Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Actually

Learning from the masters: the Pet Shop Boys

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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.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2012 at 9:42 am

Yesterday, when I was mad

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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 second part of my original proposal. The first half can be found here.)

If their air of irony was a myth, it’s one that the Pet Shop Boys maintained over the better part of a decade, culminating in the cover of Discography, their first singles collection: Chris Lowe disguised in a hat and sunglasses, Neil Tennant smirking with an arched eyebrow, which, in turn, may be a disguise in itself. Like all album covers, the image is a clue as to how the songs should be read—in this case, in quotation marks, expressed in lyrics that, for all their wit, are often sung in someone else’s voice. Even when real feeling enters the picture, it’s less confessional than foreboding, even sinister: there are impressions of the night, of city streets, of an unspoken crime that may lie in either the past or the future. Above all else, there’s a sense that even the most earnest emotion needs to be qualified at once, as in their lovely cover of “Always On My Mind,” with its final line thrown away, almost inaudibly, in the fadeout: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”

Yet even in the early days, the cracks begin to show. Tennant is still deadpan, but the emotion that his voice denies spills into the music itself, which, over the next three albums, grows increasingly lush and elaborate. As the songs return to their disco roots, the rule about instruments in the studio is bent at first, then trampled upon, with entire orchestras backing up vocals that remain unflappable and remote. The ensuing sequence of albums—Actually, Introspective, and Behavior—is defined by its triangulation between reserve and extravagance, a sense of emotion detected, instantly repressed, and given intricate external forms. This tension is tersely expressed in the lyrics, but flowers forth into something baroque and extravagant in the music, and it’s hard not to connect this externalization, with its emphasis on rococo performance, with the fact, widely suspected by their fans but never openly acknowledged, that Tennant and Lowe are something other than straight.

Then, in 1993, something strange happens. Their fifth album, Very, is released with a peculiar cover, a surface of pebbled orange plastic that implies that something unusual lies within. Inside are pictures of the formerly straightlaced duo in outlandish costumes—dunce caps and jumpsuits and white gloves—worn with expressions of indifference or amusement that might persuade us, at first, that this is just another act. Then we find that the music has also changed. “Can You Forgive Her?” opens the album with what feels, unmistakably, like a statement of intent, with its repressed protagonist mocked by his girlfriend because he dances to disco and doesn’t like rock—a typical theme, but expressed with such intensity, even anger, that it blows open the doors for “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” and “Liberation,” the most unguarded love songs that the Pet Shop Boys have ever done.

And there is much more to come. With the sort of confidence and inventiveness that can only emerge from years of restraint, Very unfurls an astonishing series of delights, from the gay fantasia of “Dreaming of the Queen” to the bracing chill of “Yesterday, When I Was Mad,” which eviscerates a decade’s worth of condescending critics. (“You have a certain quality which really is unique / Expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak…”) “To Speak is a Sin,” written years earlier, is a snapshot of gay bar culture as it no longer exists, a passing memory of sadness in the midst of release. And all these gorgeous moments are gathered together and transcended in “Go West,” a Village People cover that, with its male chorus booming in the background, serves as an emblem for everything the new sound represents, transforming camp into pure, sustained emotion. The result is ravishing and unexpected, and it’s no surprise that many of the duo’s fans took it as a sign that they were coming out at last—as Tennant did, in fact, the following year.

Very remains the Pet Shop Boys’ defining album, and their last great popular success, with more than five million copies sold worldwide. Yet it also presents us with a mystery. At the time, it seemed like a departure, or a fresh start, but it can only be understood in light of the decade of reticence that lay before it. Impersonality, after all, builds reserves of craft that can be turned into extravagance at the proper time, and the story of this album is inseparable from the larger problem of detachment in pop music, or in all of art, which so often privileges the emotional and confessional. It also raises the question of whether the point of detachment is, ultimately, to move beyond it—or through it. Because the title of the album itself implies that what we’re hearing isn’t something new, exactly, but a variation or amplification of what has been here all along, concealed by the mechanical heartbeat of the drum machine.

In the end, synthpop, which can seem so impersonal, is made not by machines, but by real men and women, and the secret it labors so hard to conceal is that the smooth surface of disco can be a front for personality and, sometimes, overwhelming emotion. In many cases, we can only see this in retrospect, after years of reserve have taught an artist to reveal himself in ways we never thought possible. Such detachment begins as a defense mechanism and ends as a way of life, or a training ground, which raises the question of what happens after we cast it aside, and what we lose of ourselves in the process. There’s no easy answer, but even at the time, the Pet Shop Boys hinted at the solution in the name of the accompanying concert tour, which combined the two words at the heart of the problem. It was called, quite simply, Discovery.

The work of a lifetime

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Yesterday I finally got around to reading Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker piece on Middlemarch—by all odds the most intelligent novel ever written—and its influence on her own life. If you’re a subscriber, Mead’s article is well worth reading in full (especially for her discussion of an inspirational quotation inexplicably misattributed to George Eliot, a subject on which I have some strong opinions), but I was struck in particular by her thoughts on how her attitudes toward the book have changed over time. Mead writes:

I have gone back to Middlemarch every five years or so, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting. In my judgmental twenties, I thought that Ladislaw, with his brown curls and his callow artistic dabbling, was not entirely deserving of Dorothea; by forty, I could better measure the appeal of his youthful energies and Byronic hairdressing, at least to his middle-aged creator, who was fifty-three when the book was published.

This, of course, is the measure of a great work of art: its ability to reveal new perspectives as we approach it at different times in our lives. Most of us, I imagine, have a book or movie or album that serves as a similar sort of milestone, with our evolving feelings toward it charting how much we ourselves have changed. For Roger Ebert, it’s Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In an article first published two years ago, he writes:

In 1962, Marcello Mastroianni represented everything I dreamed of attaining…Ten years later, he represented what I had become, at least to the degree that Chicago offered the opportunities of Rome. Ten years after that, in 1982, he was what I had escaped from, after I stopped drinking too much and burning the candle at both ends.

And now Ebert has left the movie behind entirely. Recently, he wrote movingly of the fact that he will no longer be able to discuss the film shot by shot at the Conference on World Affairs at Boulder, as he’s done on four separate occasions, and concludes:

Well, now I’ve outlasted Marcello. I’ve come out the other side. He is still standing on the beach, unable to understand the gestures of the sweet blond girl who was his waitress at the restaurant, that day he was going to start his novel. He shakes his head resignedly and turns to walk back into the trees and she looks after him wistfully. I am in the trees with Marcello.

As for the equivalent work in my own life, I’m tempted to say that it’s the Pet Shop Boys album Actually, which has slipped imperceptibly from the imagined soundtrack of my adulthood to a reminder of a period I’ve already left behind. Or perhaps it’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which has evolved, as I’ve grown older, from escapist fantasy to handbook for adult life to the book that I’m most looking forward to giving to my own children. I suspect, though, that it might actually be Citizen Kane, which I once saw as a challenge and call to art, and which currently seems—now that I’m five years older than Welles was—more like a warning, or a rebuke. Or perhaps all of the above. What about you?

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