Learning from the masters: the Pet Shop Boys
Last week, I finally picked up a copy of Elysium, the eleventh studio album by the Pet Shop Boys. At this point in the duo’s career, it’s hard to start any discussion of their work without marveling at their longevity: “West End Girls” came out more than a quarter of a century ago, and although they’ve never had as great a hit in the United States since, they’ve remained an integral part of synthpop and dance culture on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as providing much of the background music for my own inner life. Elysium isn’t their best album—its tone is deliberately muted and melancholy, within a narrower range than usual—but it’s still lovely, catchy, and superbly crafted, even if there’s nothing quite on the level of the stunning “The Way It Used to Be” on Yes. (I’d agree with Andrew Sullivan that the strongest track is probably “Breathing Space.”) And although I’ve spoken at length about the Pet Shop Boys before, I thought I’d take a moment today to focus specifically on what they’ve taught me about storytelling, and in particular about genre, reticence, and irony.
It’s fair to say that it took a long time for the Pet Shop Boys to get the critical respect they deserved, largely because they were working in a critically unfashionable genre, and even now, some of that condescension still persists. The synthpop of the early ’80s sounded like it had been made by machines; it was emphatically crafted in the studio; and its tools were relatively inaccessible, at least at first, so it had none of the working-class appeal of other forms of popular music. In their early days, the Pet Shop Boys were often mistaken for arch Thatcherites, despite or because of the irony of songs like “Shopping,” and there are countless musical artists who attained greater critical success without a fraction of their talent and originality, simply because they happened to look more like our idea of what a singer-songwriter should be. Yet the genius of such albums as Actually and Introspective derives from their realization that synthpop can, in fact, be the vehicle for songs of great emotional complexity, although only after its conventions have been absorbed and transcended. And if it look a while for the rest of the world to catch on, the Pet Shop Boys seemed glad to keep the secret to themselves.
This has something to do with their own reticence as pop stars, which has greatly influenced my own feelings about artistic detachment and understatement. From the beginning, the Pet Shop Boys have engaged in an ongoing debate with rock music, which all too often conceals its own calculation and commercialism—and even less desirable traits, like homophobia—behind a front of feigned emotion and openness. Typically, the Pet Shop Boys reacted by going in the opposite direction, concealing themselves behind layers of increasingly elaborate production, playing characters that made them seem like the effete consumers that their critics assumed that they were, and treating emotion as a slightly chilly joke. But this detachment created the conditions, if you were listening, for some astonishingly moving music. Proust writes somewhere of a man who craves human company so desperately that he becomes a hermit, in order not to admit how much he needs other people, and that’s the impression I get from the Pet Shop Boys’ best albums. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as affecting if it hadn’t been filtered first through so many layers of pointed irony and impersonality.
In some ways, this has encouraged me to disappear into my own work. There’s a lot of me in my own writing, but you have to look carefully to see it: I’ve avoided autobiography and the first person, happily immersing myself in the mechanisms of plot, but don’t be fooled—these novels and stories are my primary way of dealing with the world. What the Pet Shop Boys taught me is that craft and artistic invisibility can be as valuable as confession, in their own way, when it comes to expressing the personality behind it, especially in genres where detachment is encouraged. This may be why I find myself most comfortable in suspense, which has a mechanical, slightly inhuman aspect that can feel like the fictional equivalent of synthpop. If anything, I could use a little more of their wit and, especially, their irony, which they turn, paradoxically, into a means for enabling their underlying earnestness. (When their earnestness comes undiluted, as in the new track “Hold On,” it can be a little hard to take.) Elysium shows that they still have a lot to teach us, if we have the ears to hear it.