The Madison queer-punk duo celebrates the release, “We’re Gay,” on July 20 at The Wisco.
Gender Confetti has become an undeniable force in Madison’s music community over the past two years, playing punk songs that celebrate the power and joy of queer people in the most straightforward terms one could ask for. The duo of drummer/vocalist Elyse Clouthier and guitarist/vocalist Sylvia Johnson combines rage with gleeful defiance in its live sets. The band’s 2018 EP, Queers Of Joy, built its songs on a mix of shout-along power-chord-driven choruses and tender, delay-rippled clean guitar figures that captured a sense of exuberant resolve growing amid struggle. One of the EP’s most touching songs, “Gay Mirror,” combines both of those approaches in a call-out to people feeling vulnerable and isolated: “If you feel alone, it’s OK / We are here, your gay mirror.”
Johnson and Clouthier offer new takes on each of the EP’s songs, plus six new ones, on Gender Confetti’s debut album, We’re Gay, and they’ll celebrate its release on Saturday, July 20 at The Wisco, as part of the Hot Summer Gays series. Just as on Queers Of Joy, the duo sticks to a stripped-down, live-sounding approach, though the album, recorded at the analog Williamson Magnetic recording studio, captures it with a bit more fullness and warmth. What has changed is the scope of the songwriting.
“Lyrically and thematically, we wanted to expand beyond queer liberation and into liberation for all,” Clouthier says. “Songs we wrote since [Queers Of Joy] talked about racism, borders, and consent culture, for example.”
The opening track, “Ask First,” which you can stream here, basically sets a lyrical and sonic agenda for We’re Gay as a whole: Johnson and Clouthier want to rip into a range of issues, and they want to do it in an affirming, consent-driven environment. “Don’t make the assumption I’m here for your consumption / I’m not a piece of licorice for you to suck on,” the two declare in scrappy unison. The song goes on to shout out sexual-assault survivors, including those outside the queer community, and in between chaotically swinging distorted passages, there’s a calming break for restrained guitar and soft, wordless vocals.
“It’s definitely a song that encapsulates so much of what we are about—it comments on rape culture, defining one’s agency, the impact of #metoo, and the way we want to practice/envision a consensual, pleasureful mode of relating to others,” Johnson says. “It’s angry, queer AF, critical, hopeful, liberatory, and sexy—that’s Gender Confetti.”
The arc of the record sets explicitly queer messages alongside songs that elevate the struggles of other marginalized groups. On the second track, “No Borders,” Gender Confetti takes on both the desperation of Central American migrants and the “smokescreen of the American dream,” urging people to transform both: “Respect and embrace humanity / Respect and embrace diversity.” On “Wonderbread,” the duo tries to balance blunt sloganeering with a nuanced message about white people’s role in the fight against racial oppression: “White guilt is useless / We need revolution.” A punk song urging white people to reject their guilt could, of course, go quickly off the rails in the wrong hands, but this one succeeds in making its point: White people can only fight racism if they stop centering themselves and their own feelings.
“Writing about the oppression of people of color when you’re white is a tricky thing,” Clouthier acknowledges. “We challenged ourselves, because we didn’t want to be silent. We wanna use our privilege and voice to fight for ourselves and with others for collective liberation.”
Johnson, who is also white, also sees punk songwriting as a balancing act: “A lot of the things we write songs about are pretty complex ideas, usually surrounding identity and oppression. The point is not to be reductive or dilute those concepts, it’s to translate them in ways that are more easily understood by more people.”
Both members of Gender Confetti have played music in Madison for years, Clouthier in bands including Clean Room and Lurk Hards and Johnson in projects including the electronic-pop solo project Midas Bison and under the DJ Hitachii moniker. But they both seem to realize that Gender Confetti has resonated with audiences in a much bigger way than anything either musician has done before.
“Being vulnerable is very powerful,” Clouthier says, reflecting on Gender Confetti’s quickly won popularity. “Being genuine allows others to open up. Queers, gender deviants, communists, anarchists, socialists, people fighting for liberation and social justice can all relate to something in the lyrics. And those are all areas where we sometimes feel isolated from society. So we can connect with people.”
The music itself is indeed powerful, making room for hurt, humor, and righteous fury, often all in the same breath. (See one of the album’s new tracks, “Sext.”) It also comes along at a moment when queer people are making a renewed push for visibility and inclusion in music scenes and in every other societal context.
“A lot of trans/queer/GNC folx feel really unsafe in a lot of DIY punk situations because of toxic masculinity and rape culture,” Johnson says. “I think people, especially queer women and femmes, feel comfy at our shows.”
Going forward, the duo wants to explore a broader range of sounds, including songs that incorporate more overt elements of both pop and hardcore. Clouthier and Johnson are working on a couple of songs specifically aimed at queer youth, which they plan to perform this September at Haystack Weekend, a gathering in Maine for LGBTQ students. Clean Room has several shows coming up, including a July 25 Planned Parenthood benefit at Mickey’s Tavern. Johnson has joined Madison punk band Once A Month as its new drummer, and is planning to play a Midas Bison show this fall.
We’re Gay drops July 20 via Bandcamp. Another album track, a new version of “Deviant,” is streaming on the album’s Bandcamp page now.
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