They say nothing influences you as much as music does during your teenage years. You might not understand your parents, school, or how to approach your crush, but the conviction you have for the songs you love is profound and unequivocal. Your teenage choice in music provides a blanket of comfort and a suit of armour at the same time. For me, Placebo became the band that helped me navigate adolescence and everything that came with it – lust, first love, inner turmoil and most importantly: black hair dye. Tons of it.
Around 2004, I was stumbling into puberty; a skinny, gangly late bloomer either obsessively reading or practising ballet moves. Always dressed in black, not yet interested in boys. No fringe long enough to hide my shy eyes from the world. To say I was an outsider in a school focussed on competitive sports and ruled by boisterous cliques would be an understatement. I’d be the Wednesday Addams in every school picture, the Allison Reynolds of the Belgian Breakfast Club.
One Sunday evening at home, when that familiar school dread had started to creep in, Cruel Intentions buzzed on the TV in the background. Suddenly, its soundtrack of sneering guitars broke through the monotony of teenage boredom. I turned up the volume; a nasal voice snarled seductively about sucker love being heaven sent. The song pierced through the afternoon greyness and set it on fire.
Mesmerised, I looked up the music video: Placebo’s ‘Every You, Every Me’, filmed at their sold out Brixton Academy show in 1999. In it, Brian Molko serenaded the crowd in a tight black mini dress. He clutched his guitar to his chest like a lover, left hip jutted out coquettishly. His eyes were wrapped in kohl liner and flickered between coy and seductive. The song mused on hearts being tarts and carving your name into my arm. It teased provocatively, it felt universal.
That same week, clear-eyed obsession took over to the extent that only teenage girls can devote themselves to something they feel passionate about. I’ll never forget the look of fond exasperation my mum gave me when she walked into my room, only to discover I had dedicated an entire wall to the band virtually overnight. Amidst the collection of posters, scraps of interviews and handwritten lyrics, her eyes lingered on the image of Brian with a mascara tear running down his cheeks, Stefan stood next to him in a black mesh top. There was a flicker of recognition in her eyes, as if she was momentarily transported back to the bare-chested Bowie posters of her teenage years.
Fast forward to 23 October 2017. Brixton Road at 11 PM is awash with people leaving the Academy after the first of two sold out Placebo gigs in London. Down the alleyway, a group of young girls is humming the band’s latest single. Next to me, a dad strolls wearing a band t-shirt; his teenage son awkwardly walking a good five feet behind him. There are office workers in suits catching up over a pint, uni students dressed in black, boys in tight crop t-shirts, women holding hands. Few bands manage to attract such a diverse crowd as Placebo does; a community of glorious misfits, of, in Brian’s words, ‘square pegs in round holes.’ United over a shared love for a band which has always been for the outsiders, by the outsiders.
In the early 2000s, Placebo stuck out a middle finger to the macho blandness that was dominating the charts, albeit a finger painted delicately in black nail polish. They provoked through vulnerability, they subverted with a snarl. Only Suede came close to the type of gender fluidity and sentimental sensuality Placebo exuded. Aged thirteen, I was bowled over by this sense of revolution and rebellion in their every move.
Having grown up in a sleepy farming town, the songs confronted me for the first time with topics I had never even been exposed to before. Androgyny, the blurring of gender identity, the visibility of bisexuality – the band challenged and confronted the mainstream in an arresting and authentic way. As a teenager, whether it be Bowie, The Sex Pistols or Kathleen Hannah, finding an artist who gives a voice to the inner struggle you grapple with, and the escapism you long for, goes beyond a sense of comfort. Placebo’s messages laid a foundation of values I didn’t fully realise were there until years after – of tolerance, of acceptance, but also an appreciation of the provocative, of the subtly sentimental. Moreover, the band introduced me to an entire world of influences and references: through them, I deep dived into the work of PJ Harvey, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed and Jean Genet.
I lost track of Placebo when I moved to London. The scruffy British romanticism of indie bands like The Libertines swept me away during university. But when the first notes of Placebo’s ‘Special Needs’ rung out last week in Brixton, years after last hearing them, I could picture my 13-year-old self travelling for hours to Cologne on the train just to hear that song live. I could still feel myself pouring over the lyrics changes in live versions, tracking down obscure Placebo b-sides and writing my own little poems as I gradually untangled that teenage web of confusion. From then on, all I wanted was to write stories that would one day resonate as deeply with someone else as those lyrics did for me. I still want that.
Seeing the band that once provided the soundtrack to my adolescence highlighted how instrumental music can be in shaping your identity. How songs have the capacity to turn your perceived flaws into a badge of honour, how they help you put the concept of ‘fitting in’ into perspective. How important it is that we give teenagers those spaces to explore and experiment. In 2017, it fills me with hope to see so many artists pushing the boundaries when it comes to gender and sexuality, as well as addressing topics that resonate deeply with teenagers now – from political unrest to the peer pressures of social media perfection. When you look at how grime became a voice for disillusioned youngsters and their working-class struggles, you realise just how vital music is as a guiding tool, as an outlet and even as a political movement.
Placebo’s sense of open-hearted sentimentality combined with sexual liberation still sounds as relevant now as it did back in 2003, despite Brian’s vocal struggles last week due to losing his voice. While Placebo once challenged gender norms, their refreshing approach to tackling mental health stigma also plays a big role in their material. The band recently auctioned off a huge selection of personal memorabilia to raise money for the Mercy Centre in Bangkok and for CALM, which raises awareness of suicide among young men in the UK.
I was enamoured to see that the audience embraced the band’s new material as fervently as the classics; ‘Loud Like Love’ and ‘Bosco’ sit comfortably alongside hits like ‘The Bitter End.’ But it was ‘Exit Wounds’ that made me fall in love with the band all over again; no one delivers that heartfelt longing and provocative sensuality as enticingly as Placebo. On their twentieth anniversary, the duo celebrates an impressive oeuvre in style, with a promise of new material on the way. Their future in UK music looks promising. And judging by the wide-eyed wonder on the faces singing along in the crowd, teenage angst anthems, along with black hair dyes, are as timeless as ever.