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Why Pansy Division still matters -- and not just to suburban kids

Wednesday, Sep 3 2003
Imagine this: It's 1992 and Bill Clinton is squaring off against George H.W. Bush for the chance to eat lunch in the White House for the next four years. At this time, Bush has recently pulled the armed forces out of Iraq, the economy is faltering, and I am just starting high school while living in a suburb in Orange County, listening to Pearl Jam. There is no Ellen, there is no Will & Grace. People still think Elton John's "Daniel" is about one of the singer's close, personal friends. Straight guys are a long way away from having the benefit of queer eyes.

Then two things happen: The gays-in-the-military issue comes to a head, prompting Clinton to institute his dubious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy; and Pansy Division forms, a band out of San Francisco that likes to write songs about doing it in the butt. To a historian, these must be significant events in the time line of gay acceptance in mass culture. To Pansy Division, it was just a case of good timing.

In 1994, Green Day laid a Dookie and punk rock announced to the mainstream that it wasn't just crashing on the couch for a few days, that it would be staying for quite a while, that, as a matter of fact, it would never leave. And because a) its three-chord pop-punk was no better or worse than Green Day's, b) the two bands were once labelmates on Lookout!, and c) being gay was, at the time, more punk rock than being vegan, Pansy Division was snatched up as the opening act on Green Day's nationwide stadium tour, which exposed both groups to a throng of conservative suburbanites that included yours truly.

To a 15-year-old, Pansy Division's shtick was mind-boggling. I mean, I was a music-theater dork, so I thought I had a sense for what being gay was all about: lisping, emoting, and an odd prescience for fashion trends. It was not, as far as I knew, about penises the width of beer cans and something called the "Cock Sucker Club." Needless to say, that shit was news to me.

Now I have a 14-year-old sister, and in addition to having openly gay TV, she's also got openly gay classmates and teachers, not to mention Ricky Martin. And while there are still battles to fight on the gay-rights front -- when I last checked, I think a quarter of the Episcopal dioceses were still screaming "Schism!" over the ordaining of the openly gay Rev. Gene Robinson -- it's fair to say that the members of Pansy Division could look around, see what's become of their cause over the last decade, and nod to one another, muttering, "Our work is sorta, kinda done here."

It's been more than two years since SF Weekly first ran a story on the return of Pansy Division ("Boys' Band," by Joel Engardio, Aug. 15, 2001). Not that many of you noticed, but the group hadn't returned -- until now. The act's latest album is Total Entertainment, and its long-overdue release (the last record dropped in 1998), according to bassist Chris Freeman, can be blamed on the label that first signed Pansy Division.

"We had explained to Lookout! that we were coming up on our 10-year anniversary, and it would have been perfect timing for all these things we had planned," says Freeman, calling from the band's van en route to the next stop on its first tour in five years. "Basically, Lookout! sat on the plans for six months and wouldn't return calls. Finally, at the 11th hour we said, 'Look, if we're going to institute this plan, we basically have another couple of weeks to get you some of these things in order to make it work.' And they said, 'You know what, we're not interested in going forward. We'll keep your back catalog or whatever, but you know ....' So we thought, 'Well, thanks a lot Lookout! Thanks for supporting us in our 10th year and putting us so behind schedule' -- 'cause we had everything all set to go."

Chris Applegren, president of Lookout!, remembers that "[e]xpectations were really high with [1998's Lookout!-released] Absurd Pop Song Romance, and I don't think we had quite achieved everything that we'd wanted. That prompted the band to take an extended break and not be really active like they are now. The reality was they had just fallen off our radar as an active band," he says, adding that while he "loves the band," his label's enthusiasm had waned to the extent that he no longer felt comfortable releasing Pansy Division's new material.

Stranded without a label, the band members spent the next few years finishing the record themselves and shopping it around. Alternative Tentacles ended up putting it out. But at the group's recent CD release party at Cafe Du Nord, the minuscule turnout seemed to indicate that record-label execs aren't the only ones who have forgotten about Pansy Division. So have fans in San Francisco -- and elsewhere.

"I think in L.A. we expected a few more people, but you never know. It's hard to know," says Freeman.

I wish I could say that those of you who missed out on Pansy Division's recent shows should be kicking yourselves right now, but sadly, I can't. While the aforementioned SF Weekly story reported, in addition to a comeback, a change in musical direction, that change turned out to be barely noticeable. The songs are still anthemic to the point of being cheeky; you can see the choruses coming from a mile away. And although, as promised, some of the lyrics deal with more universal themes and are, in their own ways, subtle (like Elton John's "Daniel"), there are still tunes like "He Whipped My Ass in Tennis ...," whose chorus proclaims, "He whipped my ass in tennis/ So I fucked his ass in bed." This kind of gaudy confession isn't necessarily a bad thing -- if you liked Pansy Division before, you'll probably still like the group now. It's just that, as Freeman notes, songs like these are no longer all that shocking.

"The climate now is very different than when we started out," says the bassist. "We've got all these gay movies and gay characters and blah, blah, blah, which we didn't have when we started. [Back then], it was like, 'We're alone out here.' Now we've got seven albums under our belt and 12 years. So I think we've proven the point wrong that you can't have a career and be out of the closet. That was what we were always told at the beginning. But as we went along, the themes of our songs had to change because we couldn't just keep rewriting the same song over and over again."

In my opinion, though, those themes haven't really evolved, which on second thought may not be so bad. Because what I find myself wondering is, did Pansy Division, its explicit lyrics, and its followers in the queercore movement really change things? Or did sending up gay issues in a crass and humorous, not to mention catchy, manner merely make suburbanites like myself feel a little more comfortable with those issues, so that now I can watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and think, "Oh, how cute and funny," while at the same time there are recent polls which reflect that the percentage of people in this country who oppose gay marriage is on the rise. Perhaps, then, it's no coincidence that Pansy Division is mounting a comeback during an economic downturn, in a time when another Bush is fighting off the Democrats, the policy of gays in the military remains "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and we're back in Iraq. The band's message may not be as fashionable or as punk rock as it once was, but it's just as relevant.

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Garrett Kamps


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