Boys Keep Swinging - Jake Shears. Review by Dale Boyer
Note - a version of this appeared formerly in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
You might expect an autobiography by Jake Shears, lead singer of the musical group Scissor Sisters, to be chock full of pictures of him and the band. You might also expect it to be fun, but essentially superficial. You would be wrong on both counts.
What we get instead in Boys Keep Swinging is not only a very good (and compelling) story of what it takes to make it in New York, a wonderful portrait of New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but also -- and perhaps most importantly -- a really interesting depiction of why someone feels compelled to perform, and why anyone watches a performer in the first place.
Jake Shears (real name, Jason Sellards) was born in Mesa, Arizona in 1978, and shuttled back and forth between there and Seattle during his school years. A showy, bossy, gay kid who watched, unimpressed, as baseballs "plunked on the ground yards away from me, like a dead shooting star," he found himself instead obsessed with David Bowie, played with beefy He-man dolls alone in his room, and became more and more obsessed with the fringe aspects of the suburbs. He hung out at a place called The Edge, where he marveled at the strange assemblage of society's outliers: "vampy ladies, unhygienic introverts, square professionals, bored housewives, teenage queers, potheads, hookers and musicians." He also confesses to being blown away by the "upscale-trash aesthetic" of The Playboy Channel.
All of this was (barely) concealing his nascent sexuality, but it was also concealing a kind of rage against the prevailing, normative straight culture that surrounded him. What began with dressing outrageously as a kind of defiance and cultivating attention for being different, culminates in an episode where he has sex with an Abercrombie-perfect kid, then outs him to the entire school. He calls the betrayal a mistake, but what he concludes about the incident is both interesting and telling, considering his eventual career:
"I'd outed him. I'd played the locker-room jock, bragging about a sexual victory, and by doing that, I'd felt a kind of power I'd never had, the sensation of putting somebody in their place. No one at school would have been inclined to bully him, but he now carried the label of being gay. I might have seemed adjusted and happy with myself, but the anger from the abuse that I'd taken in Arizona was still alive and well. It was a toxic, sick victory, and I was filled with a hollow satisfaction over finally having made someone else know what it felt like to be a fag."
The incident reveals what Shears calls his feelings about "the destructive nature of assimilation," and prepares the way for the budding performer who would soon thrill to "the queer aggression" of groups like The Cramps. Thus, performance becomes the ultimate kind of defiance, a sort of rubbing of society's face in his difference.
The boy who would eventually satisfy his need for attention and cash by dancing as a go-go boy in various gay bars also began to revel in the fact that, as a gay man, he had become an object of both desire and power. Dancing and performing made Shears feel not only that he was doing what he was born to do, but leads him to a further revelation:
"The attention that I need is for the expulsion of pain, in turn transforming it into a tangible thing that people might connect with. Straw to gold, water to wine. This was never just to feel accepted; that's never been my driving force. It's a pageant on the proscenium of my heart."
As these examples attest, Shears is thinking about his career a lot more deeply than one might at first suspect, and it makes for thought-provoking reading. Instead of a kind of, "Here's how I made it" story, the book is a sort of "Here's WHY I made it, and why I wanted to do it at all."
The middle third of the book traces Shears' move to New York, his early attempts to figure out who he was and how he wanted to channel his energy. It is alternately comic, appalling and exhausting, and details the many people he met and, occasionally, slept with, including such future luminaries as Anderson Cooper (an early boyfriend). He also meets Debbie Harry early on. After dancing in a g-string at one of her events, he tells her, cheekily and embarrassingly: "I think my dick looked really small."
These episodes are dishy, fun, and illustrate Shears' relentless drive to become famous, even when he wasn't at all certain what it was he wanted to become famous for. They are a catalogue of ambition, survival, and excess. As he says about his frequent nudity in the bars those days: "There's something kind of sweet about people feeling free enough to do whatever they want in plain sight." It's a period when he compares being out on the town to a kind of crap shoot, when there was no way of telling whose apartment or penthouse, or whose bed he'd find himself in next.
After early stints at various publications, including Paper magazine (where the directive from the editor was: "I want cool kids doing fabulous things!"), he finally hooked up with the members of the band who would eventually form the core of Scissor Sisters: Scott Hoffman (eventually christened "Babydaddy"), the friend of a college friend, and Ana Matronic, hostess at a local nightclub called The Slipper Room. Even after this, and some fortunate interactions with Joan As Police Woman and others, success was still a steep road, and it's fascinating to watch Shears wrestling with what he thought fame would be like compared to what it actually was. As he puts it, it was like committing to a Space Shuttle ride for years: the view is amazing, but you also sacrifice a lot to be there.
It's also interesting to note the crucible out of which Scissor Sisters came into being: almost literally from the depths of despair surrounding the fall of the World Trade Towers (Shears' apartment was in the evacuation zone). By concluding that everyone was sad, and they needed to be entertained, Shears implies that only out of the cauldron of such dire circumstances could music as giddily transgressive and flamboyant as theirs have been born. As any Scissor Sister fan knows, it is the curious mixture of glib defiance that defines the band, that makes such early songs as "Comfortably Numb " (the song that initially made them famous), "Tits on the Radio," "Filthy/Gorgeous," or "Mary" such a strange and affecting combination of exhilaration, defiance, and unexpectedly touching emotion.
In the end, of course, the band had its run (it went on hiatus after its fourth album, though Shears has a new solo album coming out soon) and Shears states that he had to learn to accept himself for who he was, eventually learning to turn aside the allure of random bits of advice, such as the one he received from the group's clothing stylist: "Darling, you must understand, you are now giving people a glimmer of fantasy every time they see you." True, but you also have to have a life as a person as well, which is the lesson Shears seems to have learned, not only from his whole experience with Scissor Sisters, but also in writing this book.
Boys Keep Swinging makes for an entertaining read,and is one of the more penetrating books not only about the music business, but also about the quest for stardom, ever to come down the disco-lit path. It proves that, as with the music of Scissor Sisters, when voices from the fringe of society speak, people should listen, because what they're saying speaks volumes about the core.