music & lyrics

Adam Lambert And Ricky Martin Only Wish They Were As Gay As Brooklyn’s The Ballet

After a season in glam-rock makeup, Adam Lambert kicked-off his post-Idol career by coming out in a Rolling Stone interview. After a lifetime in straight-drag, Ricky Martin skipped the music media middleman to communicate directly with his fans by coming out on his blog. Neither had overtly gay content in their lyrics — their wardrobe is another story — and both waited to establish their careers before coming out. Compare them to queer indie bands, like Brooklyn’s three-piece “sissy pop” band, The Ballet who’ve embraced queer lyrics and DIY art packaging since their 2006 debut, Mattachine!. Their latest album Bear Life takes it one step further with infectious Stephin Merritt-tinged dance-ditties about gay love and arty packaging from an out visual artist. Lambert and Martin never had it so gay.

We homos are always on the prowl for the next dance anthem, the latest lyrical mantra set to a good groove—whether on a wood-planked summer dance floor or in a dank basement at a suburban house party. The Ballet’s debut track “In My Head” arrived ready to get down, armed with a jaunty melody, a Casio drum loop, beautiful string arrangements and a lyrical ode to the sweaty pushes and salty pulls of a romantic entanglement: “I know it’s wrong to make you fall in love with me / With just a song and half a hit of ecstasy. / But I was scared that you would leave / cause in my head you’re all I need.”

Their first album Mattachine! embodied everything that makes The Ballet truly fabulous—a collection of self-described “sissy pop” songs (like “Cheating On Your Boyfriend” and “Clay”) that captured both the confusion and euphoria of 21st-century relationships with personal narratives and pop hooks forging tattoos onto listeners’ brains.

Even better, they only pressed 200 copies of Mattachine! and packaged them in self-printed hand-folded envelopes, making the album a hard-to-come-by collector’s item of the “you had to be there” variety. But shortly after its release, the band (Greg Goldberg on guitar and vocals, Craig Willse on synths, and Marina Miranda on bass) went on an academic hiatus, leaving fans wondering if they’d ever return.

They did.

And their reemergence is Bear Life, their synth-drenched sophomore album complete with guest vocalists (Kaki King and Scott Matthew). On the album cover, artist Daniel Barrow presents “Teenage Medusa”, forlornly looking into a hand mirror while her bejeweled snakes hiss and writhe—an apt image for an album that croons about the intersection between seduction and brutality. One of the opening songs, “Dangerous” goes, “And all the boys you collect like figurines / they fall like grain from some gay vending machine… but underneath the sweat and muscle tone / a broken heart and fear of being alone.”

Bear Life is a huge step forward, both sonically and lyrically. It’s a more crafted album than Mattachine!, which sometimes feels like a grand experiment with a visiting string-section. In contrast, Bear Life‘s songs (like “The House On Fire” [MP3] and “Chinatown”) use riffs from Willse’s synths to solidly build satisfying arrangements, each ripe for a remix (which Mark Robinson already did for “In My Head”).

Mattachine! explored the edges of gay society unflinchingly though with touch of Final Fantasy and Belle and Sebastian. Bear Life‘s sound though, is far more exhilarating, with hyper-orchestrations and manic synths, that get anchored by the reality-check of Goldberg’s monotone vocals. In “Rough Trade” he sings, “You can break my heart, I won’t be angry I swear. / And you can trash my art; it wasn’t going anywhere.” He articulates the universal unease and elation of relationships that gives the songs both a hard realistic edge and the fantastical elation of dreaming and exploration.

“Academia has made me a smarter songwriter,” says Goldberg, “I mean, smarter than I was before. Half of it is just learning how to pay attention. Grad school stirs up a lot of thoughts and feelings and music is a good way to process and fantasize.” He continues, “There was a lot more editing, in terms of song structure, themes, arrangements, etcetera. [We] tried to be more conscious of how the songs worked together, going back and changing things in older songs as new songs were written. I like albums with songs that feel diverse in a particular way, like different angles on the same set of concerns.”

The album ends on a note of cautious optimism, in the song “Expectations,” with the line, “I’m gonna meet somebody tonight” backed by a haunting clarinet solo. It’s a moment of guarded sweetness, reminiscent of The Magnetic Fields, an influence on the band. “I probably picked up the thematic thread of disco/dancing from Stephin Merritt,” Goldberg said. “It’s also a queer thing… so much happens at the disco. And I have two left feet, which only makes them more fascinating to me.”

As the band takes the stage at Don Hill’s Mondo Friday night dance party in New York, I was struck by their propensity towards resurrecting flannel shirts and the Partridge Family-like glee with which they performed their new songs. Their air of casualness and approachability belies the talent and the quality of their songwriting. And after the set, they manned the merch table as a diverse set of fans walked up to check out their new release.

Goldberg said, “There’s too much judgement in the queer world … Twinks, bears, cubs, wolves, otters… muscle men, trannies, butchies, queens, daddies and mamas, hipsters, lipsticks, chapsticks, whatever… everyone’s welcome at the Ballet bar, feminist bookstore, and vegetarian café!”

Although both of their albums are now available on iTunes, they only pressed one thousand copies of Bear Life. Barrow contributed additional artwork to its packaging and the band lovingly refers to it as an “objet d’art,” proof of the care with which they present their music as a self-made, DIY product. In an era where so much of queer culture is being commodified by a desperate economy, The Ballet keeps the business side of their band simple in order to concentrate on the music.

According to Goldberg, this is part of their ethos as a band: “I think we value the relationship we create with people who come to our shows and buy our albums, which we release ourselves, even if we could sell more albums by working with a label … It’s problematic that validation—financial or otherwise—for the arts is so caught up in institutions of taste-making and gatekeeping… so purposefully avoiding those institutions can constitute a kind of politics… I want to make CDs that I would be excited to buy. Especially since nobody buys CDs anymore.”

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