In years past, when indie pop was referred to as “gay,” it was more likely a junior high put-down about general wussiness than it was about dudes making out. When actual homosexuals such as Stephen Merritt wrote about their romances, they were largely obscured in flowery language, a symptom of a time when lovers were, as he said, “beat up just for holding hands.” More than a decade later, followers of Merritt’s Magnetic Fields can more openly talk about the realities of their urban man-love. On the strength of their self-released debut, Mattachine!, the members of New York City’s Ballet might be the gold standard in this “sissy pop” movement.
Opener “Personal” is ambiguous only for the twenty seconds or so before Greg Goldberg sings, “I saw you on Gaydar.” With a production sheen surprising for a band whose D.I.Y. disc bears the telltale blue belly of a CD-R, the Ballet takes a characteristically light and witty approach to Internet cruising. The bold sequencing of such an unmistakably queer song as the opener colors everything that follows. Although the subsequent charmer, “Cheating on Your Boyfriend,” has no gender-specific pronouns, it’s hard to hear it as anything but a first-person account. On paper the subject matter and synth/string instrumental palette might make it sound like the Ballet is stealing the Hidden Cameras’ lunch, but that band’s hazy folk comes nowhere near the talent for succinct, hook-driven catchiness all over Mattachine!.
“I Hate the War,” the finest song on the album (which features members of Aislers Set, Baskervilles and Voxtrot), proves that the members of the Ballet have more on their minds than boys. Rather than lecture on the finer points of the current political situation, the band focuses on relatable feelings of inarticulate helplessness. “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na/ I hate the war” goes the infectious chorus. Instead of coming across as shallow, it sums things up nicely, hitting the inclusive note of a classic such as “Give Peace a Chance.” Now that we’ve been stripped of the baby boomers’ naive belief in the power of a pop song to legitimately change hearts, what else is there to say?
The Ballet excels in the sort of three-minute ear candy that boys and girls have been writing about each other for ages. That the band members so effortlessly co-opt the form to detail the gay scene is at once more interesting than the same old he-said/she-said and as casually revolutionary only in its universal likeability.