"Since I was born I started to decay." These are Brian Molko's words on "Teenage Angst", a single from Placebo's 1996 self-titled debut album. Taken out of context, the line sounds stark and depressing, like an admission of self-hatred. But within the song, it's brilliant and indulgent. Buried between sludgy riffs and delivered in Molko's reedy voice and sardonic tones, "decaying" sounds like something to aspire to; the perfect tagline in an anthem for outsiders.
I first discovered Placebo ten years after this song was released. I was a teenager then, which really is the only the time to discover such a band because you'll never be as emotional and theatrical in such a shamelessly dedicated, earnest way again in your life – and Placebo could be all those things. Their music was bleak without being boring, stylish without being overt, and Molko's painted nails, jet-black bob and permanently deadpan expression fit neatly among all the emo bands everyone was into at the time, who had likely been influenced by Placebo themselves a decade prior.
When they first emerged, though, they were more than just a goth-grunge band who looked like emos-before-emos but sounded like Sonic Youth. At the tail-end of the 90s, a quick glance at the UK charts in particular could tell you that they stood out like a neon light in a dark alleyway. On one end of the spectrum you had the deliriously straight bubblegum pop of The Spice Girls, Steps and 5ive, and on the other were a slew of Britpop blokes like Oasis, Blur and others who people would barely later remember, like Babylon Zoo, Cornershop and Fat Les. Either way, it was all relatively heteronormative and regular, the campy 80s a faded acid-washed dream and the 70s an even further glam twinkle in the distance – all lost among a sea of sweaty-fringed lads in bucket hats and polo shirts, fist pumping with one hand and hollering "Lager! Lager! Lager!" while swilling beer around with the other.
Placebo weren't anything like that – specifically Brian Molko. He was beautiful and androgynous, his red lipstick, crop tops and eyeliner positioning him as an alternative heartthrob for those snubbing the Gallagher brothers and Damon Albarn. Nowhere is this rejection clearer than when he appeared on the cover of Select – the magazine that coined the term "Britpop" – in 1998, with his top pulled down to show his nipples, hair framing his face like an angel and the headline "hello boys!" scrawled across in Barbie pink, alongside the words: "Placebo: the filthiest band in Britain".
His style, along with the way he casually and regularly referred to his bisexuality in the press, presented an all-encompassing kind of fluidity, with Molko refusing to adhere to widely accepted hetero-gender norms during a time before the term "queer" was used as often as it is now. "We were crossdressers at the beginning of our careers," Molko later told the Belfast Telegraph, "It wasn't a fancy either; we saw it as a political statement. I actually wanted the homophobic to look at me and ask questions about their sexuality, because I believe sexuality is fluid. For me, it's not about gender – it's about people."
It wasn't just to do with how he presented himself to the public though – it was peppered throughout his music too. Queerness most overtly enters Placebo's debut album via "Nancy Boy" (below), a song that would later become so overplayed that Molko would describe getting sick of it like Radiohead grew tired of "Creep". In essence, the song is about getting off your face and having a really good lay, but it's more than that. The title takes a gay slur – the kind that might be flung like a dart in the playground by a bully – and twists it into a winking badge of honour; a term you'd want to apply to yourself.
The lyrics are about a queer guy who gets wasted and has a "different partner every night". On paper, this could have the propensity to grate. Old-fashioned stereotypes that align all queer men as promiscuous have persisted for decades and are both inaccurate and inherently damaging. On the flip side though, there's a hugely false general perception that every queer person wants to assimilate neatly into straight culture; shedding any ounce of "otherness" and getting married and having gaybies and shopping at Homebase. In a similar way to Perfume Genius on "Queen", Placebo's "Nancy Boy" takes those ideas and crushes them by presenting the absolute reverse: "Alcoholic kind of mood / Lose my clothes, lose my lube / Cruising for a piece of fun / Looking out for number one." Of course, these lines could apply to anyone regardless of sexuality or gender, but the fact it's called "Nancy Boy" merges gay sex and drugs and kink and twists it all into a huge middle finger.
When Placebo's second album Without You I'm Nothing arrived in 1998, the material was so personal and unrestrained that people weren't quite sure what to make of it. Pitchfork gave it 5.1 rating, with writer Michael Sandlin going in hard by commenting that "his campy lyrical melodrama hits home with paste-eating geeks and plenty of hard-up, acne-ridden adolescents", adding that they are "providing entertainment ideally suited for the young, cynical, insecure and sexually-ambiguous male virgin".
Sure, some of their lyrics are overtly intense and melodramatic, but so are sex and relationships – all the ones that stick with us anyway – and that's what the album zeroes in on. Whether Molko is singing about a directionless goth who spends all day cruising for shit sex on "Burger Queen" ("Chooses his clothes to match his pallid complexion / Now it takes him all day just to get an erection") or drawing comparisons between taking drugs and having sex with someone who's bad for you on "My Sweet Prince" ("Never thought I'd fill with desire / Never thought I'd feel so ashamed") or how passion can make you act in ridiculous and damaging ways on "Every Me and Every You" ("My heart's a tart, your body's rent / My body's broken yours is bent") Molko presents relationships in a way has absolutely nothing to do with gender, but everything to do with sex. In this way, queerness becomes central purely by the act of making it completely irrelevant. By operating beyond labels, he invites listeners to just engage and relate to the stories he's trying to tell, while simultaneously giving a big "fuck you" to those who find that frankness uncomfortable.
Of course, there are plenty of artists who have subverted gender and sexuality norms before and after Brian Molko – some of them in much more destabilising ways. By the time the 90s had swung around, the world was already well versed in the anarchic spirit of icons like George Michael, Annie Lennox and Boy George and, before them, Grace Jones, Prince and David Bowie. But because the latter half of this decade was so obsessed and propped up by parka-clad masculinity, so completely devoid of camp beyond the heterocentric mainstream pop world, Molko's output was, and remains to be, culture-shifting.
Years later, Molko would admit he was both regretful and proud of now he queered up the 90s, describing it in a way that makes it sound like a double-edged sword. "I regret being so frank about mine and Stefan's sexuality because it freaked people out so much," he wrote. "But, then again, it was important for us to stand up and be counted. It was about freedom and tolerance and acceptance in a prejudiced world… the music world is a lot more accepting now and I think we played our own little part in that."
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(Lead illustration by Esme Blegvad)