Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How can you expect to be taken seriously?

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(Note: Earlier this year, I submitted a proposal to the excellent Bloomsbury book series 33 1/3, each volume of which considers a single pop album by a notable musical artist. My submission, on the Pet Shop Boys album Very, made it past the first round, and although it ultimately wasn’t selected for the series, I’m glad to be able to share it here. This is the first part of my original proposal. The second half will be posted tomorrow.)

Begin, if you like, with the drum machine. An Oberheim DMX will do nicely. Technical details aside, it’s a black box with digital drum samples that you can program to make any rhythm you want. This may seem like a small thing, but it means, by definition, that you no longer need a drummer. If you have a synthesizer and sequencer as well, you no longer need much of anything. Popular music, for all its gradual refinements, has generally come down to a few men and women playing instruments in a room, but suddenly, for all we know, a song can be the work of just one person, or nobody. The heart of dance music is the beat, which now can be mechanically generated, so it’s no surprise that many of the great pop songs of the early eighties—“Blue Monday,” for instance—begin with a drum machine working alone, as if in the room by itself. The musicians, it seems, have slipped discreetly away.

Yet there are, in fact, people involved, and while it may seem counterintuitive, some of them have been waiting a long time for the chance to disappear. For all its limitations and apparent impersonality, the new technology is picked up at once by a receptive group of artists, much as jazz was shaped by the tubas and trumpets left lying around after the Civil War. Synthpop, as the new genre is called, seems to appeal to a certain type: quiet, methodical, and drawn to technology, to the extent that they often assemble their machines themselves. Like punk, synthpop is a do-it-yourself movement that attracts enthusiasts who might not otherwise be natural musicians, but unlike punk, it has none of the spontaneity of live performance. It’s mechanized, programmed, with every choice made in advance, which suits its practitioners just fine. For the most part, these aren’t artists who seem especially comfortable onstage. It’s dance music made by those who may not know how to dance.

Fortunately, it’s played in a new sort of venue, the club, that doesn’t require a stage at all. Moreover, the club is often a gathering place for those who might have good reasons to keep aspects of their inner lives private, or to seek anonymity there, in the dark, behind a wall of sound that makes it hard to talk. Their interactions are scored to prerecorded music that is viscerally exciting but emotionally distant, even faceless, with layers of technology interposed between the artist and the listener. Both the music and the club are places where the self retreats: the voice of the singer, if there is one, becomes an instrument like any other. Synthpop is disco, yes, but in a form far removed from its earlier, more exuberant incarnations. The artists behind this music don’t seem inclined to reveal much about who they are, perhaps because they’re more comfortable when the sequencer does the talking, but also because they, too, often have personal lives that they would prefer to keep to themselves.

At some point in the early eighties, then, a range of social, artistic, and technological factors combines to create a form of music that is largely defined by its impersonality. The first wave of synthpop is notable for its detachment, embodied in the convention, established by bands like Kraftwerk, that this is music made by machines. As such, it was a stark reversal of a prevailing tendency in music for at least the past two decades. For years, the dominant figure, critically if not commercially, was that of the singer who wrote his own songs, often in the first person. Rock, in particular, was teeming with personality, and tended to make a virtue of its own rawness. It was emotional, confessional—and, not incidentally, almost exclusively heterosexual. And it finally led to a reaction, in both gay and straight clubs, toward music that was recorded, superficially anonymous, and played in crowded rooms in the artist’s absence.

Along with its other implications, this shift presented a particular problem for directors of music videos. In the past, videos could simply fall back on footage of the musicians themselves, but what do you do when there isn’t a band, or anything approaching a live performance? It can lead to some curious results, as in the video before us now, in which two slim, pale men walk through London without really doing much of anything. One just hangs around in silence, his hands in the pockets of his jacket, to the point where we aren’t quite sure why he’s here at all. He has, in fact, written much of the music, but nothing of what he does can be performed on camera, so he ends up glancing uncomfortably to one side, as if embarrassed. Meanwhile, the other man sings, except he isn’t really singing, either. He’s just talking, almost conversationally, and even when he breaks into song, he doesn’t seem to be trying all that hard.

This impression, as we first encounter it in the video for “West End Girls”—that Neil Tennant couldn’t sing and Chris Lowe didn’t do much of anything—defined the public perception of the Pet Shop Boys for years. Musically, their first album was well within the mainstream of synthpop at the time: Please was the product of Emulators, Fairlights, and an obstinate refusal to allow live musicians into the studio. Their image, in turn, was arch and detached, a heady combination of irony, reticence, and middle-class Englishness that undercut even straightforward love songs. Of the four singles from Please, three (“West End Girls,” “Suburbia,” and “Love Comes Quickly”) are sung mostly in the second person, casting the singer as an impartial observer. The exception, “Opportunities,” is clearly a joke, and it remains one of the songs, as Tennant later observed, that “created the myth that the Pet Shop Boys were ironic.”

Tomorrow: Yesterday, when I was mad.

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

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