I’m sitting here listening to the new Scissor Sisters’ album “Magic Hour” on Spotify. As usual, I am really enjoying it. Of bands that have come out in the last 15 years, I find myself enjoying each subsequent Scissor Sisters album more than the last. The longer they go on, they drop more of the corny ballads from the first 2 albums that, in my opinion, did not really match with their brand. The album before this one, “Night Work” was their most dance heavy and really pushed the “sexy” element of their work. This newest album, features one ballad (The Secret Life of Letters) and a few mid-tempo, but still danceable songs as well. But, what makes the album so succesful to me, is how it straddles commercial pop music already being produced (Ke$ha, Katy Perry) and looks back to a campier and more decadent time in dance music (Sylvester, Grace Jones). Now, although these things make the album succesful to me, I’m not sure that it will help them in any way cross over to the pop music mainstream.
Susan Sontag in her influential essay “Notes on Camp” defined camp in such a way that even today, her concepts of camp (bad art, sarcasm, the air quotes nature of modern discourse, maudlin art being reframed by others) are how we commonly perceive camp. But, in the ensuing years something has happened. There is a parallel, but just as important form of art and that is art that may be defined as “campy”. Campy is the more self-aware relative of camp. For something to be campy as opposed to camp there is a level of awareness on the part of the creator. The films, photographs, and even persona of John Waters engage in campiness and not camp. He knows his audience is like himself and already enjoys camp artifacts like the films of Douglas Sirk, the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, and the books of Danielle Steele. Each one of these artists being mentioned takes their work seriously and assumes that their fans are also sincere in their appreciation. But, by having a select group enjoy their work not for its sincerity, but to mock that sincerity creates the camp. John Waters, however, creates his films to comment on the sincerity of those artists he admires and holds up as camp. Therefore, what he creates is something I define as “campy” and not camp in the Sontagian way.
That’s a very basic version of my theory on the concept of “campy” as opposed to Sontag’s “camp”. And, all of that was a very roundabout way to begin to explain while I believe that it will always be a challenge for the Scissor Sisters to succeed at an elite pop music level. Someone like Katy Perry has fans whole both find her sincere and those who find her candy colored pop music loaded with camp. When Perry had whipped cream exploded out of her bra the gesture placed her firmly as a camp object. A group like the Scissor Sisters writes songs about whipped cream exploding breasts, instead of actually doing it. Although these differences seem small, even nonessential, in the world of popular music campy is not something that sells.
But, at this moment in time, a group like the Scissor Sisters probably has a better chance to break out. Both the camp and campy aesthetic are everywhere. With the continued visability of queer people and the rise in the popular culture capital that teenage girls carry, they could possibly break out. The Sisters’ music relies on drinks, dancing, a love of the ironic, glitter, and a nostalgia for the days of Studio 54. If this new album, probably the most accessible of their career, and the time in which they released it do not help them have a hit, I fear they will stay a cult object. They will be adored by their fans and ignored by the mass culture.
In other words, go listen to their new album. It’s kind of great.