In 1992, Bay Area label Lookout Records signed an underground San Francisco band named Pansy Division to its roster. The band’s lyrics, couched in no-frills, earworm-y pop-punk, centered on two themes, both of which bought them infamy: gay romance and gay sex. Lookout was a powerful force in early- to mid-1990s punk rock, known for releasing music from Green Day and Operation Ivy, and the label had good reason to sign the then-fledgling Pansy Division, who were quickly gaining steam with frank, funny lyrics and memorable live performances alongside upstarts like Bikini Kill and Tribe 8. The band — now tagged as “queercore,” though they initially bristled at that identifier — put out its debut for the label in June 1994. Three months later, Lookout provided the band their biggest break yet: an opening spot for Green Day on an upcoming North American tour. Pansy Division’s lead singer and main songwriter, Jon Ginoli, was only vaguely familiar with Green Day at the time — he’d gone to see them in San Francisco twice, and they’d canceled both times. “And then, suddenly, we were gone,” Ginoli writes in his 2009 memoir of the band, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, “on tour with one of the hottest bands in the country.”
Pansy Division have now made it to the quarter-century mark, a milestone celebrated this week by the release of their sixth album, Quite Contrary. In retrospect, the band was clearly central in changing attitudes about LGBTQ people in certain punk circles — playing songs like “Fem in a Black Leather Jacket” and “James Bondage” to sold-out sports arenas, performing nude to draw audiences in small Bay Area clubs, so profoundly in-your-face gay when so many refused to be. In Deflowered, Ginoli recalls that Tré Cool, Green Day’s drummer, told the band that they were chosen as an opening act to kick back against the “dumb jock following” that had come with Green Day's MTV exposure. These new fans were often a hostile crowd for Pansy Division, who were occasionally pelted with coins while they performed. “Green Day and Nirvana’s success had blown open some doors, and we were trying to walk through one of them,” Ginoli writes — trenchant homophobia of the era be damned.
Today, Pansy Division are lauded as queercore legends who challenged the boundaries and acceptance of rock and punk fans, and Quite Contrary is a subtle reconfiguration of the ethos that got them there. Settling into the album's music is an easy task for those familiar with Pansy Division’s catalogue, or any number of other happy-go-lucky pop-punk prototypes. From the album’s opening electric guitar rip, it’s obvious that Pansy Division haven’t changed as much as they might have you believe — though the group has toned down the outright horny lyrics of their early albums here, the band’s adrenalized pop-punk and Ginoli’s tremorous voice are unchanged. Playing “Dick of Death,” from 1996’s Wish I’d Taken Pictures, back-to-back with Quite Contrary’s “He’s Trouble,” it’s as though both were recorded in the same mid-’90s prime. It doesn’t help that the models on the cover of Wish I’d Taken Pictures are recaptured in middle age for Quite Contrary’s artwork, a tender move in line with the band’s ongoing bid for honesty and representation.
Pansy Division have never necessarily been invested in pushing the boundaries of pop punk’s sound — it was always their sex-positive, euphemism-free lyrics about being gay that were the draw. Quite Contrary, true to that cover art, mostly hones in on the passage of time and relationships, which can feel at odds with their cheeky former attitude. “I once wrote a song about being a slut,” goes the opening line of “Love Came Along.” “Now I’ve grown older and that life ain’t making the cut.” There are similarly sobering moments on Quite Contrary that feel like grownup versions of previous Pansy Division songs fitted for a new era — “You’re on the Phone” confronts a distracted, tech-dependent partner, while the largely acoustic “(Is This What It’s Like) Getting Old” earnestly faces its nominal existential crisis head-on. The boys have grown older, and more irascible: The incensed “Blame the Bible” sets a flame to religious hypocrisy, and on “Too Much to Ask,” Ginoli gripes, “Why do gay men treat each other so badly? / Worshiping some app like a savior / With no penalty or consequences for your bad behavior.”
Pettiness aside, the album picks up again with a welcome take on Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin,” beefed up with guitar in place of the original’s synths. Pansy Division are known for their covers and send-ups — they’ve done Prince, Beat Happening, and many more over the decades — but this one feels consequential. Back in 2001, they tried and were turned down for an opening slot on Wotapalava, a “queer Lollapalooza” put together by Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant that almost materialized before succumbing to poor ticket sales and the dropping out of its headliner, Sinéad O’Connor. The presence of “It’s a Sin” on Quite Contrary, then, feels like an olive-branch to Tennant and Pet Shop Boys as well as a salute to their queer legacy — one of the most accomplished of their or any era.
Aside from being active participants in rock music’s social changes in the ’90s, Pansy Division were also witnesses to what others were doing. Bikini Kill were instructive — both bands traded in blunt lyrics in favor of equality in relationships that bucked against patriarchal norms. Being on tour with Green Day, too, exposed Pansy Division to the ways that queerness was being newly accepted (or firmly rejected) in less-traveled pockets of the country. The band’s presence at those shows added some positive reinforcement to struggling LGBTQ people along the way — many fans felt comfortable opening up to them about their own orientation, stories of which are captured at length in Ginoli’s tour diaries. Pansy Division always did aspire to be role models, and with Quite Contrary, there’s an opportunity for their out-and-proud presence to once again be of use to queer musicians and artists coming of age in a post-Orlando environment.
“Younger people ... they've never seen anything like Orlando. They don't remember the bad old days where it was much more dangerous to be out,” Ginoli recently told Rolling Stone. “So I think it’s scared some people back, and that’s understandable, but our message is to be brave, to go out there. We’ve always thought that the best defense is a good offense.” As amorphous as the queercore genre has become since its mid-’90s peak, its architects are still offering tried-and-true methods of fighting back against feeling isolated and scared because of your sexuality — with nervy, enthusiastically gay power pop as a worthy tool.
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