On this weekday morning in the Burlesque Hall of Fame, Melody Sweets looks like a rocker chick with an incongruous interest. Her black-leather jacket contrasts with the feathery pink puff adorning her hair, long dangly earrings and glamorous makeup. As she flits from display to display, a graceful elfin enthusiasm reveals this fan of the art to also be a participant.
Sweets pauses at a photo of burlesque legend Dixie Evans. “She’s the cutest thing in the world. She came to Absinthe, and she was the first one to stand,” says the dancing, singing co-star of the Strip variety show. “I hope I’m like that when I’m older—still with energy and excited about life. Very inspiring.”
That is a lifetime away, even if the exact number of years is a mystery (the youthful performer guards her age as jealously as she guards her real name, saying with a wink in her voice that “Mama Sweets” named her Melody and that she is “timeless”). Today, Sweets’ self-guided tour of the small museum in Downtown’s Emergency Arts ends at the back corner, where there is a glass shadow box displaying a photo of Sweets with matching pasties. The artifact is from a July event where Absinthe co-star Penny Pibbets made a Melody Sweets sock puppet that was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Despite her youth, a portrait of Sweets by photographer Henry Horenstein is also in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Sweets plays the Green Fairy in Absinthe, a role that allows the performer to dance her own way and sing her own songs. It’s a freedom that is largely absent from most production shows, and one that Sweets appreciates: “A lot of the burlesque on the Strip, first of all, is not burlesque—it’s more like bad stripper jazz hands. Or the show was written for someone to come in and play this part. But the fact that I am a burlesque performer, and I’m doing my own thing in the show, makes it so special for me. I love it. I would not take it back for anything.”
Sweets, though, who has been with Absinthe since it opened nearly two years ago, isn’t quite sure if she will renew her contract when it expires in October. The performer is debuting her first solo album, Burlesque in the Black, on January 19, and she would like to tour the album internationally with a “full-on burlesque concert.” Sweets has already written five songs for her second album and has plans to make a new music video, her third. You could envision her ambition propelling her to a Dita Von Teese-level of success. But for now, she is content with an elaborate midnight release party in the Absinthe tent and the hope of hitting the West Coast on her nights off, Monday and Tuesday.
Press the play button at left to sample some tracks from Burlesque in the Black.
Such big dreams would seem to require a big staff. But Sweets prefers to be the sole captain of her ship. “The fact that I get to build something from the ground up—the concept of the act, the costumes, you know, everything that goes along with it—it’s so fulfilling,” Sweets says. “I’m a micromanager so I have control over everything, and I love it that way.”
This desire for independence and control likely comes, in part, from her tumultuous upbringing. From about the age of 6, Sweets lived in foster care, bouncing between California, where she was born, and the East Coast—Philadelphia, South Jersey. Her guardians forbade singing, and she started working at 16 in order to “do anything but live in foster homes.” However, many of the memories Sweets does have of her family involve music. Her father was a rock ’n’ roll drummer, and he would “play the drums on anything in his path, including your head if you were in his way.” Sweets says that her first words were probably lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ song “Start Me Up.” A few years ago, Sweets found out that her musical heritage runs even deeper: Her grandmother was an opera singer in Italy, and her great-grandparents were in a band together.
About 10 years ago, Sweets moved to New York City to make it in the arts. Despite having no formal dance training beyond age 10, Sweets aspired to be a dancer. She moved on to drumming when she realized that dancers didn’t get a voice. Then she moved on to lead singing when she realized that drummers had to sit in the back. She was struggling to make it in a rock band, when a friend asked her to perform in a burlesque show. Sweets wrote the song “Slice of Heaven,” which she now performs in Absinthe, dressed as “Elvira’s dominatrix twin sister” and sliced off pieces of her costume as she sang. Soon, “Melody Sweets was paying my bills.”
The band broke up due to artistic differences, and Sweets became a full-time burlesque performer. “At first it was a hustle. I would have to book three or four shows a night. In New York, you don’t have a car so you’re literally going down the street and the subways with these huge containers of costumes. I definitely did it because I loved it. There’s no other way anyone would do that. But I also loved the hustle,” says the girl whose rock band-era nickname was “Scrappy.” “To know that I was doing something off the grid that I didn’t know anyone else to be doing—you know, writing their own songs, doing burlesque—it was thrilling for me. I definitely felt like I was creating my own path.”
That path brought Sweets to Las Vegas, a place she imagined to be temporary. She refused to buy a car for the first year and a half, but now she is considering buying a house here.
On her way out of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, Sweets stops in front of the postcards. She admires a photo of a burlesque dancer in a sort of ass-less jumpsuit, saying that she wishes she could try that costume. The executive director responds that the museum is trying to acquire that piece, but the process has been delayed. Maybe, if Las Vegas is lucky, Sweets will still be here when it arrives.
Absinthe, Caesars Palace, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Wed-Sun, $89-$114, 1-800-745-3000, AbsintheVegas.com.
Soundtrack to Striptease
Burlesque in the Black can certainly stand alone. The 13 songs have catchy hooks and offer a lively listen. But listening is only half the experience. Sweets wrote or co-wrote every song (with the exception of “Taboo,” a Peggy Lee cover) to go alongside individual burlesque acts. For her release party, Sweets plans at least six costume changes with the intriguing caveat, “We’ll see how this goes. I might just do the whole thing naked.” At this party, she will also debut the music video of her Bollywood-style song, “Love Bite,” in which she starred and produced.
The debut album boasts such a wide variety of styles that the uniting factor is their seductive dance-ability … and the regular appearance of brass instruments. “Slice of Heaven,” her most recognizable single, is classic burlesque, with a smoky, velvet, plush lounge feel. “VooDoo You” is dark, cinematic and enchanting. “Shoot ’em Up” sounds like a jazz-infused spaghetti Western. “Love Digitale” is futuristic, and “As Good As It Gets” could pass for the soundtrack to Boardwalk Empire. These melodies take your inhibitions and twist them around Sweets’ finger. They open up possibilities that have long fallen dormant in the naked cynicism of Las Vegas. These are songs to take your clothes off to … but slowly. – C.M.R.