Late-night obsessive behavior—my novel, Sweet Like Sugar, came out a couple weeks ago, and Amazon rankings change every hour—led me recently, overtired and easily distracted, to The Young Professionals, an Israeli duo making electronica. It was 2 a.m., and I was checking my stars on GoodReads and looking at a friend’s Facebook profile, trying to deduce why he hadn’t decided whether he was coming to my reading in the 90 minutes since I’d invited him, when I saw a video posted on his wall. He lacks the courtesy to RSVP to invitations in a timely fashion, but he has good taste in music, so I clicked.
The song that popped up was “20 Seconds,” a tune for a “disconnected generation” caught up with iPhone apps, Prozac, Internet porn, and cruising for sex: “Twenty seconds, you only get one first impression … I’ve got twenty seconds to sell what I got.” (And you thought Madonna had it tough when she only had 4 minutes to save the world.) It’s upbeat, electronic dance pop, utterly brazen about its use of Auto-Tune. Catchy, but nothing revolutionary. Yet there was something about the melody that was vaguely Middle Eastern, giving it a hint of flavor to distinguish it from its American and European cousins. A bit of musical za’atar.
The video played up the East-West tensions further: There were belly dancers, but they were dancing like club kids on Ecstasy. A group of burka-clad women encircled the two motionless male singers—or maybe they weren’t women at all, once we got a peek behind the veil. What the hell was going on here?
The Young Professionals, I soon discovered after some Googling, is the latest side project from Ivri Lider, one of Israel’s biggest pop stars. I’d liked his earlier work as a singer and songwriter—in Hebrew and English—but it had never been this much fun. “D.I.S.C.O.,” another track from the new band, for example, was all heavy beats and froth, what a former editor of mine might have dubbed “an entertainment,” something not to be taken too seriously. That song’s video, however, proved that the band was taking silliness extremely seriously, mixing in a cross between Robert Palmer’s robotic dancing girls and Kylie Minogue’s headgear-heavy club kids, and costumes seemingly designed by whoever got auf’d any given week from Project Runway. Lider and bandmate Yonatan Goldstein appeared again in their roles as the stiff singers from “20 Seconds.” And the mustachioed man behind the burka (Uriel Yekutiel) was there again, too, only this time he was twirling a glittering hula hoop in slow motion, wearing black spandex right down to his high heels. The video was like the Cliffs Notes to Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’”
Lider came out years ago. He’s one of Israel’s highest-profile gay celebrities. But there’s out, and there’s out there. Ivri Lider is out. The Young Professionals are out there.
A lot has changed in Israel since I visited Tel Aviv in 1995, hoping to snag an interview with Dana International, a transgender pop star whose infectious dance song “Layla Tov, Europa” came in second in the race to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. (This was two years before she’d try again, successfully, with “Diva”—which topped the Israeli competition, arousing all sorts of vitriol from the political right, before going on to win the international contest, bringing the coveted pop prize to Israel for the first time since “Hallelujah” did in 1979.) I had approached Ofer Nissim, the DJ and producer who was handling such requests for Dana, and explained that I was reporting for the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper. “A gay newspaper?” he asked, baffled. My Hebrew was mediocre, but I repeated myself: a newspaper for gay people. “Ah,” he said, “you write about dicks.” The editor of the buttoned-down Blade—the oldest gay paper in America, and strictly PG-rated—would have fainted, hearing something like that. But at the time, it wasn’t even imaginable in Israel that gay culture involved anything but sex, not even to a DJ who hosted huge gay dance parties in Tel Aviv and produced disco music by Israel’s biggest transgender celebrity.
In my dark apartment, the music was doing its job. I had forgotten about my Amazon ranking, and had bought the band’s new album, 9:00 to 17:00, 17:00 to Whenever. While it was downloading, I replayed the video for “D.I.S.C.O.” and danced around in my boxer shorts—very softly, so my downstairs neighbors could foolishly get their sleep.
The rest of the album mixes often-raunchy lyrics with a melancholy take on intimacy. In “Bad Blood,” Lider intones “White skin, white skin/ you don’t know the state I’m in/ red blood, sweet cherry/ and off to Canada to marry.” In “Deserve,” the fierceness yields to something more tender: “You deserve someone stronger than me/ who doesn’t need a drink to tell you that he wants to … And when you’re gone that’s who I wanna be/ but I don’t really know if I can.” And there’s sex, woven into the songs without hesitation or de-gaying. As Lider sings in “Family Value,” “Shame is not something I dance to.”
I listened some more. “With Me” echoed old Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark. “Wake Up” sounded vaguely like Orbital. “Young Professionals” had some Pet Shop Boys pedigree, and “Angry Alone” shared lineage with Madonna in her Mirwais phase, circa American Life. I was in Tel Aviv one minute, Berlin the next. Or New York, very late at night. Which, in fact, was exactly where I was.
Then I got to the song that hooked me: a coverof Suzanne Vega’s pumping “Blood Makes Noise.” Lider has often been smart about his covers. When he recorded Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” for the 2006 Israeli movie The Bubble, he turned a classic on its head with the greatest of respect. And when he covered Katy Perry’s cheeky, flirty pop song “I Kissed a Girl” a few years ago, morphing it into a wistful, melancholy, acoustic meditation—all while taking a queer song and queering it up a notch, singing, “I kissed a girl and I liked it, hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”—he completely won me over as a fan. (This didn’t work as well with Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” proving that even a gay man can’t out-gay Gaga.)
But “Blood Makes Noise” was already dear to my heart—and one of the best pop songs ever about AIDS. (It doesn’t particularly matter to me that Vega was vague on what she was talking about in the song; when it came out in 1992, a lot of gay men heard it as an AIDS-inspired song, and that resonance endures for many of us.) In the song, a patient talks to a doctor: “I think that you might want to know the details and the facts/ but there’s something in my blood denies the memory of the acts … Blood makes noise/ it’s ringing in my ear/ and I can’t really hear you in the thickening fear.”
This is heavy stuff for The Young Professionals, but they handle it in a most wonderful way: They turn it into a driving electronic dance song. This isn’t a camp, but it’s not a reverential homage, either. It’s defiant in its insistence on dance-floor legitimacy; yes, it’s a heavy song, but the beat is throbbing and irresistible, so get up and dance, dammit. In a flash, “Blood Makes Noise” becomes something different from what it was before. No longer the cousin to other well-crafted, obliquely referenced pop songs about AIDS—think of Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring” or the Blow Monkeys’ “Digging Your Scene”—this dance tune was more a descendant of “Hit That Perfect Beat,” the only memorable track that gay trailblazers Bronski Beat recorded after the departure of their falsetto-voiced founding vocalist Jimmy Somerville. That 1986 disco anthem touched on AIDS in its lyrics—“boys in the back room/ their house destroyed/ touch and kiss a stranger if all else fails/ hiding from the danger that’s been sent from hell”—but there’s nothing mournful about it. The unrelenting beat was the important thing, as I understood from the single’s rainbow-colored poster, featuring rows of identical boys beating drums, that hung over my bed in high school.
And there, as this new version of “Blood Makes Noise” pushed out of my computer in the middle of the night, I was taken back to that moment 25 years ago. A moment when dance music wasn’t afraid to take up the occasional heavy subject—think of earlier Bronski Beat (with Somerville still at the mike) addressing anti-gay violence in “Why?”—as long as everyone remembered what dance music was all about: staying up late, having a good time, and forgetting your worries—“smiling through our tears,” as Marc Almond once put it, “in these darker times.”
It was after 3 a.m. when I finally decided to turn off the music and try to get some sleep. I almost forgot to check Amazon for sales. Almost, but not quite. My ranking was suddenly up: Some other night owl must have bought a copy. How could I sleep now? I called up The Young Professionals album again and clicked on “Blood Makes Noise” one more time. To help me stay up until 4.