Placebo’s Brian Molko has established himself as one of the most significant figures in the world of music over the past 30 years. Defying musical, aesthetic, thematic and personal mores, he and Placebo partner in crime Stefan Olsdal showed that music did not have to be the boisterous and misogynistic place it was in the mid-late 1990s amongst all the Britpop and nu-metal.
Following in the footsteps of Lou Reed, David Bowie and perhaps even Leigh Bowery, Molko shaped Placebo into an outfit that helped to bring the discussion of sexuality, fluidity and politics into the mainstream and change pop culture for the better.
To put things into perspective, when the 1997 single ‘Nancy Boy’ went to number four in the UK Singles Charts, the band stuck out like a sore thumb, but a refreshing and necessary one, to say the least. Discussing what were then taboo themes, the band’s message contained considerable weight, particularly when you match it against what Oasis were doing at the time with tracks like ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’.
Taking off when Britpop was at it the tail end of its commercial zenith, ironically, this proved to be very fortuitous for Molko and Placebo. They became the de jure band for all the outsiders, the square pegs in round holes, an outfit that didn’t relate to the bucket hat-wearing, alpha male brashness of the bustling music industry of the time.
It wasn’t all about sexuality, though. Molko’s lyrics touch on a whole host of challenging topics such as death, violence, teenage angst, drug use and the modern fascination with money. They often provide a means of escaping from humanity’s increasingly grim reality. The latest single, for example, ‘Surrounded by Spies’, discusses surveillance culture and the environmental collapse that world leaders are ignoring, showing that Molko always has his finger on the pulse.
Like Lou Reed, Molko has never been afraid to get into the nitty-gritty. This is one of the key facets of his brilliance, he’s a realist, a cynic even, and this again has filled his music with a pulp that many of his contemporaries could only have dreamed of having. There’s a reason why we’re still talking about Molko and Co. today and why, in comparison, Britpop eventually committed suicide by becoming a ridiculous caricature of itself, as did the mid-2000s indie scene. Placebo has, to varying degrees of success, remained relevant.
Again like Reed, Molko’s lyrical style positions him as somewhat of a Gonzo journalist stuck right in the middle of society’s most critical debates, peeling back the curtain and revealing the truth. He’s a witness that provides lessons in how we can better ourselves by outlining our faults, much like Thomas Pynchon or Hunter S. Thompson. He’s also captivated us by instilling a thrill to all of his music, much like the stomach churn you get after popping a pill. It’s a little naughty, but one hell of a ride.
Musically, in the early days, his down-tuned guitar and Generation X attitude aligned him with Sonic Youth, Nirvana and even riot grrrl groups like Pussy Riot. He espoused a caustic, sardonic wit that constantly proved that society’s established mores are flawed and something to be laughed at. “I wanted to challenge the homophobia that I was witnessing in the music scene,” Molko said in 2017, when he explained the band’s early ethos to The Independent. “I wanted anybody who was slightly homophobic to show up at our gigs and think ‘Oh, I really fancy the singer’,” he added. “She’s hot! only to find out later that the singer was called Brian, which would hopefully lead them to go home and ask themselves a few questions. Of course, the cross-dressing was an aesthetic choice, but for us, it was also a political act; that was a very big part of what we were trying to achieve at that time.”
It’s a shame Kurt Cobain didn’t live long enough to witness Placebo’s rise, as it is certain he would have been captivated. In many ways, they are Cobain’s subversive spiritual successors. Showing just how provocative they are, in 2013, the band teamed up with the literary master of satire, Bret Easton Ellis, to deliver the pertinent video for single ‘Loud Like Love’, and his narration on suburban secrets is another superb indication of Placebo’s artistic vision.
“We did what we could within the framework that existed,” Molko told The Guardian in 2021. “And we rebelled against the framework that existed. It’s much, much more complex now. But if just by being ourselves in the 90s, we made people feel less alone – if we managed to, in any way whatsoever, increase the potential and capacity for freedom just by 1% – then we’ve achieved something”.
Another exemplary element of Molko’s artistry is that he has always tread his own path, staunch in his beliefs even if millions of dollars are offered to him. He once turned down the offer of a million euros to become a judge on the French version of The X Factor, saying “there isn’t enough money in the world” that could have persuaded him, regardless of the fact he’s bi-lingual and speaks French fluently.
Molko is driven by artistry and dedication to what is right. That’s what makes him such a refreshing breath of ice-cool air. He’s not a careerist or a money grabber, he’s Brian Molko, and he’s true to his own convictions. Considering that we live in the age of cultural pastiche, where rip-offs reign supreme both economically and musically, Molko continues to lead by example.