Somewhere in between the intimidatingly unambiguous queerness of kd lang and the plausibly deniable maybe-just-feminism of Gala, the middle of the 1990s offered my sub-generation of queer women who didn’t yet have words for themselves Scarlet, a typically empowered, red-lipsticked female duo whose videos wanted you to think they came from New York but who actually turned out to come from Hull.
Next to The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, The Spiders From Mars, Throbbing Gristle, The Watersons and Everything But The Girl – and Calum Scott as well now, I suppose – Scarlet wouldn’t even rate the top five in most lists of Hull bands. Even Google, which today’s algorithmic panic would suggest ought to know that if there’s any chance I’m looking up queer subtext from the Nineties then I probably am, brings their Wikipedia page in two places below a bus company from County Durham and a local news article about a wave of scarlet fever that’s been going round.
In the winter of 1994 and 1995, though, their first and biggest hit ‘Independent Love Song’ was possibly the purest example of a song that had something, everything to do with me, maybe so much to do with me I quietly let myself forget how much when I started hammering together the identity full of excuses I was about to try to live inside.
Neither of the women in Scarlet looked like me, or like the images of what I might want to become that I used to gaze towards and measure myself against. Together and apart, they still signalled aesthetics I could already read as ‘liberated’ but wasn’t yet ready to parse as queer, with the video’s main setting (a Manhattan intersection blocked, as Manhattan intersections in the 1990s apparently so often were, by the band playing piano) continually seguing into close-ups in old-Hollywood soft focus. Jo, the brunette, had the high-fringed bob and pinstripe outfit of a Romaine Brooks portrait, looking as if she’s about ten or fifteen years on from selling a pair of gloves to a woman called Carol. Cheryl, the Eighties-Nineties blonde, wore the frock-coats and ruffled shirts that were still just about too fashionable for me to realise that some of the women who made them into their image were doing so to signal something else.
‘Independent Love Song’ could just have been about women more interested in their vocations than their marriages, if you heard it that way. It could have been about getting and staying off the relationship escalator, about serial monogamy, or polyamory. It would have worked as asexual affirmation, to anyone who already knew asexuality could be affirmed. Its matter-of-fact inclusion of bisexuality as part of its woman-centred queerness seems more organic now than anything similar I heard for years (this, in a song you’d hear on shop stereos while you were buying pic-and-mix in Woolworths or toiletries in Boots). But its video (where Cupid and some cherubs in leather flying helmets are capering along Broadway, transfixing couples on the brink of longing with the courage to hook up) turns out to be, with the incision of hindsight,
It sounded like something I was going to want when I was ready, with nothing even forbidden or threatening or dangerous about it. It must have sounded so normal and ordinary that, when I started persuading myself a few months later that I didn’t want to be with other women only look like some of them, the invitation to identify with a requited romance which had never even been held out to me before on terms I wanted had already started to fade back away.
‘Independent Love Song”s #12 in the UK charts was Scarlet’s only ever time in the Top 20. The follow-up, hastily clarifying the terms of their vision of liberation as ‘I Wanna Be Free (To Be With Him)‘, made #21 later that spring, and their record label dropped them after their next singles missed the Top 40 and their second album Chemistry (the first had been Naked) also failed to chart.
Their place on pop radio playlists would be taken by the sultrier Texas and the quirkier Alisha’s Attic, a band whose name has somehow lodged itself inextricably beside a certain London burrito chain in my brain, so that every time I walk past I wonder if Alisha’s attic is where Benito left his hat.
Scarlet’s first and only real hit didn’t reveal most of what it could have told me until I heard it fourteen or fifteen years later, meeting my sister in a Bournemouth pub with a video jukebox that served random songs from its library on to the big screen when the football wasn’t on. Almost the moment I’d walked in to look for her, I’d realised ‘Think Twice‘ had been playing (which nobody needed to have heard me talk about as much as I’d made my sister listen to, when I was twelve or thirteen), just too late to be able to wait for it to finish and come back in again. Whatever layer of cortex in my brain turns image into myth is still convinced, if you really poke it, either that she’d rigged the jukebox to do that as I came in or that it had recognised what to pull out from my memory to make most mischief on its own. (All the best jukeboxes have a little bit of magic, and some of the ones I like to imagine have a lot.) Next up, or so my re-sensitised mind remembered, Scarlet.
‘”I’m doing it a different way,”‘ I’m sure I said out loud, with fifteen years’ more practice of hearing queerness coiled inside a labyrinth of lyrics that invite you in, once you’ve started to understand the labyrinth isn’t always a lair. ‘”I’m doing it a different way?“‘
‘Go down… and I’ll show you how to touch me?’ they went on. Though actually, it wasn’t even a love song where women had to be doing that in order to still be doing it a different way, and still as much of a valid one as well – and that must have been one of its most radically independent resonances at a time when any lesbian representation I did see suggested I’d have to become much more enthusiastic about sex than I expected I was ever going to be, or I’d never be a lesbian at all.
Over the last two and a half years, working on the queer contemporary fantasy novel I’m querying agents with now (where queer women are discovering how to manipulate video technology and use their identifications with pop and film stars, mythological figures or any heroes in between to charge their magic, in a story that begins in the 1990s), I’ve sifted through my own queer ideograms as well, very occasionally conceding I’d have to lend them one of mine. ‘Independent Love Song’ didn’t even register then: perhaps because the mood I need for my female duos in the 1990s is dysfunctional, or otherwise where would conflict happen? (Shakespear’s Sister, on the other hand, let’s talk: especially with Siobhan Fahey at their last ever performance with that holly crown.)
But also – I’m thinking today because chatting on Twitter about a song by Dubstar reminded me that Sarah Blackwood from Dubstar hadn’t come from Hull like I thought, but Scarlet had, and wasn’t there something about that one song of theirs…? – I wonder if what I used to hear in ‘Independent Love Song’ was so far ahead of what I spent my mid-teens trying to understand, that subconsciously it doesn’t even make sense for me to have heard it.
When Scarlet sang about a love that could still be big and that strong, even though they were doing it a different way, I wasn’t hearing what I wanted to be like when I was with someone; I was hearing what I wanted being with someone to be like.
And eventually, many more stories later, I’d be able to hear one and tell one that was right.