Pet Shop Boys Hit the State
Gay Sensibility for Post-’80s Madness
Pet Shop Boys are among that exceptional category of artists who exude a clearly gay sensibility, yet also connect on a profoundly deep level with straight audiences. This gift goes beyond simply singing songs inclusive of both hetero and homosexual experience. It’s how Neil Tennant’s vocals live within Chris Lowe’s electronic musical sphere. Poetically savvy observation is made expansive, ethereal, and romantically epic. Listen to a Pet Shop Boys tune, and you’re transported to a shimmering dimension that sometimes has the feel of the eternal.
One conflict the duo consistently resonates is financial tyranny versus romantic love. After all, they emerged in the 1980s, when the go-go-go economics of UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan gripped the world. Those economic notions continue to “trickle down.” Pet Shop Boys caught the zeitgeist then, and as evidenced in their latest album, the luminescent Yes, they have not lost their timely touch.
The early hit “West End Girls,” with its sharp video take on class and gender—wherein women capture the imagination of East End (read: working class) Boys—comes to mind. As well, “Let’s Make Lots of Money,” with its insinuation of mutual gay exploitation, is a quintessential spoof on ’80s greed and power.
That decade also saw, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, a consciousness shift, and its subsequent ripple effects registered in Pet Shop Boys songs. “Building A Wall, Psychological” and “London” speak to the paranoia that emerged in supposedly free democracies after the fall of communist totalitarianism.
The AIDS epidemic that characterized the ’80s is reflected in “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” based on a conversation between Tennant and his best friend who died of AIDS. The title refers to the friend’s denial that the disease constituted the threat it was and still is. “Being Boring and Your Funny Uncle” also relate to Tennant’s friend.
Pet Shop Boys never used AIDS fears as an excuse to retreat into an erotophobic, puritanical sexual purview. In fact, they have looked squarely at the problem of decadence, which habitually is seen as a sexual excess issue. However, it’s greed and thirst for domination that spawns decadence, promiscuity, and love’s destruction.
In “Decadence,” the duo are very clear: “You’d better give up talking about money/Begin thinking of love/If you want me to come back/You’d better change.”
Decadence is called “fatal.” It’s certainly a skeptical take on capitalism.
In marked contrast, “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show” defies the clichéd, religiously indoctrinated view most people have of decadence. Pet Shop Boys consider urban sexual exploration to be a potential path to self-knowledge. In turn, it’s a take on capitalism—not so judgmental.
Celebrity is major for Pet Shop Boys, but not in a garish way that gets off on Paris Hilton and tabloid follies. For instance, “Vulnerable” has poignant insight on the anguish simmering beneath the defensiveness of someone trapped in the public eye. One suspects it’s perhaps a closeted gay man. “The Night I Fell in Love” has drawn speculation that it refers to Eminem. Penned after the white rapper rationalized his homophobic lyrics, this song involves a young male groupie who hooks up with his idol.
Ultimately, what’s perhaps most disarming is Pet Shop Boys’s unabashed belief that hope can weather despair, an extraordinary idea nowadays. “Positive Role Model,” “Go West,” “Metamorphosis,” and “Legacy” assert this empowering concept marvelously. Renewal and real transformation become viscerally real possibilities.
Pet Shop Boys
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