The boys in Pansy Division are fags. It's no secret--the band has been proclaiming its affinity for homo-sex for seven years over the course of six records in short pop-punk ditties like "Pretty Boy (What's Your Name?)," "Smells Like Queer Spirit," "Fem in a Black Leather Jacket" and Revolver's favorite--the whimsical "Bunnies" ("You've got the carrot, I've got the stick/You start to nibble, I'll start to lick/We'll get ourselves all hot and sweaty and runny/Then we'll fuck like bunnies").
Pansy Division, along with a very short list of other queercore bands, revolutionized gay-rock in the early '90s through its blatantly sexualized "dick songs," as the band refers to them. Sure, there have been gays in pop music since its birth (doubters should go back and listen to Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally"), but until Pansy Division, bands didn't openly sing with affection about the "Ring of Joy."
Well, times have changed. Queer-rock isn't taboo or underground anymore; it's no longer limited to a succession of cryptic, thickly veiled metaphors. You can catch Melissa Etheridge singing homo love songs on adult contemporary radio, so the mystique must be gone.
So where does that leave Pansy Division? The band wondered that itself, and decided that evolution beyond queer-rock was necessary. The trio--guitarist/vocalist Jon Ginoli, bassist Chris Freeman and drummer Luis Illades--first added a second guitarist, Patrick Goodwin, to the Pansy fold. With that transition complete, they went into the studio with uber-producer Steve Albini to record Absurd Pop Song Romance, an album that bursts through Pansy Division's self-imposed boundaries of three-chord butt-fucking anthems. Compared to the band's previous work, these songs are more dense and decidedly better-produced pop gems exploring themes of relationships and friendships, where the boys' gayness is incidental rather than thematic.
Absurd Pop Song Romance, scheduled to be in record stores as of September 8, will likely change the record-buying public's impression of what the band is capable of, if they give the boys a chance. Jon underwent the Revolver drill recently to explain the band's transformation.
Revolver: The face of queer-rock has changed quite a bit since Pansy Division's conception. Have you accomplished what you intended with the genre?
Jon: Since we started, a lot has happened, and I wouldn't say that we were the catalyst for this change, but I think that even if people have never heard us, people know about this weird band who are out there on the fringes called Pansy Division who sing all these songs about fucking men. Now, the fact that we pushed the envelope makes it easier for, like, the Pet Shop Boys or Boy George or Bob Mould, none of whom were out when we had our first record out, to be able to say, now I can come out and be gay, and I'm comfortable saying that in public. I think partly that we're part of the times--the times have enabled us to exist--but we've also helped change the times so that it's safer for other people to come out, which is what we wanted. So now you've got k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge on top of that; there's a number of successful queer-rock performers, so now it's not like the pressure's on us to do anything more about that except be true to ourselves and be honest in what we sing about.
R: Tell me about the transition Pansy Division underwent.
J: What happened was, after five years of having our band, we finally found the right drummer, Luis, about a year and a half ago. It took five years to find the right guy, so then the evolution process set in. We did a tour the beginning of last year as a three-piece and came to the conclusion that it was really time to expand our band, so we got a second guitar player. Before, we'd always wanted to keep the sound pretty minimal, and we felt like we had done about as much as we could within that format, and we also felt like we had reached the end of the road so far as calling ourselves a punk band, which we never set out to call ourselves but we got called and we played into a little bit. We felt like it really didn't serve us that well, like punk-rock now is the Warped Tour. We're not gonna win those people over, and it's not our sound, and it's really boring to us.
So what we thought was, we've reached the goals we set when we started out as a band, we had pretty modest goals, but here we are, we've sold a certain number of records, we've got a certain-size following, what do we want to do now? Should we stop the band? And the idea was to do something that we haven't done, and put it out there in a way that won't limit who listens to our music.
R: Which was . . . ?
J: What we really wanted to do was make a more pop record; we've always written pop songs, but they were always performed and produced in sort of a bare-bones, punk-rock kind of way. So what we did with the new album was go with a new producer, Steve Albini, who gets great sound, and record a more professional-sounding record and add pop touches to it, which is not what Mr. Albini is known for, but he succeeded in getting what we wanted tremendously. So what we thought then was, we started out being a gay-rock band, so what would a gay-rock band do now? It was really important at the time the band began to assert our sexuality, because it seemed like nobody had. When we started in '91, gangster rap, N.W.A had come along, and it seemed like you could say anything in a song except "I'm a fag." So we did that, and we reached a point where we thought, it's gonna be redundant to repeat this. Pansy Division is known enough now that people know we're a gay band, so we can sing about other topics in a way that people will get the context out of them without singing in every song "We're gay! We're gay!" So what you end up getting is an album that, even though the context is true, is not specific about hammering it home all the time, and I think it gives the songs more depth. Also, the lyrical themes have turned more serious, not really by design, but Chris and I both ended up writing a lot more songs that were dwelling more on friendship and companionship themes, and thought, well, instead of resisting this and thinking we've gotta have a fun band, let's let this evolve, and what we ended up with was a record that's more serious in tone.
R: So you're hoping people won't see this as a "gay record"?
J: I think this new record is more easily heard as a universal record. The queer themes are there, but they're not as essential; you can find the context without being hit by it in every song. It just sounds more like a pop record or a rock record without any prefix to it, a queer-pop record or a queer-rock record. I think we can put our record alongside other good records, and we'll sound really strong both technically and the music coming out of it, so I think we have a good chance of doing really well with this record. When you're on an independent label, there's so many different factors, so I'm hoping that having a certain amount of publicity about it will enable people to check it out, especially because we're on our sixth record. By the time you've made six records, you've got a reputation, like, I know what this band is like, do I need to pay any attention to them anymore? And what we've really done, adding a new drummer and second guitar player, is we've really reinvented our sound. It's like the beginning of our second career. In the first career, we were busting out of the closet door, saying, here, we're Pansy Division, we're gay and we don't care what you think. Here, it's, like, we've done that, and now we're making music that doesn't insist on this kind of sexual identity to be successful.
Bikini Kill's Ruin: In the 1990s, no other punk band revolutionized the genre as much as Bikini Kill, the riot-grrrl progenitor whose sometimes crude, sometimes touchingly beautiful songs about issues of sexuality and abuse inspired grrrls worldwide to pick up guitars and rock.
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In February of this year, BK officially split, leaving behind a legacy of three full-length records and three seven-inch singles. As a final salute, Kill Rock Stars has released The Singles, with all the seven-inch tracks on one CD. Included are three of Bikini Kill's best, the Joan Jett-produced "Rebel Girl" (BK's thematic anthem) and both songs from the "I Like Fucking"/"I Hate Danger" seven-inch.
Fans of BK and owners of the aforementioned singles who are embittered by the permanent lack of new Bikini Kill material can soon rest easier; frontwoman Kathleen Hanna has reemerged in the persona of Julie Ruin. Kill Rock Stars will have her self-titled LP on the shelves this month; it's a 15-track collage of drum-machine beats and primitive samples over repetitive guitar/bass lines that rides the fence between art-rock and new wave.
Hanna's apparently evolved comfortably into the role of artist, as the accompanying publicity sheet explains that "the tension created in the listener as a result of not being able to decipher a singular message may in fact be 'the point.'" Hmm, pretty heavy. (Kill Rock Stars, 120 N.E. State Street, #418, Olympia, WA 98501.)
Contact Brendan Kelley at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org