Not long ago, subcultural clans seemed a lot easier to define. For example, citizens of the hetero world once knew (or thought they knew) that the music beloved by gay men ran the gamut from ABBA and disco to show tunes and Judy Garland. By the same token, breeders were certain that gays couldn't possibly like punk rock. After all, the anti-establishment rhetoric declaimed by many of the genre's practitioners was often cut with an unhealthy dose of testosterone, misogyny and homophobia.
But these are the postmodern Nineties, folks, and everything you thought you knew is wrong. Middle-aged straights afflicted with Seventies nostalgia are among the most rabid disco boosters now. Meanwhile, the San Francisco homocore band Pansy Division is making punk that appeals to boys into boys as well as boys into girls.
"It's the fifteen-year-old in me that was motivated to start this band," explains Jon Ginoli, the act's lead singer and guitarist, from a tour stop in Nashville, Tennessee. "I never had anything like this growing up. So I don't really get sick of people asking me about the queer thing, because that's why we started--to be a queer rock band. I had friends who told me, you don't want to do that, because you'll be 'that gay band.' But I thought, if everyone is being so reticent about gay issues, then we'll be the one band that isn't. That'll be our niche. And if somebody thinks that's limiting, well, a lot of songs are still being written about heterosexuality."
Ginoli and his comrades (bassist Chris Freeman and drummer Dustin Donaldson) needn't apologize: Pansy Division's irreverent, raunchy approach to celebrating queer life provides a welcome rebuttal to the vision of America that Pat Buchanan and his followers espouse. Moreover, the Pansys' fourth and latest platter, the just-released Wish I'd Taken Pictures (on Lookout! Records), finds the group sounding stronger than ever. Humorous ditties such as "Horny in the Morning," "Dick of Death" and "Sidewalk Sale" are smart, tuneful and aggressive in the tradition of the Ramones. This time around, however, the objects of desire don't wear skirts.
As recently as the late Eighties, this simple fact would have doomed Pansy Division to cultish obscurity. But while the players' path hasn't been lined with roses (Ginoli still doesn't know if the band's new video, for "I Really Wanted You," will make it past MTV censors), their career hasn't been relegated to the closet. They've been profiled in US, Interview and the Village Voice, and in 1994 they achieved what was once unthinkable for an overtly gay group: an opening slot on an arena tour headlined by Green Day, its onetime Lookout! labelmate.
"When we started out, we thought this would be a thing of limited interest, but we've gotten a lot bigger," Ginoli concedes. "When we played with Green Day, there was always this blend of reactions. It was always, 'What's it going to be like tonight?' But who would've thought that a place as conservative as Cincinnati would be one of the best cities?" He adds, "We'd always thought that our first album would be this big belch of enthusiasm that nobody would ever hear, but it didn't turn out that way."
There are other queer punk bands making noise these days--New York's God Is My Co-Pilot, Portland's Team Dresch and the Bay Area's Tribe 8 among them. But Pansy Division is the best connected and the easiest for fans with different preferences to enjoy. Quite simply, "James Bondage," "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," "Groovy Underwear," the Kurt Cobain nod "Smells Like Queer Spirit" and a pumped-up version of Liz Phair's "Flower" are good, not-so-clean fun.
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The act's X-rated humor has attracted a great many converts; Ginoli says the crowds the band is drawing these days include gays of all ages plus "a run-of-the-mill indie crowd and punk kids in black leather jackets." Profanities have also played a role in restricting airplay of Pansy Division songs, but Ginoli believes Pictures could change all that. "On the first album [1993's Undressed], maybe nine of thirteen songs couldn't be played, just for language," he notes. "But on this album, there's only a couple. There's a lot more relationship-type songs on this record, and at first I thought we'd written too many serious songs. But I wanted to do something that was serious and entertaining at the same time. The idea was just to do something totally up front."
This tack seems to be working. Pictures is the first Pansy Division disc to earn a release in Europe, where the combo will be visiting once it's completed its current trek of North America. Still, the Pansys aren't sermonizing. They're just branching out.
"It sounds like a real do-gooder thing, where our issues are more important than the music," Ginoli admits. "But actually, they're equally important. We do this for reasons of self-expression, not to be role models. Of course, if that happens, it's fine. Being gay, living happily is the best revenge."
Pansy Division, with the Violet Burning. 9:30 p.m. Thursday, March 28, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6, 830-TIXS or 294-9281.