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Boys Keep Swinging, the memoir by Jake Shears, founding member of Scissor Sisters, is full of names. Shears drops names all over the place. Before forming his band in late 2001, he befriended both Dan Savage (whose radio show he called several times) and the queer theorist Michael Warner. Following the release of the Scissor Sisters’ 2004 debut, Bono drops by for a talk about fame and artistry. David Bowie sends Shears a cryptic fan letter. Shears vacations with Elton John and David Furnish at their house in France, where George Michael, Rod Stewart and (inexplicably) Mikhail Gorbachev show up. This who’s-who list does not include the many gay New York subcultural celebrities who surround Shears through his years in the city. A consummate queer performer, Shears knows his readers expect at least something of a celebrity tell-all. He knows the kind of book he is writing – part queer coming-of-age story, part history of New York queer culture, and part Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. He writes this book well. Boys Keep Swinging is fun and compulsively readable, precisely the kind of book one would expect from someone who sang about getting his mama jacked up on cheap champagne.
Shears divides the book into three even sections, “Youth,” “New York,” and “Scissor Sisters,” with the chapters proceeding as a series of anecdotes about family, friends, and boyfriends. By his own admission, Shears is not one for “deep examination”; he learns about himself through his relationships with other people. It therefore makes sense that this book features an enormous cast of characters, from fleeting acquaintances to long-term friends like Mary (the titular character of the Scissor Sisters’ song). Through these people, Shears learns first and foremost about his need to perform, and comes to understand performance as a cathartic attempt at relationality: “That’s why I throw myself around like a rag doll onstage, to the point of harm. The attention that I need is for the expulsion of pain, in turn transforming it into a tangible thing that people might connect with.” It’s an eloquent admission, and it explains the excesses of so much queer performance about as succinctly as anyone could. It’s also a fitting description of Shears’ performance in these pages: tossing up story after story from the sad (breakups, death) to the comical (the goat who watches Shears masturbate on a beach in Greece).
In “New York,” Shears takes care to map the late nineties/early aughts queer and musical cultures out of which Scissor Sisters grew. Especially entertaining here are stories about learning how to go-go dance at The Cock and early efforts at making music with bandmate Scott Hoffman. Shears wants to explain why Scissor Sisters “made it” when similar acts did not. Musicianship and originality were not top priorities, after all. Their first hit was an electroclash cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Much of their subsequent success Shears contributes to his sheer determination to become better than bands like Fischerspooner: to write more complex songs, to keep moving from club to club, stage to stage, city to city. To connect with more and more people.
Readers wanting a complete history of Scissor Sisters will be disappointed. Shears ends his memoir in 2006, right before the release of the group’s second album Ta-Dah. We know he’s worn out. That album’s lead single, which became the band’s biggest hit, is “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing”: a piano-driven dance song (courtesy of Elton John) about Shears’ struggles with depression. I wanted to hear the story behind Scissor Sisters’ underrated Night Work (2008), as well as the events leading up to their current hiatus. But perhaps Shears believes the post-2006 years are too recent, too blurry, for a memoir. There are stories that follow the ones Shears tells here, and Shears certainly has the skill to tell them. Boys Keep Swinging is no ghostwritten autobiography; Shears studied creative writing at Eugene Lang College in New York. But what he has written is splendid: a star-studded memoir, a cultural history of gay millennial New York, and an origin story for one of the most important pop acts of the 2000s.
Boys Keep Swinging: A Memoir
By Jake Shears
Hardcover, 9781501140129, 328 pp.