Jake Shears on LGBTQ Acceptance in Music, Homophobia in the Industry and How Pop Is Changing

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Jake Shears performs during the Closing Ceremony of WorldPride NYC 2019 at Times Square on June 30, 2019 in New York City.

Jake Shears celebrated this year’s Pride by making us cry -- in a good way, of course. 

During the closing ceremony for Stonewall 50 and WorldPride -- the culmination of a week in which everything about New York’s always-raucous Pride celebration seemed super-sized -- the former Scissor Sisters frontman, dressed in a rainbow tank top and shorts, surrounded by LED signs in Times Square, stepped forward with guitarist Craig Pfunder for an abridged rendition of “Rainbow Connection.” Only a few notes into the cover of the 1979 Kermit the Frog song, the eyes of plenty of people in attendance, including mine, welled up.

Shears has a unique perspective on the trajectory of out LGBTQ artists in music over the past two decades. He moved to New York in 1999 for college, having come out years before, with difficulty, as a 15-year old in Mesa, Ariz. Soon enough, though, he and Scott “Babydaddy” Hoffman were recording and playing around the East Village and Lower East Side, eventually becoming Scissor Sisters when they teamed up with what Shears calls their “secret ingredient”: co-lead singer Ana Matronic. Fleshed out as a five-piece, they were a rarity in the early years of the new millennium: a pop-rock band with queerness in its DNA, filtered through mainstream-minded melodies and a woman who helped bring dudes in the door.  

As they blew up, at first in the U.K. and eventually their homeland, Shears grew gradually restless with the band’s “cuddly” gayness and moved the needle toward something more carnal on 2010’s Night Work. Shears covers it all in his no-holds-barred memoir Boys Keep Swinging, released last year, and touched on it in a recent conversation with Billboard about how music has opened up to LGBTQ artists in the near-seven years since Scissors Sisters went on hiatus, whether music’s lost some of its fun along the way and whether he’d want to trade places with the queer youth of 2019.

 

Obviously we’ve made massive strides in the last few years, let alone from when Scissor Sisters started. But do you think homophobia is still out there in music today?

Oh, I think it still exists. I don’t think you see it as nakedly, or transparently, as you once did. I do believe it’s still there, but I haven’t been involved with the major label world for a long time now. I think there’s a lot more queer music, by a much more diverse range of artists, but everything is so fragmented that everyone is seeing something different. 

There are exponentially more new queer artists getting promoted now than there were even five years ago. But back in the day with Scissor Sisters, while queerness was undeniably part of the band’s identity, it didn’t seem like that wasn’t pushed explicitly.

When we were starting out, I was of of course out and talked about it, but there were so many sort of celebratory aspects to our music -- about being queer, but also very much about the East Village at the time, all very New York-y. I mean, I was purposely trying to make really broad mainstream music and trying to make stuff that in its way was reaching across the lines. At the time I think there was much more of a “mainstream culture.”

Justin Tranter told Billboard recently that with Semi Precious Weapons, who were glam in a different way, he sometimes would feel like the label didn’t really have his back when he would get abused by fans or get called “fag” at festivals or whatever. Did you experience that? 

I was always very confident, but also the secret ingredient of Scissor Sisters was Ana Matronic. Having this female presence on stage I think was integral for pulling guys and women, people from heteronormative culture, into the door of what we were doing and, I don’t know, maybe [making them] feel safer? I don’t think that we would have had that success as a band without her. Ana was something that made us -- made me -- less threatening. And I don’t know if that’s good or bad! But I do think that was a big part of our success. I asked a friend of mine who was a total disco connoisseur, “What do you think we need on stage?” And he said, “Feminine energy.” That was the thing that really balanced us out, and it did broaden the appeal.

And then eventually the band did take a somewhat more sexual turn. 

Yeah. Back in the day we had a wonderful relationship with Polydor and Universal, and for the most part, we weren’t interested in pushing crazy boundaries, as far as being explicitly sexual or whatnot. But it was funny when, for our third album [Night Work], I decided I wanted to put a Mapplethorpe photograph on the cover of our record, with just a ballet dancer’s ass with his hands on it. And it is a very sexual in-your-face image, but that was something that I just felt like was very important to do. I wanted to put a stake in the ground and be like, “Actually, we’re faggots! We’re total queers!” And I had made a record about sex -- that was a scary thing to do. It wasn’t as commercially successful, but my God, I wouldn’t change that for the world. 

It was a very satisfying record to put out. In the U.K. for a long time, people would stop me in the street and say, “You’re my nana’s favorite band!” Grandmas loved us! And a huge part of our audience, especially in Britain and in certain cities in the States and Australia, is grandmas and moms. For some weird reason they tap into a safety and a comfort in our music? But there just came a time when it became too cuddly. It was like, “This has become too friendly.” I do remember that when we went there, in certain ways people at the top washed their hands. I look back at that and see it as a very successful moment for the band. It was exactly what we needed to do. But it definitely wasn’t supported as far as the industry goes. 

You came out at 15, right? 

Yep. In Mesa, Arizona. 

And that was the early nineties. Obviously things have changed so incredibly in the 25 years since then, and queer and trans kids today come out or even begin to transition younger than that. Many of them are in this amazingly accepting, perpetually fluid world. Do you ever envy them?

I think things have changed, but I think it’s still really hard for kids. And yes, technology has changed things to the degree where maybe kids don’t feel as alone as I did when I was 15. We didn’t have the internet in any significant way. Now we have a device in our pockets that connects us with more people than we know what to do with! So I hope in certain ways queer kids don’t feel as alone. I don’t envy them at all, though. I think they have it harder in certain ways, with the technology that’s being integrated into our lives. I am so happy that I grew up when I did. 

As amazing as this year’s Pride was, I think its ubiquity and over-the-top-ness put some people off, and consequently the anti-corporate Queer Liberation March that happened that same day had a lot of energy behind it as well. I think some people feel like the fighting spirit of Stonewall got lost along the way. 

Well, it’s hard to fight against something if you’re fighting with each other, which is really what’s happening. And I would also say that in general, humor has gone the way of the Dodo. It all feels very serious, and to me, being queer includes a sense of being playful. 

Queer acceptance can vary from genre to genre, scene to scene -- but mainstream pop seems extremely accepting of any and all identities. And yet we still hear stories about young artists -- particularly young men -- in pop who are not comfortable being out. Does that make any sense to you? 

If they’re at the top of their game, they probably think they’re going to lose it. It’s not really been tested, but I think it comes from fear. I mean -- this is kind of a different scenario -- look at Anderson Cooper and all those years that he was not out. We all knew he was gay. So I think if you are at the top of your game, it’s just this fear of losing everything that you’ve worked for. And I think that’s just inherent in the DNA of gay men in the business -- the trauma that’s been handed down to us from generations before.

When George Michael passed, I’d be lying if said I didn’t think, “I wish he’d been comfortable being out publicly earlier on.” I think he’d have had more years of happiness. 

Oh God, yeah, I can’t imagine. Wouldn’t that just be hell on earth? Having to just hide such a major part of you? By the time I was 22, having come out so early and having gone through all that, there was no question that I wouldn’t just be myself. I knew that it might be a hindrance to success, and I just kind of accepted that. That’s why our band’s success -- to the extent that we had it -- was such a surprise for me. I knew that there were going to be sacrifices to be made by being out and in the music industry, but I just willingly accepted it. My viewpoint was that I was hoping it would make it easier for people down the road.

And there was so much press at the time that was just fucking obnoxious, even with big magazines like Q magazine in the U.K. -- cover stories that were just horrible. Everybody took this angle on us just because we were out. And they would be kind of underhandedly bullying us in the press. I just chalked it up at the time to the moment we were in. I was thankful for the success we were having, and I knew it was something we were gonna have to deal with.

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