On 'Hideous Bastard,' Oliver Sim mines horror tropes to embrace queer identity
Ugly, beaten down and bloody; hidden and lonely; sick and perverse, all around at his worst: This is where we find Oliver Sim as he opens Hideous Bastard. Over a serpentine bassline and big, weepy violins, Sim lances the infected wound of his self-esteem, asking over and over, "Am I hideous?" He doesn't get an answer, but he does come to a realization: "Radical honesty might set me free if it makes me hideous." Herein lies the central conceit of his debut solo album, that we may reclaim power for ourselves by embracing what makes us monstrous.
Sim is far from the first artist to turn to horror imagery to reckon with queerness; populated with unloved experiments and villainous boundary transgressors, horror has always contained an allegory for the queer experience. From the ostracization for same-sex intimacy in Carmilla, one of the earliest works of fiction about vampires, to the denial and disbelief in the supernatural that seals the protagonist's fate in the ghost story of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House or the gender dysphoria of serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, queer horror fans have long seen themselves in parts of these stories.
More and more often lately, modern horror is explicitly centering queerness in shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and What We Do In The Shadows and films like It: Chapter Two and Bodies Bodies Bodies. In the music world, Hideous Bastards joins recent releases like Rina Sawayama's "This Hell" and the music video for Lil Nas X's "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" that say: "If you can't join 'em in heaven, it's time to reclaim hell." Across 10 tracks, Hideous Bastard utilizes the sonic and narrative hallmarks of horror to interrogate Sim's own relationship to his sexuality and the visage he presents to the world, while — like the best of that genre — side-stepping easily packaged resolutions.
Maybe it's that iconic debut album cover, black with a bold white "x" in the middle, maybe it's the monochromatic wardrobe or the nighttime moodiness of the music, but members of The xx have always seemed at home in darkness. In the airy arrangements of the band's music, Oliver Sim anchored wispy musings on the cliff's edge of love and loss, spun alongside bandmate Romy Madley Croft and Jamie xx, with fluid bass playing and his plaintive baritone.
With room to move on his solo debut, Sim hones in on that darkness and the storytelling possibilities of the low end. A growling, pitch-shifted bass vocal adds harmonies to half the album's songs, lending menace and mixed feelings to lovelorn recollections ("Romance With A Memory," "Never Here," "GMT") and mocking weight to crises of confidence ("Unreliable Narrator" and "Confident Man").
It's a focus befitting the album's monstrous theme. Our villains often sing to us in trembling depths of pitch, from opera (Don Pizarro from Fidelio), to musical theater (Javert from Les Misérables, Hades from Hadestown), and Disney movies, too (Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Even outside a musical context, horror films have long utilized distorted bass effects and vocal doubling to convey that otherworldly evil is in the room, that ordinary characters are talking in its voice. On Hideous Bastard, that subterranean sound allows Sim to take on the voice of the villain, as he grapples with identity, shame and expectations of masculinity.
On "Unreliable Narrator" in particular, the only song in which this monstrous bass harmony backs every line, Sim sings about modulating his voice in an attempt to fit a certain perception of manliness, losing himself in a facade even as he "tried hard to be authentic." A horror and psychological thriller buff, Sim says the song is an intentional mid-point in the album — just as those films often destabilize viewers' expectations of who the protagonist can trust part way through the runtime, Sim here encourages the listener to consider if he himself is wearing a mask.
Similarly on "Never Here," a personal reflection on how we distort our own memories by choosing what we capture and preserve, Sim wonders if he exists at all when his feelings of insecurity contradict the evidence. "Pictures fade, technology breaks / I know the moment don't exist within its color and shape," he sings over an eerie, arpeggiated synth line reminiscent of The Twilight Zone's theme. As the song spirals into breakdown, Sim backs up from the mic and screams "I was never really here" again and again, much like a man hoping to be proved wrong. It's a bite-sized example of what can happen when collective queer history is erased: the demise of the individual queer self sometimes seems inevitable; doubly so when you feel greater kinship with the evil witches, serial killers and disfigured monsters of film, who inevitably meet a gruesome end, than with any traditional hero.
Sim doesn't just sing like a villain on Hideous Bastard; he also takes inspiration from several in particular. He says "Unreliable Narrator" was inspired by Patrick Bateman's monologue in the 2000 film American Psycho, in which Bateman coldly confesses that there is simply no one there under his elaborately constructed persona. Later, on Hideous Bastard's closing number, "Run The Credits," he sings, "Disney princes, my god, I hate them / I'm Buffalo Bill, I'm Patrick Bateman."
"Those characters were the ones who were being cast away for being hideous in some way," he said in an interview with the podcast Midnight Chats. Like many queer horror fans, Sim says he saw himself in those villains who face hostility from society, identifying with "a repressed queerness" he saw in them. Sim's interest has a historical precedent: The monsters of fiction have long been caricatures of societal fears, and several of Gothic literature's famous authors grappled with the taboo of homosexuality — sometimes their own — in their work. Bram Stoker used the hateful fervor around Oscar Wilde's homosexuality trial as inspiration for Dracula, and the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is called "More hideous than belongs to humanity" by the doctor who created him, rejected by the person who is by all intents his parent.
It's the latter that Sim takes clearest aesthetic inspiration from in Hideous, the short film that accompanies the album. In it, Sim plays an artist who, after coming out on live television and performing the undeniably celebratory "Fruit" with sensual self-possession, transforms into a clawed, horned and green-skinned monster to exact violence on the production crew that mocks him. If an ignorance of queer history can make a person feel doomed by their narrative, then by regaining our history and re-centering it — as Sim does in both the film and the album by stepping into a monstrous persona — we can finally begin to reclaim agency over our own lives.
Shame's journey is never over, and it isn't linear, but it's not without moments of reprieve. There's a playfulness in Sim's work, too, connecting to queer horror's habit of having fun with absurdity, referencing The Twilight Zone, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the hopeful ending of the film and throughout the album, Sim weaves a lighter narrative using the voice of Bronski Beat's Jimmy Somerville. The collaboration was the result of Sim's real-life desire to seek guidance from a queer elder before publicizing his HIV-positive status; throughout the record, Somerville's countertenor floats through moments of uncertainty, bolstering Sim when, like every villain, he falters in a song's third act. It's Somerville who encourages Sim to "be brave, have trust" and "be willing to be loved" on the opening track, after which "Am I hideous?" becomes a defiant rhetorical question instead of a self-effacement. Somerville emerges from the spectral mist of "Confident Man" as Sim's chanting of the chorus begins to feel frenzied; his voice is a reminder of what further possibilities exist in direct contrast to the toxic ideas symbolized in the bass vocal, which never reappears by itself to torment Sim after this song.
History may erase, society may discriminate, the self may succumb to shame. When others accuse you of dancing with the devil, Hideous Bastard argues — like decades of queer-interpreted horror before it — you can show them how he really moves. But though there is liberation in revelry and taking ownership of villainy, masks are meant to come off. A queer figure alone in a conformity-obsessed society can be a tragic one; when you live like that, it's easy to internalize that tenderness is not available to you. But care and community are instrumental to survival. If there is power in reclaiming monstrosity, Hideous Bastard posits that there is also power in reaching out our hands — be they clawed, scarred or deformed — for kindness, and receiving it in turn.
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