When Scissor Sisters’s Night Work came out during the summer of 2010, I was working at the mall—again. It probably wasn’t the night work Jake Shears was singing about, but music generously allows listeners to draw the most tenuous of associations from its lyrics to their own lives. I began the year as temp in an attempt to finally start a career after college, but ended up back at Roosevelt Field after a few months. What that kept my hopes up was that I would start an MFA writing program in New York City in late August. In the meantime, I often took the bus home in the quiet summer nights after working late shifts.
As the bus found its way out of the parking lot and snaked its way through Long Island hamlets, I would lean my head against a window and mentally unwind. The trip would begin with songs on shuffle, but I ultimately ended up listening to all of Night Work each time. One of the many beauties of the album was that all forty-four minutes and twenty-one seconds of it ran together. This feature is obviously meant for continuous play at a club, but it worked for my trips home too.
I had been enamored with the band since “Take Your Mama” came out in 2004 and blew my closeted teenager mind. At the time, media representation of gay men was limited. Slowly leaving an era of tragic or comic side-characters, options for leading gay men were either Will or Jack. Jake, Del Marquis and Babydaddy presented some new options. The music and the looks—it all made fireworks go off in my head and elsewhere. The Scissor Sisters’s self-titled debut was the soundtrack to a gay man’s coming of age in Giuliani-era New York City. The follow-up, Ta-Dah, is an eclectic mix of sad and fun (often both) good-to-great songs. Night Work, as far as I am concerned, is a masterpiece.
Night Work is a queer sonic fantasia soaked heavy in the 1980s. Nods to Soft Cell, Bronski Beat, Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys, Pointer Sisters, David Bowie, Judas Priest, Giorgio Moroder, and others can be found throughout. Their past two albums were bright and colorful; this one is distinctly neon. Lyrics about raunchy and reality-disorienting nights out, with a Mapplethorpe photo as the cover, painted a tantalizing vision of Manhattan nights. And I so desperately wanted to be in the city—to live there and to be considered a part of it. When you go to your first gay bar in the city (Eastern Bloc) and Alan Cumming talks to you and your friend, it stays with you.
The video for the single “Any Which Way” perfectly captures the album’s sniff those markers even though they aren’t scented sensibilities: leather, latex and sheer outfits, bright flashing colors, exploding objects and shattering glass. It begins with a blaring air-horn that settles into a funky disco beat. Ana Matronic gets the best lines in a spoken word monologue toward the end:
You know, baby,
When I was taking my pantyhose out of their egg this evening,
I thought: “I’m going to find that man that is the right shade of bottle tan;
A man that smells like cocoa butter and cash.”
Take me anyway you like it:
In front of the fireplace,
In front of your yacht,
In front of my parents—
I don’t give a damn, baby, just take me!
Once grad school started, I transferred to a store in the city and also began working part-time at school. I’d work throughout the days, take classes at night, and meet with classmates and professors at the bar afterwards. I’d take the train back out the island and walk home from my stop, playing the songs on random but ending up on Night Work again. I carried the ideas of the album in the back of my mind alongside with dream of becoming a “real” New Yorker.
A sense of joyful abandon pervades the album and I was a new convert to it’s mildly bacchanalian state of mind. What I needed to abandon was fear. Slowly, I began to feel like a writer, or at least an aspiring one, because I started to believe I had something to say. For a while I had been convinced, thanks to Queer as Folk, that every gay bar was Babylon-esque with a collection of muscled men wordlessly judging me. But after going to nearly every bar south of Central Park, I realized the situations were never that fraught; it’s all mostly places to dance and drink. Most surprising to me was that when I let myself open up, and even take my clothes off, attraction was no longer a one-way street—I was desired as well as desiring. After spending most of my life believing that my body was an odd mass of flesh, finding and briefly being with someone who wanted all of me was life-altering.
The album also cautions getting lost in that abandon. What regrets I have of this time include that indulging my wants sometimes made me myopic. Some of it was the simple pangs of evolving into adulthood. Some of this was drinking a bit too much, but I think being drunk off my own desire was more harmful than the alcohol. Sure, there was the night I spent a long time post-workshop in the bar with friends only to wake up on the LIRR two stops past my own, but that was my own problem. The worst part of being soused was that my mouth became an exit portal for my id. Too tipsy, I would project own insecurities onto my friends in careless remarks or shamelessly try to get close to people. The worst was the night when I felt trapped in my own body as my mouth ran on. I learned the extent of my misbehavior the next day because I had blacked most of the night out. It was then I knew I had to dial it back before I lost too much.
Beyond the fun and my foibles, however, was an understanding of and a belonging to something larger than me. I began to see the lines of queer and New York history and where I was among them—from Mapplethorpe to Patti, and beyond them, to Baldwin, Holleran, Sontag, and others.
In my commute home—first from the mall and then from my classes, I would time it so the album ended in conjunction with my walk. I’ll end this essay the same way: the 1-2 punch of “Night Life” and “Invisible Light.”
The former song begins, after a few woo-hoos:
I was a young girl
Knew next to nothing
Livin’ in the suburbs
And my heart was lustin’
For a new way
And a new sound
Crawled up all my hang-ups to the underground
My life story, is it not? It’s a song that recognizes that nightlife is more than just an escape, its way to connect with people. Those who don’t see beneath the surface will dismiss it, but you should stick with what means something to you. Seamlessly, it slides into “Invisible Light.”
“Invisible Light” is “Thriller” on a different night, at a gay club instead of a movie theatre, right down to Sir Ian McKellan doing his best Vincent Price. The club becomes grander, almost mystical with references to Zion and Babylon. It has the audacity to quote the famous section of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” and brings to mind a vision of partygoers raising glow-sticks up in the air like torches. There’s a certain wistfulness and underlying sadness that you can hear in songs like “Running Out” and “Something Like This,” and this song is no different. While nightlife has a history and future, a person’s participation in it is ephemeral:
You answer to a new name, that changes all the time,
I’ll call you anything you want if I can say it’s mine
This story’s never ending
My footprint’s been erased
After Sir McKellan’s monologue, the song builds. The drum beats faster until the song hits climax, bursting forth in an orgy of vaguely-orgasmic coos and the chant of:
An invisible light! An invisible light-oh-oh!
An invisible light! An invisible light I want!
An invisible light! An invisible light-oh-oh!
An invisible light to keep me alive!
The song ends with a final fading “Ooh…” and so does the album. The fantasy is over, but only for the night, as it waits for it all to start over again.