Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The promised land

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Over the next few days, I’ll be devoting a series of posts to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

On November 8, 1992, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles presented the second half of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It premiered less than a week after the presidential election that seemed to herald the definitive end of the Reagan era, against a backdrop of change that led one critic to describe the play as arriving “at the very pivot of American history, when the Republican ice age it depicts has begun to melt away.” And it wasn’t just a matter of good timing. The themes of progress and historical transition were embedded right there in the text, starting with its title. When the lights went up at the beginning of the first act of Perestroika, the audience was treated to the sight of Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik, “unimaginably old and totally blind,” standing before a red flag as he spoke from the podium:

How are we to proceed without Theory? What System of Thought have these Reformers to present to this mad swirling planetary disorganization, to the Inevident Welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity?…Yes, we must must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.

But after four hours of agonized searching, the play concluded with its central figure, Prior Walter, delivering not another theory, but a benediction: “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Less than a year later, the Pet Shop Boys released their fifth studio album. Like Kushner’s epic play, it might well have been subtitled “a gay fantasia on national themes,” and its critical and commercial reception was mostly rapturous. As far as I know, however, few listeners have ever drawn a connection between Very and Angels in America, despite the fact that they emerged simultaneously from a confluence of circumstances that were remarkably similar. Both were wildly entertaining works of art that were also haunted by the AIDS crisis, and both seized on flamboyant theatricality as a strategy for conveying unconstrained emotion. In the liner notes for the album’s extended release, the journalist Chris Heath writes:

Arma Andon, their American manager at the time, had asked them why they staged these elaborate, costumed, theatrical fantasies in concert, but rarely explored the same kind of presentation in videos or for records, and they begun to wonder the same thing themselves. “Also,” says Neil [Tennant], “I think we thought we’d done to death the classic Pet Shop Boys thing, and it was finally completely summed up on the cover of Discography, Chris [Lowe] stony-faced and me with an ironically-arched eyebrow. We kind of thought: right, we’ve just completely done that now, let’s do something not real.”

The result was an explosion of color, texture, and science fiction imagery that extended to the packaging of the album itself, a pebbled orange art object that looked as if it might have emerged from an alternate universe. It was a reaction against years of ironic detachment, and it reminds me of Kushner’s notes on the staging of Perestroika: “The moments of magic—all of them—are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion—which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.”

But the most striking similarity between Very and Angels in America has to be their unexpected obsession with Russia. In “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” the repressed narrator dreams of taking all his clothes off and dancing to The Rite of Spring, while the next track, “Liberation,” was inspired by Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This was all fairly standard for Neil Tennant, whose most famous song includes the line “from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station,” but there had never been anything quite like the closing cover of the Village People’s “Go West.” As they later recalled in a retrospective interview:

Neil: “After it came out, we had the whole how-we-changed-Russia thing.”
Chris: “It does sound surprisingly like the former Soviet anthem, we have subsequently discovered. It’s remarkably similar.”
Neil: “We did bits in Moscow for the ‘Go West’ video simply because we were going to Moscow for the launch of Russian MTV. It was just a coincidence, and we thought, ‘Where do you go when you’re East? You go West.’ So we did some filming in Red Square, pointing. But according to this artist we know in Russia, people thought that we had done a song that was based on the Soviet national anthem, and these Hungarian fans wrote to us and said, ‘I hear this song and I am frightened’, because they thought it was suggesting that the Russians should invade Eastern Europe again, because they would go west. Maybe that’s why the Russians like it.”

And it’s hard to watch the ensuing video—with its rows of marching muscle men with red flags—and still believe that it was all “just a coincidence.”

So what exactly was going on here? Long before the premiere of Angels in America, Kushner told an audience at the Public Theater in New York: “There are moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of time…During these periods all sorts of people…are touched by the spirit of revolution and behave in extraordinary ways.” They wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. And in an interview at Northwestern University in 1995, Kushner came as close as he ever would to explaining his thinking:

Part of what I’m trying to get at with Perestroika, and what all the characters in it are wrestling with, is that we’ve earned the right now, after what happened to communism in Russia and the transmogrification of the ideal of socialism into Stalinism, that big theories are very dangerous things. I think that we absolutely need them. We have a responsibility to create them. But at the same time we also have to find perhaps theories that are less totalizing. We can’t really trust a total theory anymore.

Or as Tennant observed a decade later in “Twentieth Century”: “Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem.” (The same song also includes the lines: “Well I bought a ticket to the revolution / And I cheered when the statues fell / Everyone came to destroy what was rotten / But they killed off what was good as well.”) For a gay man of a certain temperament, it must have been tempting to take the upheavals in the former Soviet Union as a metaphor for another restructuring closer to home, with its possibility of revelation or liberation. “The world only spins forward,” Prior says at the end of Perestroika, and a year after the release of Very, Tennant came out, as the New Statesman later observed, “to the surprise of nobody.” But in the case of both Russia and gay rights, any notion of lasting change may have been premature, and in ways that wouldn’t be clear for decades. As Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov darkly warns: “If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?”

Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2018 at 9:19 am

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