Josh Homme and co. are doing it right.
Written by Susan Shepard (@SusanElizabeth)
In December of 2007, a girlfriend and I went to Portland’s Roseland Ballroom to see Queens of the Stone Age. Melodic and muscular, generous with riffs and hooks, their songs would have filled the Rose Garden thirty years earlier. We were both strippers who had extensive knowledge of indie obscurities (by choice) and radio rock (via workplace exposure), and we agreed that Queens were ballsier than indie rock and smarter than cock rock. As we stood in the crowd waiting for the show to start, a guy standing behind us asked if we were fans. Yeah, of course, we said, why else would we be there? Well, he said, frontman Josh Homme was such a sex symbol, that there were probably women there just because they thought he was hot. We rolled our eyes, said something to the effect of, "Man, this is 2007 and you’re in Portland, Oregon. Don’t be a sexist idiot."
That fan made a serious causation/correlation error about the flow of women to a show. A rock band can make the skankiest dude a booty magnet, after all. But he was almost on to something: Queens of the Stone Age really are the one current charting rock band that can be described as sexy. Their sex appeal stems from Homme’s band, not his looks (not to say he lacks appeal). It’s abundant on their sixth album ...Like Clockwork, which came out in June, and missing from just about every other rock band that sells enough to appear in the top ten.
Queens of the Stone Age really are the one current charting rock band that can be described as sexy. Their sex appeal stems from Homme’s band, not his looks (not to say he lacks appeal). It’s abundant on their sixth album ...Like Clockwork, which came it in June, and missing from just about every other rock band that sells enough to appear in the top ten.
To list bands playing popular rock music with sex in it, first you have to list popular rock music, and that is a very small club. Rock is itself a niche market, further fragmented into smaller categories. Fans of popular guitar-based music can listen to indie bands (Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, The National), Pop Rock (Maroon 5, Fun.), Car Commercial Rock (Black Keys, Kings of Leon) or Strip Club Rock (Nickelback, Kid Rock). The most popular of these artists still lack the cultural omnipresence of Rihanna, Taylor Swift or Kanye West. Musically, they stem from the same family tree, branches of the blues-based rhythmic trunk that originally made rock-n-roll a form of dance music. Now those blues-derived elements are most prominent in hip-hop, R&B, dance, and dubstep. They get the beats and rock gets the riffs. That is a problem if it is going to move you below the waist.
Sensuality in music is highly subjective and not strictly quantifiable, but two elements are indispensable for it to have erotic energy: tension and release. There must be elements at odds with each other until they come together. If they’re always in accord, there is no source of conflict to provoke excitement or anticipation. If they are always in opposition, the lack of release becomes frustration.
Frustration and apathy happen to be the two poles from which the rock tent hangs. The recklessness and desperation of the British protopunks—the Kinks, the Who, the Troggs—gives rise to the former. The Americans—the Stooges, the Velvet Underground—the latter. All of this music has plenty to recommend its particular energy, but the strains that filtered down and were intensified lack the originals' tension. While punk’s raw sneer has aggression and desire, the quality of its sexual energy is that of frustration rather than fulfillment. Nervousness, not swagger. At its other extreme is languor, not passion. Think the replacement of desire by heroin. At either end, danger or sex is lost.
Music can still be lovely, diverting, moving without sex; it's just not very rock and roll. I do not feel aroused, necessarily, by minimalist German techno, but I very much enjoy it and the role it plays in my listening life. Oneohtrix Point Never and Demdike Stare records have great utility for me. And I am not dismissing Vampire Weekend (“Step” is one of my favorite songs of the year) when I say that they have craft but not danger. The same for the National, who have drama but not sex, or Arcade Fire, who have bombast but not heat. They just aren’t particularly slinky or physical because their musical DNA comes from a strain where much of the tension has been bred out.
In the case of strip club rock, your Kid Rocks and Buckcherrys, it’s the subtlety that’s been lost. Their lyrics are packed with single entendres and a surfeit of cockiness without self-awareness. The music lacks tension because of its inability to vary from a tiring, constant wail. It’s just the rock, lacking the roll, the rhythm and low end. Syncopation, melodic bass, and humor got left to other genres. The volume is high and the beat constant, with little room for variation.
Queens feel like a throwback to seventies stadium rock with their riffs, thudding bass, and audacious hooks. They can evoke the hair-farmer sludge of heavy, proto-metal like Blue Cheer or Blue Öyster Cult, with whom they share a predilection for the occasional cowbell (when the band appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2005, their performance included an encore appearance of Will Ferrell’s character from the “More Cowbell” sketch). The blues-influenced heavy rock of the seventies had serious low end, too, something missing from much of contemporary rock. Queens have always had a nasty bass sound, thanks to original, often prodigal, member Nick Olivieri—who returned to guest on the new album in a vocal capacity—and current bassist Michael Shuman.
But their sound is also able to comfortably forego rock constraints. The echoes of “I Only Have Eyes For You” doo-wop on “Kalopsia,” the strange, extended coda of “If I Had a Tail,” fuzzy interludes and noisy intros: all are part of a general weirdness that’s not common for charting hard rock bands. They recently covered an R&B hit, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," something that’s become a nearly obligatory rock move practiced by everyone from the Foo Fighters (“Darling Nikki”) to Slipknot (“Got Money”). While most groups observe the standard practice of rockifying songs from other genres, turning them into blunter, louder versions of themselves, Queens instead performed a playful acoustic cover that emphasized the song’s shuffling blues-via-disco bones.
Homme was unafraid to dive right into Thicke’s vocal range in that cover, probably because he’s always been unafraid to spend extended time in the highest reaches of his own voice. “Smooth Sailing” features his falsetto prominently. Homme has never shied from actual singing and Era Vulgaris’ showpiece of a slow jam “Make It Wit Chu” in particular foreshadowed his vocal stretching on this record. Not many rock frontmen are crooners, now, either. Most other hard rock vocals hew closely to grunge yarling, bar band howling, or metal wailing. Homme could easily stalk a stage like a tatted-up Tom Jones with mic in hand, gazing into the eyes of the front row, catching underthings tossed by fans of all genders.
His vocals are a large part of how Queens evoke a glam influence, which is both musical and attitudinal. There's a strong debt to Roxy Music—one of the sexiest bands with one of the sexiest frontmen of all time—at play here, too: “Prairie Rose” and “Virginia Plain” wouldn’t sound out of place at all alongside much of ...Like Clockwork. He’s so Bowieesque on “If I Had A Tail” that I had to check the album credits, wondering if David Bowie himself had joined Elton John and the other illustrious guests on ...Like Clockwork. And like Bowie, Ferry, or Bolan, the music is both unmistakably masculine and deeply in touch with feminine energy. Their music and presentation is welcoming and not objectifying, wanting their female audience to have a good time rather than be a good time to be had. It is the difference between seduction and objectification; “Let’s fuck” vs “I’m gonna fuck you.” Instead of singing ridiculous lyrics about imaginary object babes, Homme sings about himself (yes, sometimes ridiculously), and when he boasts it’s vaguely hilarious:
I got bruises and hickeys
Stitches and scars
Got my own theme music
Plays wherever I are
It’s no “I want to fuck you like I'm never gonna see you again” (Kid Rock) or “You're a crazy bitch/But you fuck so good, I'm on top of it” (Buckcherry). The closest he comes is “One day when we're/far away/From everything that hurts/Drink wine and screw is all we'll do/Every day” in “Fairweather Friends.”
Glam rock celebrated a display of male sexuality that wasn't necessarily hetero—just DTF. Homme cuts a definitively manly figure (hard to do otherwise as a 6’4” man with knuckle tats), but he wasn’t too invested in machismo to give his band a name with “Queens” in it. It's funny, it took a long time for me to even think about the femininity in the band's name, and when I did, it was only after coming across this quote from Homme:
“Kings would be too macho. The Kings of the Stone Age wear armor and have axes and wrestle. The Queens of the Stone Age hang out with the Kings of the Stone Age's girlfriends when they wrestle, and also it was a name given to us by Chris Goss. He gave us the name Queens of the Stone Age. Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls. That way everyone's happy and it's more of a party. Kings of the Stone Age is too lopsided.”
What’s in a name? Everything, sometimes, like bringing together the regal and the brutish. Being comfortable with the ambiguity in a feminine name makes a strong statement that’s supported by the tension in the music between melody and rhythm. Music doesn’t have sex in it unless two (or more) discrete parts meet within it. For the heat, tension, and propulsion to happen, it has to have the heavy and sweet, feminine and masculine. Rocking and rolling, integrated. Not that you can’t have sex without a partner, but we know what that is.
I said I didn’t want to dismiss Homme’s appeal as a frontman or object, and I won’t, but I will say that the response to him isn’t dependent on the viewer’s sexual orientation. Hot rock frontmen are said to evoke lust in women and envy in men. Boys want to be him, girls want to fuck him. But lust and admiration are counterparts, not opposites, and to desire someone is in part to want to be them in some way. Powerful frontpersons evoke desire and identification in all genders: look at you! I want you! And I want to be wanted, too! What it comes down to is this: It’s not how the audience feels about the performer on stage. It’s how that performer makes them feel about themselves.
That’s eerily close to my job description. Making customers feel good is about making them feel wanted. It’s relatively easy to make a man desire you, but to make him feel like you desire him? That’s success. So I don’t need to feel sexy, necessarily, to perform well at work. And the music in a strip club doesn’t need to be sexy. It is a backdrop to alcohol sales and a performance of sexuality. If “Porn Star Dancing” makes customers happy to the point that they shower me with money and sing along, it’s effective. But it won’t bring me entirely into the moment, which is what I want to do to my customers.
When ...Like Clockwork, their sixth album, came out, my first reaction was joy that I had new songs for work. My current club has a strict rock format and it can be hard to find new music that’s both rock enough for the club and suited to my taste. “My God Is The Sun,” “Smooth Sailing,” and “If I Had A Tail” are all in my regular rotation now, and I’ve been so happy each time customers have come to the stage as excited about the music as my performance. “I like your style,” one guy told me when I was up there. “Queens of the Stone Age! Did you pick this?” Funnily enough, when I told him I did, he didn’t ask me if it was because I thought the singer was hot.