some studio time. I worked on a few songs with Freedia for Freedia and just had the best time writing lyrics with her. “Doses” originally was a very, very, very different track and evolved and was simplified and shaped into what it is now. But I think Freedia is a fucking icon. A true, true icon. New Orleans has its own ecosystem of the greats. And it’s just amazing to know that there’s a whole new generation of great in New Orleans. It’s not stopped. It’s not slowed down.The Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki” became a gay anthem. What was that experience like for you?
It was exciting. It was just an album track. And it goes to show that nobody really knows anything. I think the singles coming out on the last couple of records were just wrong. And it’s just like, I guess it didn’t matter, because it ended up doing that on its own. People found it and we didn’t really do anything.
Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility to get it right when you make something so overtly of gay culture? [Note: Language in “Kiki” comes from the ballroom scene.]
I feel like if you start thinking about the audience while you’re making something, you’re fucked. I think that gets you into trouble. I just make stuff first and foremost for myself, as far as what turns me on, what makes me laugh, what I find interesting. And then you can think about that stuff after. But I think it can mess up your work if you’re thinking about that during the creation of things.
I think that lighter hand makes sense. Historically, foundational gay anthems were chosen by the people. They weren’t chosen for the people, you know?
Rick Rubin just wrote this great book on creativity, and he’s just talking about, like: You don’t know what your song is going to turn into. It could be a protest song and you have no clue. It depends on what people do with it. You can’t necessarily infuse that energy into your work. And if you purposefully think about that while you’re doing it, it can sort of taint your work in a way. It’s not up to you how people end up interpreting it.