ROCK / Young navel rating: Marek Kohn on the sexually ambiguous pleasures of Suede

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The Independent Culture
MADONNA did it, Prince did it, but nobody ever did it like Brett Anderson before. Suede's distinctive contribution to rock'n'roll iconography is the midriff bared not so much as a sexual come-on, but as a token of a bared soul. 'Friends,' the pallid

strip between black top and black hipsters seems to say, 'join me in rapt contemplation of my navel.'

Anderson has a B-side, too, in which he turns his back and wiggles his bum. It's a tentative gesture, in a musical climate unconducive to either a sashay or a funkier style of move. The hesitancy recalls the remark that confirmed Anderson's claim to megastardom, about being a bisexual man who had never had a homosexual experience. And therein, as a substitute for the one erogenous zone that is still truly taboo, lies the significance of the ostentatious navel. Whichever way you look at him, he's a tease.

This hasn't gone down too well in certain quarters. Writing in this week's Time Out, Paul Burston attacks Anderson as the latest in a series of pop stars who have borrowed profitably from gay culture without taking the risks of actually identifying with it. Quite so, but he speaks as an adult. One of the reasons to welcome Suede is that, like Nirvana, they have kicked some life into adolescent-oriented rock. Show me a single great teen rock'n'roll record that was inspired by a sense of community responsibility, and I'll show you Cliff Richard.

The essence of Suede's success is that nothing quite fits, and everything looks hand-me-down, from their cheap and nasty shirts to Anderson's cockney camp intonation. Theirs is a theatre of sullen restlessness and experimentation, in which they are haunted as much as inspired by the ghosts of a generation ago. It is about growing up with a cornucopia of choices that have all gone stale.

The music stresses the sense of burden. Instead of going for rock'n'roll with a mince in its step, as pioneered by the Velvet Underground and Bowie's Spiders from Mars, Suede have opted to be Brett the Hoople. All grind and strangulation, the sound makes their live set a string of songs rather than a show. Anderson has a persona and very good manners but only a rudimentary sense of pace. Suede need a few more numbers with the panache of 'Metal Mickey' before they're ready for the triumphant live album.

By then, it's safe to predict, their days as a straight act in gay drag will be long behind them. Whether or not they pay their dues in the future, they have done their juniors the enormous favour of reaffirming that a heterosexual identity can be blurred at the edges. If they have nipped just one lager lout in the bud, the hype was all worthwhile.