Want A Good Time: Confidence Man at Village Underground

Janet Planet and Sugar Bones celebrate camp, rave, fun and sex. It winds up the purists and it delights the sold-out crowd at Village Underground

Confidence Man put on a brilliant show. Their set at London’s Village Underground is a perfectly executed delight, synchronised and wonky all at once, inducing a feverish and flamboyant rave among a sold out crowd of old, young and in-between that’s potent, powerful, but most of all completely ridiculous. Their band, anonymous men in black, beekeeper-style veils, arrive first and gee up the crowd over a pummeling rave instrumental before Janet Planet and Sugar Bones, both dressed all in white (aside from the Sugar’s giant gold neck chain), strut onstage to greet a crowd already in the throes of a manic dance. Their music relies on colossal, thumping beats and rushes of groove that lie somewhere between Deee-Lite, Screamadelica and vintage Girls Aloud, while Janet and Sugar perform frantic dance routines as they sing, synchronised but still messy.

So good are this group that in 2017 the hugely influential Australian radio outlet Triple J named them the nation’s ‘Best Up-And-Coming Live Band’. This sparked a colossal backlash from the Aussie music scene. ‘Have you all lost your ever loving minds? This group of clowns doesn’t even constitute a band’, whined one muso named Grant; ‘Jesus fucking Christ, this is an absolute abomination,’ carped another, Damian. ‘This is a deadest fucking joke. Better acts on every night of the week in Perth and probably any other city. Disgrace,’ whimpered a third, Jesse.

This cheerless point of view of course misses the point. It is Confidence Man’s artifice that defines them as outliers in pop. Their wonky interactive dance routines, Sugar’s enormous pecs and the blank, mardy stare that’s constantly planted across Janet Planet’s face as she breezes through songs about the tedium of a too-nice boyfriend (‘Boyfriend’), being the most popular girl at the party (‘C.O.O.L. Party’), and her legions of male suitors (‘Try Your Luck’), are exactly what makes them not only one of the best live bands around, but one of the most intelligent too.

When I interviewed Janet Planet for this Quietus feature earlier this year, we discussed this backlash. “Initially I didn’t understand why people would have such a problem with fun music, but then I realised I didn’t care,” she said. “Yeah, you could go and write music like ours, and go and do live shows like ours, but you didn’t. You also have to have the desire to create something like that. You have to be a fun, excitable, creative person. People seem to think you need to do all this hard touring, but if you know exactly what you like I don’t think it really matters. You don’t have to do all the shitty stuff to make it. If you have a good idea, and your music is good enough, you’ll make it anyway.”

And lord, is this live show fun. ‘C.O.O.L. Party’ is, on the surface, naff as fuck. Janet and Sugar perform a ‘YMCA’-style dance during a comically gruff staccato rendition of those letters – ‘C-O-O-L Cool!’ – their arms aloft make the shape of each letter as the crowd duly follows suit. Lyrically the song is a spoken word tale told in Janet’s finest spoilt Cali-girl accent, ending on a chorus of ‘I’m a cool party girl in a cool party world’, recalling the cheesiest of cheesy hits, Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’. Such is the atmosphere that Confidence Man create, however, that even the most hardened cynic would be pressed not to be swept away in the unabashed joy of it all. It’s so flagrantly ridiculous, so extremely fatuous and over-the-top that it is carefree in the most genuine sense of the word.

‘Boyfriend’, meanwhile, the band’s best and biggest hit (live footage of which first broke the band on Triple J), features a rising, frantic beat to which the crowd are invited to squat down on the floor before Janet proclaims at its colossal drop: “Get down!” In a second the room leaps to its feet and is consumed by uninhibited, reckless abandon.

It is because they’re so fun that Confidence Man have put the purists’ backs up. They are too pop for the noodling psych-worshippers, and they are too bombastic and ridiculous to gain the trust of the straight-up dance purists, but Confidence Man are bona fide geniuses when it comes to perfecting the art of camp pop music. In her essay, Notes On “Camp”, Susan Sontag defines that sensibility as follows: “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” In Sugar Bones and Janet Planet, you have a masterclass in the art of Camp.

Support comes from the DJs of London club night Savage, whose neon-decked drag queens dance onstage to thumping techno before the main event begins. Confidence Man’s set, meanwhile, features a number of costume changes. At one point, Janet wears an enormous conical bra and topless Sugar wears two enormous shoulder pads, both with LED lights that strobe and spiral in time with the rave. On ‘C.O.O.L Party’, the two sing part of the song while gazing into handheld vanity mirrors, Janet by now decked in white fake fur.

“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’, of things-being-what-they-are-not,” says Sontag, a point embodied by Janet Planet. Watching her leap and bound her way through these overblown, breathlessly energetic tales of sex, drugs and hectic parties, all the while looking comically bored and unenthusiastic, her dance moves purposely over-rehearsed as if she’s sighing every time she wildly waves her arms or tilts dramatically to the floor with her mic stand, is bizarre, off-kilter and brilliant. She and Sugar inhabit their preposterous personas to perfection.

In an age of relative sexual conservatism in indie (particularly the kind of indie that their detractors so cherish), Confidence Man are also the randiest band around. Their songs are mostly about either partying, taking drugs, shagging, or simply being extremely physically attractive, and their moves are replete with suggestive strokes. Their brilliance lies in that, thanks to their inherent goofiness, they undercut any potential leeriness that might come along with all this; there is nothing deviant or creepy about this show. The masculine role is a subservient one, their campness undermines it and the results filter through to their audience. While Janet wears a look of disdain, Sugar throws himself around stage with silly, awkward abandon. For one of their many routines, the two stage a mock Wild West pistols-at-dawn duel, which Janet wins, dancing manically, arms aloft, over Sugar’s prostrate body.

Confidence Man reclaim the notion that music is supposed to be fun, that sex is supposed to be fun, that both can be silly and that all of this is okay. Though they pay no heed to any ‘need’ to write deep, impactful lyrics, or to prove their musicianship with any flashy solos (it’s worth nothing that all of the band have their roots in acclaimed bands in the Aussie psych scene, and each is in fact incredibly accomplished in this regard), they are nevertheless a deceptively astute and intelligent band whose anti-purism is a mark of excellence. “I only want a good time,” soars the refrain on their encore, ‘Out The Window’. This they deliver, and then some.

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