On the heels of their challenging leading single, Iconique today reveal “The Bitch Has Landed,” another cut from their forthcoming Ovation EP. The LA-based neo-disco act is heating up just in time for the weather to cool down, which is apt—after all, fall fashion boasts some of the year’s most extravagant looks. Similarly, Iconique’s new EP will prove their staying power as a creative, thoughtful pop group, who put on an unforgettable live show.
“Arguably the most personal song I’ve written yet, “The Bitch Has Landed” is a semi-autobiographical, outwardly myth-building piece of self-portraiture. It’s Alexis Carrington meets “Jumping Jack Flash.” The truth is I don’t do genuine intimacy—for our purposes it’s self-defeating. But, still, there are glimmers of sincerity under all the fur and Escada. You could say we started as a legacy act and moved backwards from there. Every legend has an origin story. This is ours.” – Leo Paparella
Listen to Iconique’s new song and read more about Iconique in our interview with leading man, Leo Paparella, below. Follow Iconique on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Catch Iconqiue live on October 31st at 1720 for Mystery Skulls 1st Halloween Fest!
Words: Zoë Elaine
The Bitch Is an Icon: A Conversation with Leo Paparella of Iconique
Queer culture has its own vocabulary. In the ballroom scene, the term “legendary” is not meant as an exaggeration—it is reserved for veterans who dominate the runway every time they grace it. RuPaul has taught straight, white audiences terms like “read” and “shade.” Then there are celebrities who earn their own qualifier: it takes a certain personality and stage presence to become a “gay icon.”
LA’s up-and-coming disco diva Leo Paparella knows a little something about being iconic. He leads a trio of self-described “retro pop lunatics,” who don makeup and sequins at every opportunity. (When I asked how his straight bandmates felt about this, Paparella gushed about their maturity and respect: “They are beautiful, secure men.”) They perform neo-disco, their style of the genre that flourished in the ‘70s, using every facet of the music to honor those who made it as iconic as it was. And they call themselves Iconique.
I met Paparella the morning after one of their performances, and I noticed a faint pink outline around his eyelids—a shadow of his look from the previous night. They played at GeoMetro in downtown LA, a warehouse party that pushes the boundaries of art and spectacle. This isn’t their first time gracing its stage, which is apt, as Iconique always puts on an extravagant display. Paparella has been known to frolic onstage in a suit and cape, embracing the rhythms in his limbs and belting notes seemingly effortlessly. His bandmates are complementary to him in every way, from style to sound.
Their live show is possibly the most important part of their act, and they put all of their efforts into making it perfect; everything from lights to their garb to their tightly-wound setlist are all meticulously arranged. An Iconique concert is their moment to “revel in being fabulous,” allowing everyone in the crowd to do the same. They write from the perspective of performance, as Paparella explained, “It’s almost like I’m writing songs for a musical rather than for a band.”
Their newest single came from this very mindset. Their setlist used to kick off with their first-ever release, “Step Into the Mood,” a warm invitation into their glamorous domain…until Paparella grew tired of it. As the band fumbled for how to replace it, he set out to simply write something new. Sitting at his keyboard, already feeling out some dance moves that he planned to use onstage, Paparella penned an attention-grabbing announcement: “The Bitch Has Landed.”
This songwriting process creates a different insecurity than most musicians face: instead of pondering how a song will translate live, Iconique’s frontman worries that the studio versions won’t live up to the glory of their live show. Context can undoubtedly change a track’s influence, and Iconique has successfully carved out their niche in both arenas. Their live shows are vibrant and energetic and the studio recordings are perfect in high-octane pop playlists, meant for partying until dawn.
In reality, their only foes are themselves. “I’m always competing with studio Leo,” Paparella said as an explanation for pushing himself further than would be recommended for, say, a touring musician. The night before, he “fed the crowd,” riding off of their energy until he was nearly hoarse; this is as he described, “the Iconique ethos.” That is, to push themselves every chance they get and to provide a space for all to express their inner diva.
Iconique does more than most contemporary disco acts out there. Their genuine love for all of the genre’s stars, from Chic to Prince, have been integral to who they are. They wrote “Iconique” as a nod to “Chic Cheer,” a bombastic dance tune that gives each group an excuse to chant their own name. And there is a direct line connecting Prince’s legacy to Iconique’s formation: after attending his secret 2014 Palladium show, Paparella and guitarist Greg Promani made the decision to start a band (which would include Promani’s brother, Eric, on drums).
Lyrics in their songs reference that long-gone era. An early single, “Taxi,” waxes nostalgic about disco’s tangible epicenter, Studio 54. In a press quote for the release, Paparella reminded audiences that the AIDS crisis took down its most influential figures, and that “the steady combination of racism and homophobia would lead to a backlash against the genre, which was built and loved mostly by minorities.”
The more recent track “Do You Really Wanna Disco?” challenges the superficial adoption of the genre’s aesthetics, without explicitly calling it cultural appropriation. Those who participated in its heyday came together because they were ostracized by society; “you may lead a chic mystique, but you’re a stranger to the beat,” Paparella sings of an invader to the scene. But he also wouldn’t consider himself to be a gatekeeper for it, either.
In fact, in another world, Paparella would be a balladeer, more along the lines of Tori Amos and Kate Bush. “Writing ballads may actually be more at home for me than writing upbeat songs,” he told me. On the band’s forthcoming Ovation EP, they will reveal their very first slow number, “Too Much”; aside from succinctly embodying their ethos as he described it, the song proves that Iconique has a range beyond anything they’ve shown us before.
Disco has influenced just about every conceivable form of dance music today, though the line to determine what counts as part of the genre continues to blur. Sometimes contemporary interpretations can all “feel very plastic,” Paparella said, quickly adding, “not that mine is super authentic!” Iconique doesn’t water down the percussion or synthesizers or falsetto, but at the same time, they recognize that they are part of something new.
Their live show is an attempt to continue the tradition of disco as a refuge for anyone who feels othered. This is the legacy of ball culture and drag shows and even more generally, gay bars. Leo Paparella is a gay icon of a different sort, creating a legacy by honoring past figures whom he has looked up to and by giving outsiders today someone to dance with.