Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Chris Lowe

The survivors

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Today I’ll be publishing the last in a series of posts devoted to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

Every subculture begins as a strategy for survival, although not everyone arrives at the same set of tactics. In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, the author Madison Moore describes one possible approach: “Fabulousness becomes, if I may, a giant fuck you to the norms. People emerge out of that. You emerge because you’re tired of hiding. It’s so much easier to be normal, to fit in, to repress yourself.” Brian Herrera, an assistant professor of theater at Princeton, makes a similar point:

You could see the cues, the winks, ways to tell that someone was gay, and you could read that as speaking to you as a gay male person without ever having to name it. In that register, the realm of the fabulous became one of the ways that you could signal that you were in on the joke, you got the joke, you were in some ways making the joke. people like Sylvester. The Village People. Camp was a building of a vocabulary of critical connoisseurship that was celebratory, that was ours.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner refers to writing as a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and you could say much the same thing about the notion of camp, which was invented by men and women who had to develop superhuman capacities of mental and emotional endurance. As Prior Walter says as he hears the sound of beating wings at the end of Millennium Approaches: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.”

But not everyone reacts to pressure in the same way. In the passage that I quoted above, Moore continues: “A lot of folks, people who embrace fabulousness, are attacked on the street and feel the need to wear men’s clothing, ‘safe’ clothing, as a way to get from A to B, and then when they get there, they bust out.” Yet there’s something equally compelling about those who hold themselves in reserve. The Pet Shop Boys were defined in the early days by reticence and irony, which was wildly misinterpreted by listeners who took “Opportunities” and “Shopping” at face value. Part of this stance stems from what Nabeel Zuberi, as I noted here yesterday, calls “a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body,” but it also reflects something in particular about Neil Tennant. In his landmark interview with Attitude, he set himself pointedly apart from the kind of world that Moore and Herrera evoke:

I’ve never wanted to be part of this separate gay world. I know a lot of people will not appreciate hearing me say that. But when people talk about the gay community in London, for instance, what do they really mean by that? There is a community of interests, particularly around the health issue, but beyond that what is there really? There’s nightclubs, drugs, shopping, PAs by Bad Boys Inc. Well…I’m sorry but that isn’t really how I define myself. I don’t want to belong to some narrow group or ghetto. And I think that if they’re really honest a lot of gay people would say that they felt like that as well.

And no matter how you feel about this, the result was a body of work—at least for its first decade—about survival in plain sight. It was about getting from A to B.

The ensuing web of strategies—the detachment, the reserve, the use of technology to conceal overwhelming emotion—is a big part of why the Pet Shop Boys have always been important to me. I’m not gay, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable in my own skin, and the world that their music creates also speaks to a certain kind of introvert. More recently, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the science fiction community, in which many of the same qualities were channeled along somewhat different lines. Science fiction appealed strongly from the beginning to readers who saw themselves as outsiders, and with a slight change of label, it offered a secret inner life with affinities to what Stephen Spinella describes in The World Only Spins Forward: “Because it is something that can be masked and hidden, there are issues of a dual nature to your presence. You’re living a double life. There is something fabulous about that. There is something outside the norm of living in that mysterious mindset.” When you walk around the World Science Fiction Convention, you see a few fans at the extreme of fabulousness, along with others, like me, who look more like they might be treating everyday life as a form of cosplay. Both cultures also have a vested interest in technology. Science fiction has often been more comfortable talking about machines than about people, and Tennant, Lowe, and their contemporaries were drawn for some of the same reasons to the synthesizer. It was private, anonymous, a reaction against the cult of the self in rock music, and it offered forms of expression for people in solitude. As Stephin Merritt puts it in the wonderful song “Foxx and I,” his admiring ode to the original frontman of Ultravox:

Anyone can change into a machine
Girl or white, black or boy
Dull or very strange, into a machine
Come with me…

I’m perfectly aware, of course, of the differences between these two cultures, as well as the forms of exclusion that can develop even within a community of those who identify themselves as outsiders. But they both offer fascinating insights for anyone who cares urgently about the forms that cultural survival can take. (There are countless others, obviously, but these are the two that happen to have been most important to my own life.) I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve recently begun to realize how much of my view of the world was based on wishful thinking, and I’m starting to confront the real possibility that it will continue to get worse for the rest of my life. This only raises the huge unresolved question of how to live under such circumstances, and I’m still trying to figure it out. And while I’m not the first to take refuge in the consolations of art—my favorite books, movies, and albums nearly all emerged from conditions of existential crisis—I feel obliged to point to one possible line of defense that was designed to be overlooked. In my eyes, Tennant and Lowe’s music exemplifies a certain kind of courage that prefers to go unrecognized. Very marked the point at which those impulses were transmuted into something more liberating, and ever since, the subtext of their early songs has become text, perhaps because their audience now consists largely of the community in which Tennant was never quite sure he wanted to be a member. Some of these later albums are great, and hugely meaningful to me, but it’s the version from Please through Very that sticks with me the most, and which seems to have the most to say to us now. Wryness and understatement may not seem like weapons, but like AutoTune, they have their place, and they served their users well enough at a time not unlike our own. The sense of liberation expressed by Very strikes me now as premature, but not wrong. And I hope that I can hear it again one day.

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.

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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