Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pet Shop Boys

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.

It couldn’t happen here

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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.

When I started reading The World Only Spins Forward, the excellent oral history of Angels in America, I was mildly struck by the fact that it doesn’t begin with the playwright Tony Kushner at all. Instead, it opens with an account of the Briggs Initiative, an episode from the history of gay rights that has largely faded from memory. As the historian Rick Perlstein explains:

Through 1977 to 1978, there were the gay rights fights in Miami, the Briggs Initiative in California, the Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion—the movement is beginning to take shape in parallel to Reagan’s very aggressive, full-time efforts to begin working for the Republican nomination…On the general election ballot in California, you have the Briggs Initiative, the first statewide attack on gay rights. Not only that, but in the biggest state. It was an incredibly, incredibly scary prospect. This was a law that would have made it illegal for gays to teach in the schools and also illegal for supporters of gays to teach in schools. It was a very, very creepy law.

The initiative—which would have turned “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity” by public school employees into a fireable offense—had the unintended effect of catalyzing the nascent gay rights movement, which came up with a remarkable counterattack. It successfully reached out to Ronald Reagan himself to make the case that the proposed law was expensive and pointless, with the candidate ultimately writing in the Los Angeles Examiner: “Whatever it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s homosexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence it.” The proposition went down to defeat, but it left behind some valuable lessons. The activist Cleve Jones recalls: “Harvey [Milk’s] constant exhortation to people to come out, I really think, became the main driving force behind everything we’ve achieved in the decades that followed…One of the words we used a lot was demystify. You know, we needed to demystify homosexuality with the boring reality of our ordinariness.”

Ten years later, a similar law was proposed in the United Kingdom, and the outcome was very different. The amendment known as Section 28, which was introduced into parliament at the end of 1987, made it illegal for local authorities to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality,” or to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It was largely a reaction to the AIDS crisis, which led to a rise in homophobia, and a panicked response to the existence of a handful of books—notably David Rees’s novel The Milkman’s On His Way—that advocates claimed were being taught to young children. As one member of the House of Lords stated during the debate:

One argument that has been put forward…is that the kind of words in the amendment…might have the effect of censoring as teaching material works of literary value. I do not believe that that follows logically at all. No one will use those words to censor out the reading of works by authors such as Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf…[The Milkman’s On His Way] deals in explicit—some would say pornographic—detail with the sexual intercourse between a teenager and his male adult lover. I will not read out the most sensitive and the most explicit parts. It is recommended for children still at school. For members of the committee who have not had a chance to realize what we are talking about—we are not talking about Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf—I quote: “Kisses, gentle hands touching skin. Drifting towards sleep. ‘I don’t have to wonder if you enjoyed it,’ he said, later. I smiled. No answer was needed. ‘Or if we were the right way round.’ I opened my eyes. ‘I just want it again. For ever and ever like that. Till I’m ninety-six and dying.’”

And another member warned: “Homosexuals regard themselves as normal. One has only to look through the entire animal world to realize that it is abnormal…When one is young at school one is very impressionable and may just as easily pick up bad habits as good habits.”

On May 24, 1988, the amendment was passed into law—it wouldn’t be repealed for another fifteen years—and its most lasting impact, as with the Briggs Initiative, was to galvanize the opposition. One of the most notable opponents was Ian McKellen, who at the time was most famous for his work as a stage actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. During a radio debate with Peregrine Worsthorne, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, McKellen was asked if he would like to see Section 28 abolished. In response, he replied almost casually: “I certainly would. It’s offensive to anyone who is—like myself—homosexual, apart from the whole business of what can and cannot be taught to children.” As he later remembered in an article for Capital Gay magazine:

A year ago, I was one of those men, content to be gay, but unaware that I might have any relevance to the lives of other gays, whose lives are more vulnerable than mine to homophobia…I’d been an actor before anything else. Yet there I was, with those tireless arts lobbyists, meeting daily in the smoky bar of the London Drill Hall, plotting to attack the Government on behalf of all lesbians and gays, attacking censorship and, selfishly, that part of Section 28 which could affect my livelihood.

In June, McKellen organized a special gala, “Before the Act,” the the Piccadilly Theatre in London, to highlight gay and lesbian writers and composers whose work might be affected by the amendment. The performers included Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave—and the Pet Shop Boys, who had featured McKellen earlier that year as a vampire in their video for “Heart.” At the beginning of the second act, they performed “It’s a Sin” and “One More Chance,” in one of their first live shows of any kind. Neil Tennant wasn’t officially out yet, but the performance was a clear statement, or at least an invitation for their fans to connect the dots.

It was a turning point, but also a reflection of their particular attitude toward the relationship between art and politics. The Pet Shop Boys had dealt obliquely with AIDS in such tracks as “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the first song in the great sequence that runs through “Being Boring” and “Dreaming of the Queen.” Yet their journey was a complicated one, in part because of Tennant’s own ambivalence toward being seen as a gay artist. Like McKellen, he came out during an interview, but in a very different context, while speaking to Paul Burston of Attitude:

“The Pet Shop Boys came along to make fabulous records, we didn’t come along to be politicians, or to be positive role models. Having said all that, we have supported the fight for gay rights…What I’m actually saying is, I am gay, and I have written songs from that point of view. So, I mean, I’m being surprisingly honestly with you here, but those are the facts of the matter.” Having finally got all that off his chest, Neil Tennant pours himself a glass of mineral water and takes his sweatshirt off. He is looking distinctly pink around the gills. Maybe it’s the effect of suddenly admitting that for all these years he has been singing nothing but the truth. Or maybe it’s just the unbearable heat in here.

In recent decades, gay themes have come to the forefront of their work, but they’ve never entirely shed their early air of reserve. (As the scholar Nabeel Zuberi brilliantly observes in the book Sounds English: “The Pet Shop Boys are unlikely to have made the kind of music they did if they hadn’t been closeted. Their particular evocations of England in the 1980s and 90s depend on a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body.”) And it was a process of evolution that seems to have begun on June 5, 1988. Afterward, they only called the gala “a brilliant event,” but it set off a train of thought that climaxed five years later in Very. Like the Briggs Initiative, Section 28 inadvertently created a set of strategies for survival—artistic, personal, and political—to which we should all pay attention. Because it could happen here again.

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

American Stories #9: 808s & Heartbreak

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

If there’s a common thread that connects many of the works of art that I’ve been discussing here, it’s the way in which our private selves can be invaded by our lives as members of a larger nation, until the two become neurotically fused into one. This is probably true of all countries, but its deeper connection with the notion of personal reinvention feels especially American, and no celebrity embodies it as much as Kanye West. It might seem impossible to make sense of the political evolution of a man who once told us that President Bush didn’t care about black people and then ended up—despite the efforts of a concerned time traveler—taking a very public meeting with Donald Trump. Yet if one of our most ambitious, talented, and inventive artists can be frequently dismissed by critics as “oblivious,” it may only be because he’s living two years ahead of the rest of us, and he’s unusually committed to working out his confusions in public. We should all feel bewildered these days, and West doesn’t have the luxury of keeping it to himself. It might seem strange to single out 808s & Heartbreak, which looks at first glance like his least political work, but if this is the most important album of the last ten years, and it is, it’s largely because it reminded us of how unbearable emotion can be expressed through what might seem to casual listeners like cold detachment. It’s an insight that has crucial implications for those of us who just want to get through the next few years, and while West wasn’t the first to make it, he was remarkably candid about acknowledging his sources to the New York Times:

I think the fact that I can’t sing that well is what makes 808s so special…808s was the first album of that kind, you know? It was the first, like, black new wave album. I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.

This is exactly right, and it gets at why this album, which once came off as a perverse dead end, feels so much now like the only way forward. When I think of its precursors, my mind naturally turns to the Pet Shop Boys, particularly on Actually, which was first released in 1987. A song like “Shopping” anticipates 808s in its vocal processing, its dry drum machine, its icy synthesizers, and above all in how it was widely misconstrued as a reflection of the Thatcherite consumerism that it was criticizing. That’s the risk that you run as an ironist, and West has been punished for it more often than anybody else. And while these two worlds could hardly seem further apart, the underlying impulses are weirdly similar. New wave is notoriously hard to define, but I like to think of it as a movement occupied by those who aren’t comfortable in rock or punk. Maybe you’re just a huge nerd, or painfully shy, or not straight or white, or part of a group that has traditionally been penalized for expressing vulnerability or dissent. One solution is to remove as much of yourself from the work as possible, falling back on irony, parody, or Auto-Tune. You make a virtue of reticence and understatement, trusting that your intentions will be understood by those who feel the same way. This underlies the obsessive pastiches of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, whose 69 Love Songs is the other great album of my adult life, as well as West’s transformation of himself into a robot programmed to feel pain, like an extended version of the death of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. West has taken it further in the years since—“Blood on the Leaves” may be his most scandalous mingling of the political and the personal—but it was 808s that introduced it to his successors, for whom it serves both as a formula for making hits and as an essential means of survival. Sometimes the only way to make it through the coldest winter is to turn it into the coldest story ever told.

Listen without prejudice

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George Michael

In The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson says of Tuesday Weld: “If she had been ‘Susan Weld’ she might now be known as one of our great actresses.” The same point might hold true of George Michael, who was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou and chose a nom de mike—with its unfortunate combination of two first names—that made him seem frothy and lightweight. If he had called himself, say, George Parker, he might well have been regarded as one of our great songwriters, which he indisputably was. In the past, I’ve called Tom Cruise a brilliant producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and George Michael had the similar misfortune of being a perversely inventive and resourceful recording artist who was also the most convincing embodiment of a pop superstar that anybody had ever seen. It’s hard to think of another performer of that era who had so complete a package: the look, the voice, the sexuality, the stage presence. The fact that he was gay and unable to acknowledge it for so long was an undeniable burden, but it also led him to transform himself into what would have been almost a caricature of erotic assertiveness if it hadn’t been delivered so earnestly. Like Cary Grant, a figure with whom he might otherwise seem to have little in common, he turned himself into exactly what he thought everyone wanted, and he did it so well that he was never allowed to be anything else.

But consider the songs. Michael was a superb songwriter from the very beginning, and “Everything She Wants,” “Last Christmas,” “Careless Whisper,” and “A Different Corner,” which he all wrote in his early twenties, should be enough to silence any doubts about his talent. His later songs could be exhausting in their insistence on doubling as statements of purpose. But it’s Faith, and particularly the first side of the album and the coda of “Kissing a Fool,” that never fails to fill me with awe. It was a clear declaration that this was a young man, not yet twenty-five, who was capable of anything, and he wasn’t shy about alerting us to the fact: the back of the compact disc reads “Written, Arranged, and Produced by George Michael.” In those five songs, Michael nimbly tackles so many different styles and tones that it threatens to make the creation of timeless pop music seem as mechanical a process as it really is. A little less sex and a lot more irony, and you’d be looking at as skilled a chameleon as Stephin Merritt—which is another comparison that I didn’t think I’d ever make. But on his best day, Michael was the better writer. “One More Try” has meant a lot to me since the moment I first heard it, while “I Want Your Sex” is one of those songs that would sound revolutionary in any decade. When you listen to the Monogamy Mix, which blends all three sections together into a monster track of thirteen minutes, you start to wonder if we’ve caught up to it even now.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

These songs have been part of the background of my life for literally as long as I can remember—the music video for “Careless Whisper” was probably the first one I ever saw, except maybe for “Thriller,” and I can’t have been more than five years old. Yet I never felt like I understood George Michael in the way I thought I knew, say, the Pet Shop Boys, who also took a long time to get the recognition they deserved. (They also settled into their roles as elder statesmen a little too eagerly, while Michael never seemed comfortable with his cultural position at any age.) For an artist who told us what he thought in plenty of songs, he remained essentially unknowable. Part of it was due to that glossy voice, one of the best of its time, especially when it verged on Alison Moyet territory. But it often seemed like just another instrument, rather than a piece of himself. Unlike David Bowie, who assumed countless personas that still allowed the man underneath to peek through, Michael wore his fame, in John Updike’s words, like a mask that ate into the face. His death doesn’t feel like a personal loss to me, in the way that Bowie did, but I’ve spent just about as much time listening to his music, even if you don’t count all the times I’ve played “Last Christmas” in an endless loop on Infinite Jukebox.

In the end, it was a career that was bound to seem unfinished no matter when or how it ended. Its back half was a succession of setbacks and missed opportunities, and you could argue that its peak lasted for less than four years. The last album of his that I owned was the oddball Songs from the Last Century, in which he tried on a new role—a lounge singer of old standards—that would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been so deeply heartfelt. It wasn’t a persuasive gesture, because he didn’t need to sing somebody else’s songs to sound like part of the canon. That was seventeen years ago, or almost half my lifetime. There were long stretches when he dropped out of my personal rotation, but he always found his way back: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” even played at my wedding. “One More Try” will always be my favorite, but the snippet that has been in my head the most is the moment in “Everything She Wants” when Michael just sings: Uh huh huh / Oh, oh / Uh huh huh / Doo doo doo / La la la la… Maybe he’s just marking time, or he wanted to preserve a melodic idea that didn’t lend itself to words, or it was a reflection of the exuberance that Wesley Morris identifies in his excellent tribute in the New York Times: “There aren’t that many pop stars with as many parts of as many songs that are as exciting to sing as George Michael has—bridges, verses, the fillips he adds between the chorus during a fade-out.” But if I were trying to explain what pop music was all about to someone who had never heard it, I might just play this first.

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

The vinyl age

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Moonrise Kingdom

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 21, 2014.

For Christmas, I got a record player, the first one I’ve owned for many years. My setup isn’t going to impress any audiophiles—my only real request was for a portable turntable that I could plug in and play without worrying about wires or external speakers—but it’s exactly what I needed. I wanted it, first of all, because I live just up the street from an independent record store that I’d only visited a couple of times in the last two years, and I wanted an excuse to browse there. There’s also a trove of enticing records at the thrift store a block away, and along with the selections from the Osmonds, Andy Williams, and Mitch Miller, you’ll often find an unexpected treasure for a dollar. My first purchase there was Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was only fitting, since it was the sight of those three little brothers in their pajamas, seated on the floor with their record player in Moonrise Kingdom, that reminded me of the basic pleasure that vinyl affords. And although my record collection is still pretty sparse, I expect it to expand considerably soon, at least if my habits with used books are any indication.

Vinyl itself is a fascinating medium. I’m well aware that arguments for one format over another are highly subjective, and few listeners can tell the difference with their ears alone. (The “warmth” over which wax enthusiasts enthuse may be real, but it might also be due to the inherent limitations of vinyl for rendering bass.) Still, there’s no denying the emotional, tactile appeal of the rituals involved: sliding the record out of the sleeve, setting it on the turntable, removing the dust, gently dropping the needle into place. At a time when the process of listening to music has become increasingly abstracted, along with nearly all the other forms of media we consume, there’s something satisfying about an encounter that brings you that much closer to the mechanics of recording and playback. It isn’t quite like the case for reading physical books, which have enormous advantages for serious readers that have nothing to do with nostalgia. But if we’re willing to concede that these objects have value in themselves—and that the physical look, feel, and aroma of these interactions are meaningful—then it’s hard to imagine a better way of listening to music.

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

And I’m also thinking about my own daughter. I’ve written before about the value of physical books from a parent’s perspective, since a bookshelf with the spines all arranged at the level of a child’s eye is a much greater invitation to browsing and discovery than the sterile slab of a Kindle. You can make much the same argument for music and movies: I spent endless hours exploring my dad’s CD, video, and record collection, which shaped my tastes enormously, even if it put me slightly out of step with my friends. (It’s safe to say that I was the only kid at my middle school who was obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys, and although it caused me a few headaches at the time, I’d like to think that I got the last laugh.) Beatrix is already curious about the record player, perhaps because the logic of its workings is so transparent. You put the record on here, the sound comes out there—and the records themselves, of course, are enticing art objects in themselves. I’m still looking for a place to keep them all, but it’s safe to say that wherever they end up, they’ll be somewhere near the ground, in a spot where they’re likely to catch a little girl’s eye.

That said, none of this would make any difference if I didn’t benefit from it myself, and if it didn’t express something fundamental about who I am. I don’t have much in the way of advice for other parents—if there’s one thing that being a father has taught me, it’s that parenting is about doing whatever works, as long as it’s within a loving family—but if I’ve come to believe in one principle, it’s that values, especially artistic ones, need to be visible. I’m used to living in my own head, but my daughter is still gathering the materials of her own inner life, and it helps if the raw ingredients are readily at hand. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to transform myself into something I’m not, just for the sake of providing her with what I think will be a good role model; but it does mean externalizing the things I care about and find worthwhile about myself in a form that she can find on her own. That record player, like the ukulele, is an attractive toy, but it’s also a tangible extension, right into the living room, of art and ideals that might otherwise be locked up between my ears or in a hard drive that she won’t be able to explore. These books, movies, and music are a part of me, and by keeping their fragile, anachronistic shells within easy reach, I’m hoping that they’ll become a part of her, too.

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

A delivery system for furniture

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Es Devlin

I’ve just finished reading the recent New Yorker profile of Es Devlin, the theatrical stage designer who has famously branched out into concert productions for the likes of Adele, Miley Cyrus, and my beloved Pet Shop Boys. The article, by Andrew O’Hagan, is maybe a touch too starstruck—we hear of Devlin’s “beautiful skin, dark eyes, and long, lustrous brown hair, usually piled up and held in place with a pencil”—but it also shares one story that I love:

“When I did Betrayal, it was my first big job,” Devlin told me. “And I was doing it as if my life depended on it. I was designing the fuck out of it. That show did not need anything. It was much better as a pure white room, but I was spraying my need over it. And Pinter didn’t care. He’d done it fifty times, he’d seen it the right way fifty times, and here was mine, with projector images of children between the scenes and conveyor belts.” She went on, “Pinter was able to just laugh it off and set me free. But when he introduced me to someone on opening night he said, ‘Have you met Es Devlin? She wrote the play.’”

“Spraying my need over it” is about as accurate a description as I can imagine of the temptation for talented creative professionals to impose themselves on someone else’s material, and to Devlin’s credit, she has clearly devoted a lot of thought since to how the set can serve the play, rather than the other way around. But that tension still remains. To advocate one point of view, the article quotes the British stage designer Ralph Koltai: “I am concerned with conveying what the piece is about, not where it takes place.” And here’s the director Will Frears with the rebuttal:

There’s an argument for not letting the set give the story away…I like to argue it out with the set designer, and sometimes talking about the set as a delivery system for furniture is helpful. You don’t want to turn everything into metaphors that take the audience out of the play.

Devlin, sensibly enough, attempts to stake out a middle ground between realism and expressionism. “England is full of people who will create exactly that room, or execute the detail, way better than I can,” Devlin notes. “Instead, my obsession is to put an audience in an appropriate frame of mind to receive the play.”

Es Devlin set for the Pet Shop Boys

These issues might seem remote from the concerns of writers who serve as their own playwrights, directors, and stage designers, but deep down, the dilemmas are strikingly similar. In theater, the difficulty comes down to the interaction between the instantaneous and the gradual delivery of information. A modern stage set can metamorphose and transform itself before the audience in ingenious ways, but for grindingly long sections of the play, it’s static, and even if our eyes wander from one part of the stage to the other, we’re essentially swallowing a bunch of visual data in one gulp. This creates an unavoidable conflict with the story itself, which is transmitted to us as a linear succession of words and actions, and there’s a very real danger that a set by an ambitious designer who thinks in terms of simultaneous visual elements can tip the narrative’s hand too soon. In On Directing Film, David Mamet mocks the impulse “to make each small and precious moment on the stage or screen both ‘mean’ the whole play and display their wares, to act, in effect, ‘sit down because I’m the king of France.’” And if this inclination causes problems for actors and writers, who do have all the resources of gradual development at their disposal, it’s that much riskier for designers, who for the most part are doing their work—and it’s often incredibly valuable—through a medium that naturally wants to give us everything at once.

The logistics of the stage, which for reasons of budget or manpower are often constrained to one or two sets, mean that these issues are especially stark. But it’s no different from the writers who try to achieve effects in a single paragraph of description that might better be conveyed by a character’s actions and words over time. (Devlin brilliantly evokes this in her discussion of the set for the Benedict Cumberbatch production of Hamlet: “It’s thought materializing into space. But you have to be careful, because Shakespeare is already doing that with language.”) No one element is superior to any other, and ideally, each piece serves to catalyze or activate the others without drawing undue attention to itself. Devlin puts it well: “A stage setting is not a background, it is an environment. Sometimes what these people [directors and actors] want is a liberator, someone who might encourage them to defy gravity.” And this can only happen once the designer, or author, takes the needs of the whole into account, without regard to ego or the desire to be admired. A set can serve as either the background or the foreground, depending on how our perspective shifts, just as all the parts of a novel somehow frame one another in a diagram of forces that can only be visualized intuitively. But even if the set is sometimes just a delivery system for furniture, it’s in the magical sense that a house, as Le Corbusier said, is a machine for living.

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2016 at 8:41 am

The heartbreak kid

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808s and Heartbreak

I don’t think there’s another album from the last decade that I’ve played as often as 808s and Heartbreak. When I’m doing chores around the house or just want some music in the background while I’m busy with something else, it’s usually the first thing I cue up on my playlist, but I’ll occasionally just sit down and listen to the first six tracks on headphones, which always seems like the best possible use of my time. Earlier this year, when I was driving my daughter to her toddler play program every morning, we’d often listen to “Heartless” on the way there, to the point where she was able to sing along to most of the chorus. (Beatrix: “Why is he so sad?” Me: “Because he loved a woman who didn’t love him back.”) After I dropped her off, on the way home, I’d switch over to Yeezus, especially “Blood on the Leaves,” which I don’t think she needs to hear just yet. I like Kanye West’s other albums just fine, particularly My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with its apparent determination to have every track be the one that renders all other music obsolete forever. But it’s 808s that struck me, when I first heard it, as an album that I’d been waiting to hear for my entire life, and that hasn’t changed since.

Still, when it was announced yesterday that West would be performing 808s in its entirety at a “surprise” concert in September, I found that I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect. 808s doesn’t feel like an album that can or should be played live: in many respects, it’s the most writerly collection of songs I know, at least in the sense that it feels like the product of intensely concentrated, solitary thought. Plenty of people worked on 808s and Yeezus, but both albums manage to sound like they were composed in utter isolation, by a man singing to himself in the corner with his laptop. That’s the real genius of West’s use of AutoTune: thanks to samples and synthesizers, we’ve long been able to exclude musicians from the studio, but West was the first to realize that you could dispose of the singers, too, leaving as little mediation as possible between the songwriter’s conception and its creation. In my recent post on Tom Cruise, I described him as a producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and much the same holds true of West, who willed himself into becoming one of the biggest musical acts in the world with little more than the kind of sustained craft and intelligence that can only emerge in private.

Kanye West

This isn’t an approach that would work for most other albums, but it comes across brilliantly on 808s. It was recorded after the death of West’s mother, and it feels like nothing less than a meditation on how unbearable emotion can best be expressed through what seems at first like cold, chilly impersonality. It reminds me, oddly, of the Pet Shop Boys—who were equally determined to exclude musical instruments from their early albums—and their insistence that irony and detachment were the only honest way to get at real unfaked feeling. 808s is like the death scene of HAL 9000 extended over fifty minutes, as he sings “Daisy” to himself as his mind goes away, or, on a lighter note, like the swan song of the robot on The Simpsons who asks despairingly: “Why was I programmed to feel pain?” But that doesn’t even hint at how richly, inexhaustibly listenable the result remains after countless plays. “Heartless” and “Paranoid” are close to perfect pop songs, executed without any room for error, and even in the album’s messier sections, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to music delivered straight from one man’s brain to yours, without any loss in the translation. And it isn’t the kind of effect that you can get at the Hollywood Bowl.

West remains an enigma. He’s a man who punches out paparazzi who wound up marrying one of the most photographed women on the planet; an introvert who only seems satisfied when he has the world’s undivided attention; a songwriter of intense self-awareness, even self-loathing, who can come across all too easily as an unfiltered jackass. The gap between West’s public persona and his meticulous craftsmanship is so vast that it’s easy to disregard the latter, and the number of people who have actually heard Yeezus—it barely even reached platinum status—is minuscule compared to those who know him only from the tabloids. As a result, even when West tries to kid himself, he can’t catch a break. Earlier this year at the Grammys, when he made a show of rushing the stage when Beck won the evening’s top prize over Beyoncé, only to turn back with a grin, it was clearly a joke at his own expense, but it was widely taken as just more evidence of his cluelessness. He’s smarter and more talented than any of his critics, but not in ways that express themselves easily before an audience of millions. For the rest of us, there’s always 808s. It’s just him in a room, and once we’re there, he quietly sets up his laptop, presses the play button, and invites us to listen.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2015 at 9:51 am

Turning down the volume

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Adele

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What do you listen to when you’re working?” (As it happens, I’ve talked about this before, so this is a slightly revised version of a post that originally appeared on February 25, 2014.)

For years, I listened to music while I wrote. When I was working on my first few novels, I went so far as to put together playlists of songs that embodied the atmosphere or mood I wanted to evoke, or songs that seemed conductive to creating the proper state of mind, and there’s no question that a lot of other writers do the same. (If you spend any time on the writing forums on Reddit, you’ll encounter some variation of the question “What’s your writing playlist?” posted once every couple of days.) This may have been due to the fact that my first serious attempts at writing coincided with a period in my twenties when most of us are listening to a lot of music anyway. And it resulted in some unexpected pleasures, in the form of highly personal associations between certain songs and the stories I was writing at the time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes without thinking of my novelette “The Boneless One,” since it provided the backdrop to the wonderful weeks I spent researching and writing that story, and much of the tone and feel of my novel Eternal Empire is deliberately indebted to the song “If I Survive” by Hybrid, which I’ve always felt was a gorgeous soundtrack waiting for a plot to come along and do it justice.

Yet here’s the thing: I don’t think that this information is of any interest of all to anyone but me. It might be interesting to someone who has read the stories and also knows the songs—which I’m guessing is a category that consists of exactly one person—but even then, I don’t know if the connection has any real meaning. Aside from novels that incorporate certain songs explicitly into the text, as we see in writers as different as Nick Hornby and Stephen King, a writer’s recollection of a song that was playing while a story was written is no different from his memory of the view from his writing desk: it’s something that the author himself may treasure, but it has negligible impact on the reader’s experience. If anything, it may be a liability, since it lulls the writer into believing that there’s a resonance to the story that isn’t there at all. Movies can, and do, trade on the emotional associations that famous songs evoke, sometimes brilliantly, but novels don’t work in quite the same way. Even if you go so far as to use the lyrics as an epigraph, or even as the title itself, the result is only the faintest of echoes, which doesn’t stop writers from trying. (It’s no accident that if you search for a song like Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” on Fanfiction.net, you’ll find hundreds of stories.)

Pet Shop Boys

This is part of the reason why I prefer to write in silence these days. This isn’t an unbreakable rule: during the rewrite, I’ll often cue up a playlist of songs that I’ve come to think of as my revision music, if only because they take me back to the many long hours I spent as a teenager rewriting stories late into the night. (As it happens, they’re mostly songs from the B-sides collection Alternative by the Pet Shop Boys, the release of which coincided almost exactly with my first extended forays into fiction. Nostalgia, here as everywhere else, can be a powerful force.) During my first drafts, though, I’ve found that it’s better to keep things quiet. Even for Eternal Empire, which was the last of my novels to boast a soundtrack of its own, I ended up turning the volume so low that I could barely hear it, and I finally switched it off altogether. There’s something to be said for silence as a means of encouraging words to come and fill that empty space, and this is as true when you’re seated at your desk as when you’re taking a walk. Music offers us an illusion of intellectual and emotional engagement when we’re really just passively soaking up someone else’s feelings, and the gap between song and story is so wide that I no longer believe that the connection is a useful one.

This doesn’t mean that music doesn’t have a place in a writer’s life, or that you shouldn’t keep playing it if that’s the routine you’ve established. (As it happens, I’ve spent much of my current writing project listening to Reflektor by Arcade Fire.) But I think it’s worth restoring it to its proper role, which is that of a stimulus for feelings that ought to be explored when the music stops. The best art, as I’ve noted elsewhere, serves as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, a chance for us to feel and remember things that we’ve never felt or tried to forgotten. Like everyone else, I’ll often hear a song on the radio or on old playlist, like “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” by Neutral Milk Hotel, that reminds me of a period in my life I’ve neglected, or a whole continent of emotional space that I’ve failed to properly navigate. That’s a useful tool, and it’s one that every writer should utilize. The best way to draw on it, though, isn’t to play the song on an endless loop, but to listen to it once, turn it off, and then try to recapture those feelings in the ensuing quiet. If poetry, as Wordsworth said, is emotion recollected in tranquility, then perhaps fiction is music recollected—or reconstructed—in silence. If you’ve done it right, the music will be there. But it only comes after you’ve turned the volume down.

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2015 at 8:37 am

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

William Weir has an excellent piece in today’s Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; over the last three years, there has been only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2014 at 9:34 am

Behind the jukebox

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What bands deserve musicals?”

In theory, a jukebox musical should be a wonderful thing. The songs, presumably, are good enough to have won the affections of a generation of listeners, and even before the show premieres, they’ve been tested under fire. If they’re all by the same artist, or emerge from a world with a common sensibility, evocative stories will naturally suggest themselves: Drive All Night, the Bruce Springsteen musical, never made it past the workshop stage a decade ago, but we all know intuitively what it would have been about. In the hands of a capable author, a collection of prewritten songs can serve as a promising source of constraints, and even encourage the breeziness and looseness of structure that so many good musicals have in common. It’s no accident that the greatest of all movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, was essentially conceived in the jukebox format: the script was written on demand to accommodate existing songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, and if the result is so intoxicating, it’s partly out of the sense that so much magic was lying around the MGM backlot, just waiting to be picked up.

Of course, jukebox musicals are usually anything but transcendent in practice, generally for three distinct reasons. At its worst, our familiarity with the songs is substituted for the heavy lifting that an original musical requires to draw in the audience: like a comedy that falls back on easy cultural references in place of real humor, a jukebox musical turns into an exercise in recognition, providing a sort of simulation of emotional engagement instead of the real thing. Hearing a famous song emerging from the mouth of an actor onstage also violates one of the central illusions of the musical, which is that the music represents a spontaneous outpouring, a way to express feelings that can’t be conveyed in any other form. Finally, in an ideal musical, as Stephen Sondheim notes, each line ought to advance emotion, character, or story, rather than serving as an exercise in virtuosity for its own sake. A song originally recorded to occupy a spot in a studio album can’t be expected to carry a narrative in which it was never meant to appear, and even if it fits reasonably well, it tends to feel like it’s just marking time.

Stephin Merritt

Still, it seems likely that we’re going to see many more jukebox musicals. Broadway is like any other form of show business: with costs escalating and audiences diminishing, it seems safer to stick with an established brand than to convince theatergoers to take a chance on something new. Hence the endless string of musicals based on established properties, no matter how improbable—Carrie, Rocky, Spider-Man—and the reliance on existing back catalogs and songbooks that can be relied upon to sell tickets. It’s understandable, but it also ignores one of the most seductive aspects of the musical, which is its underlying strangeness. All theatrical genres involve some suspension of disbelief; at the end of the day, we’re looking at painted performers exchanging lines on a clearly artificial set. A musical emphasizes that weirdness, reminding us with every number that we’re witnessing a heightened, externalized version of our own inner lives. It takes real craft and heart to entice an audience into taking that leap, and if it tries to trick us into thinking that we’re just seeing a concert with dramatic interludes, something crucial is lost.

An ideal jukebox show, then, would be built around a body of work that is already predicated on that strangeness, in which singing one’s feelings is both vaguely absurd and unavoidable. That sounds a lot to me like the Pet Shop Boys, who, in fact, already have a jukebox musical of a sort—Closer to Heaven, which combines original songs with tracks from the Nightlife period. It’s a nice little soundtrack, and it comes from a duo whose sensibilities have always been ironically theatrical, but I don’t play it much these days, perhaps because it’s a bit too polished and professional. (This is why I suspect that a Stephin Merritt musical, which might sound great in principle, would fall flat on the stage: he’s so facile a writer that we’d end up with a series of clever pastiches, rather than the awkward unburdening of feeling that give musicals their most unforgettable moments.) What I’d love to see is a musical that comes more from their secret heart, perhaps the B-sides collected on Alternative, tracks recorded for the anonymity and solitude of the club that only uneasily work on stage. Because a great jukebox musical shouldn’t come from the jukebox at all, but from the deep cuts, the private moments, that allow us to feel as if we’re encountering these emotions for the first time.

Turning down the volume

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Adele

For years, I listened to music while I wrote. When I was working on my first few novels, I went so far as to put together playlists of songs that embodied the atmosphere or mood I wanted to evoke, or simply songs that seemed conductive to creating the proper state of mind, and there’s no question that a lot of other writers do the same. (If you spend any time on the writing forums on Reddit, you’ll see some variation of the question “What’s your writing playlist?” posted once every couple of days.) This may have been due to the fact that my first serious attempts at writing coincided with a period in my twenties when most of us are listening to a lot of music anyway. And it resulted in some unexpected pleasures, in the form of highly personal associations between certain songs and the stories I was writing at the time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes without thinking of my novelette “The Boneless One,” since it provided the backdrop to the wonderful weeks I spent researching and writing that story, and much of the tone and feel of my novel Eternal Empire is deliberately indebted to the song “If I Survive” by Hybrid, which I’ve always felt was a gorgeous soundtrack waiting for a plot to come along and do it justice.

Yet here’s the thing: I don’t think that this information is of any interest of all to anyone but me. It might be interesting to someone who has read the stories and also knows the songs—which I’m guessing is a category that consists of exactly one person—but even then, I don’t know if the connection has any real meaning. Aside from novels that incorporate certain songs explicitly into the text, as we see in writers as different as Nick Hornby and Stephen King, a writer’s recollection of a song that was playing while a story was written is no different from his memory of the view from his writing desk: it’s something that the author himself may treasure, but it has negligible impact on the reader’s experience. If anything, it may be a liability, since it lulls the writer into believing that there’s a resonance to the story that isn’t there at all. Movies can, and do, trade on the emotional associations that famous songs evoke, sometimes brilliantly, but novels don’t work in quite the same way. Even if you go so far as to use the lyrics as an epigraph, or even as the title itself, the result is only the faintest of echoes, which doesn’t stop writers from trying. (It’s no accident that if you search for a song like Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” on Fanfiction.net, you’ll find hundreds of stories.)

Pet Shop Boys

This is part of the reason why I prefer to write in silence these days. This isn’t an unbreakable rule: during the rewrite, I’ll often cue up a playlist of songs that I’ve come to think of as my revision music, if only because they take me back to the many long hours I spent as a teenager rewriting stories late into the night. (As it happens, they’re mostly songs from the B-sides collection Alternative by the Pet Shop Boys, the release of which coincided almost exactly with my first extended forays into fiction. Nostalgia, here as everywhere else, can be a powerful force.) During my first drafts, though, I’ve found that it’s better to keep things quiet. Even for Eternal Empire, which was the last of my novels to have a soundtrack of its own, I ended up turning the volume so low that I could barely hear it, and I finally switched it off altogether. There’s something to be said for silence as a means of encouraging words to come and fill that empty space, and this is as true when you’re seated at your desk as when you’re taking a walk. Music offers an illusion of intellectual and emotional engagement when we’re really just passively soaking up someone else’s feelings, and the gap between song and story is so wide that I no longer believe that the connection is a useful one.

This doesn’t mean that music doesn’t have a place in a writer’s life, or that you shouldn’t keep playing it if that’s the routine you’ve established. But I think it’s worth restoring it to its proper role, which is that of a stimulus for feelings that ought to be explored when the music stops. The best art, as I’ve noted elsewhere, serves as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, a chance for us to feel and remember things that we’ve never felt or tried to forgotten. Like everyone else, I’ll often hear a song on the radio or randomly on old playlist, like “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” by Neutral Milk Hotel, that reminds me of a period in my life I’ve neglected, or a whole continent of emotional space that I’ve failed to properly navigate. That’s a useful tool, and it’s one that every writer should utilize. The best way to draw on it, though, isn’t to play the song on an endless loop, but to listen to it once, turn it off, and then try to recapture those feelings in the ensuing quiet. If poetry, as Wordsworth said, is emotion recollected in tranquility, then perhaps fiction is music recollected—or reconstructed—in silence. If you’ve done it right, the music will be there. But it only comes after you’ve turned the volume down.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

The vinyl age

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Moonrise Kingdom

For Christmas, I got a record player, the first one I’ve owned for many years. My setup isn’t going to impress any audiophiles—my only real request was for a portable turntable that I could plug in and play without worrying about wires or external speakers—but it’s exactly what I needed. I wanted it, first of all, because I live just up the street from an independent record store that I’d only visited a couple of times in the last two years, and I wanted an excuse to browse there. There’s also a trove of enticing records at the thrift store a block away, and along with the selections from the Osmonds, Andy Williams, and Mitch Miller, you’ll often find an unexpected treasure for a dollar. My first purchase there was Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was only fitting, since it was the sight of those three little brothers in their pajamas, seated on the floor with their record player in Moonrise Kingdom, that reminded me of the basic pleasure that vinyl affords. And although my record collection is still pretty sparse, I expect it to expand considerably soon, at least if my habits with used books are any indication.

Vinyl itself is a fascinating medium. I’m well aware that arguments for one format over another are highly subjective, and few listeners can tell the difference with their ears alone. (The “warmth” over which wax enthusiasts enthuse may be real, but it might also be due to the inherent limitations of vinyl for rendering bass.) Still, there’s no denying the emotional, tactile appeal of the rituals involved: sliding the record out of the sleeve, setting it on the turntable, removing the dust, gently dropping the needle into place. At a time when the process of listening to music has become increasingly abstracted, along with nearly all the other forms of media we consume, there’s something satisfying about an encounter that brings you that much closer to the mechanics of recording and playback. It isn’t quite like the case for reading physical books, which have enormous advantages for serious readers that have nothing to do with nostalgia. But if we’re willing to concede that these objects have value in themselves—and that the physical look, feel, and aroma of these interactions are meaningful—then it’s hard to imagine a better way of listening to music.

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

And I’m also thinking about my own daughter. I’ve written before about the value of physical books from a parent’s perspective, since a bookshelf with the spines all arranged at the level of a child’s eye is a much greater invitation to browsing and discovery than the sterile slab of a Kindle. You can make much the same argument for music and movies: I spent endless hours exploring my dad’s CD, video, and record collection, which shaped my tastes enormously, even if it put me slightly out of step with my friends. (It’s safe to say that I was the only kid at my middle school who was obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys, and although it caused me a few headaches at the time, I’d like to think that I got the last laugh.) Beatrix is already curious about the record player, perhaps because the logic of its workings is so transparent. You put the record on here, the sound comes out there—and the records themselves, of course, are enticing art objects in themselves. I’m still looking for a place to keep them all, but it’s safe to say that wherever they end up, they’ll be somewhere near the ground, in a spot where they’re likely to catch a little girl’s eye.

That said, none of this would make any difference if I didn’t benefit from it myself, and if it didn’t express something fundamental about who I am. I don’t have much in the way of advice for other parents—if there’s one thing that being a father has taught me, it’s that parenting is about doing whatever works, as long as it’s within a loving family—but if I’ve come to believe in one principle, it’s that values, especially artistic ones, need to be visible. I’m used to living in my own head, but my daughter is still gathering the materials of her own inner life, and it helps if the raw ingredients are readily at hand. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to transform myself into something I’m not, just for the sake of providing her with what I think will be a good role model; but it does mean externalizing the things I care about and find worthwhile about myself in a form that she can find on her own. That record player, like the ukulele, is an attractive toy, but it’s also a tangible extension, right into the living room, of art and ideals that might otherwise be locked up between my ears or in a hard drive that she won’t be able to explore. These books, movies, and music are a part of me, and by keeping their fragile, anachronistic shells within easy reach, I’m hoping that they’ll become a part of her, too.

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2014 at 9:21 am

Reflektions on a life in art

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Reflektor by Arcade Fire

Earlier this week, like just about everyone else I know, I picked up a copy of Reflektor, the fourth album by Arcade Fire. This isn’t a review, necessarily: I’ve listened to the album in bits and pieces, but I’ve only had the chance to play it straight through once, for some of the same reasons that have made it hard for me to watch an entire movie at home. And this is a band that has taught me to question my initial impressions. When The Suburbs was first released, it struck me as weaker than their previous two albums; now, it feels like their strongest work, and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is my favorite song of the decade. Reflektor certainly doesn’t lend itself to easy evaluation: it’s a double album, with the majority of its tracks pushing the six-minute mark, and the early reviews have resorted to all the usual adjectives—it’s sprawling, messy, flawed, indulgent, as if that weren’t true of all albums this length. Some are already calling it Arcade Fire’s Kid A, but its real counterpart, if you want to stick to Radiohead, is Hail to the Thief: it isn’t trying to reinvent pop music as we know it, but with its big, ragged tracks organized around the seed crystal of a memorable hook, it’s systematically pushing the boundaries of what we recognize as familiar.

In short, I like it a lot, and it confirms Arcade Fire as one of the two contemporary bands whose work I’ll always rush out to buy on the first day. The other is The Magnetic Fields, or, more precisely, the music from the mind of Stephin Merritt, whose Future Bible Heroes side project released a wonderful album earlier this year. At first glance, Merritt and Arcade Fire don’t have much in common, but to my ears, they’ve come to define two extremes of the kind of music I—and a lot of other listeners—care about so deeply. Merritt writes tight, spare novelty songs, the best of which often sound as if they were composed and recorded on a Casio keyboard; Arcade Fire throws everything into the mix, with lush, passionate orchestrations designed, at least in the early days, to have an entire auditorium singing along at the top of its lungs. (One of my favorite concert memories is seeing them play here in Chicago, with the crowd repeatedly trying and failing to join in at the right moment for the initial “Hey!” in “No Cars Go.”) Merritt is primarily a brilliant lyricist who writes catchy tunes as a sort of metacommentary on how cheap a resource a melody can be; Arcade Fire’s lyrics, while heartfelt, are usually the weakest link in their songs, which exist mainly to generate overpowering sonic emotions. And so on.

Stephin Merritt

But I wouldn’t want to give either of them up. It’s fascinating to think of how they might approach similar material: Reflektor draws heavily on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a nod to Marcel Camus’s movie Black Orpheus, and while I can easily imagine Merritt writing a song on the subject, it would probably end up being a rhyming dictionary exercise on the word “Eurydice.” (“Idiosyncrasy,” “conspiracy,” “bureaucracy”—it practically writes itself.) If you like, you could even see them as dueling expressions of the existential and ironic philosophies of life. To Arcade Fire, the moral choices each one of us makes are crucially important, and we need to behave as if we were setting an example for the entire world. Win Butler, their lead singer and lyricist, is intensely concerned with the inner lives of children, with nature, with all we destroy in the name of progress. Nothing could be further from Merritt. When his songs aren’t talking about other songs, they’re focused on the sly dissection of a moment, on how our deepest feelings are shaped by the formulas we’ve heard on the radio, and, with rare exceptions, even his most emotional tracks are delivered with a wink: we’re constantly asked to consider how he does what he’s doing. It’s pop music written for other writers, which isn’t to say it can’t be moving. When Merritt allows real feeling to slip through, it means a great deal, and the result cuts even deeper than an Arcade Fire song that urges us with all its heart to feel the plight of the powerless.

Yet in their very different ways, the Magnetic Fields and Arcade Fire are linked by a sense of the overwhelming importance of music to how we think about ourselves. For Arcade Fire, this drama is played out within the context of individual songs, each one of which insists it could change your life; for Merritt, it’s a lifetime’s work, with every two-minute throwaway serving as another brick in an edifice that the artist is patiently building. Merritt never tries to pack everything he knows into one track: instead, he stands back and invites us to consider what it really means to devote one’s life to something as absurd as pop music. Of the two, I suspect that his work might end up being the most lasting, at least for me, if only because I relate more to his vision of an artist who is one step away from being an ingenious hack. It’s a recipe for a life in art, or for keeping one’s sanity in the face of the hollowness of the entire artistic enterprise, while Arcade Fire is a dream of how urgency, passion, and technical virtuosity can transform us into something more, if only for the space of a song. Both attitudes are necessary, and the ideal would be a band or artist who embodies both ends of the spectrum, alternatively or all at once—arch detachment balanced by passionate emotion, distance tempered by vulnerability, irony framed by compassion. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can even dance to it. And I have a feeling it would look a lot like the Pet Shop Boys.

And the music plays forever…

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These days, I have reason to be thankful for a lot of things, but at the moment, I’m inordinately grateful for what seems, at least for now, like the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet: The Infinite Jukebox by Paul Lamere, which has provided the soundtrack for my writing life for most of the past week. Basically, it’s a web app that creates an infinite loop of any song you upload in MP3 format, remixed in real time to move from one point to another by matching beats from throughout the track. You can read more about it here, but there’s no substitute for trying it out for yourself. Before long, I suspect that you’ll be as addicted as I am—it’s really that elegant, ingenious, and hypnotic.

Of course, it takes a little practice to find songs that lend themselves to the form. The ideal track, I’ve found, is long, varied, and self-similar, with enough regularity to afford a large number of possible pathways. A song like “How Soon is Now?” is just about perfect, with its obsessive return to the same lyrics and reverberating chords—although it might be psychologically unhealthy to play it for more than an hour or so. I’ve also had great luck with tracks from Introspective by the Pet Shop Boys and New Order’s “Thieves Like Us” (which allows me to endlessly relive my favorite montage from Pretty in Pink). It’s particularly good for writing: I’m often attempting to capture the mood of a certain piece of music, and this way, I can play it forever. If you’ve got a laptop in the kitchen, give it a try while you’re cooking today. You’ll thank me.

Written by nevalalee

November 22, 2012 at 9:50 am

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

Learning from the masters: Stephin Merritt

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Like most people, I first caught up with Stephin Merritt, best known as the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, sometime after the release of 69 Love Songs, which is simply the richest album of pop music released in my lifetime. Since then, I’ve endlessly explored Merritt’s work—including his many side projects, notably Future Bible Heroes, sung by the always charming Claudia Gonson—until his songs have taken up permanent residence in my subconscious. And more than any other contemporary songwriter, Merritt has consistently made his own creative process the secret subject of his music. He exemplifies songwriting as both an art form and a craft, thanks both to his productivity and his remarkable technical skill.

His productivity is perhaps the important thing. Although he’s slowed down a bit since 69 Love Songs, Merritt remains more than capable of cranking things out when necessary, and sometimes it shows—his discography is full of charming but disposable novelty songs. And yet the fact that he’s writing novelty songs at all is striking in itself. I love Arcade Fire, for instance, and yet it’s hard to take them altogether seriously when every song sounds like the second coming of Christ. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Merritt coming off as bombastic or sanctimonious. His prevailing mode consists of light, facile irony, and he seems more interested in superficial cleverness than anything else—until, of course, he blindsides you with emotion.

And the effect is a cumulative one. Merritt was especially smart, or fortunate, in conceiving a magnum opus that played to his strengths, which are productivity and understatement. 69 Love Songs manages to seem epic while being composed of the most modest parts imaginable, like a cathedral built out of matchsticks. Maybe a quarter of the songs are throwaways, and even some of the strongest tracks (“The Book of Love,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”) feel like clever realizations of a single image or conceit. And yet their very modesty is appealing. Individually, the songs feel tossed off, almost like divertissements, but taken together, they seem as big as all of pop music. (As David Mamet points out, the nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it has to look like a nail.)

Of course, this productivity wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t harnessed to an impressive level of technical skill. Merritt is massively informed about the history of music, and although he never seems to strain, his bag of tricks, both musical and lyrical, is deeper than that of almost any other active songwriter. Part of the fun of listening to his songs is the obvious pleasure he takes in rhyme, genre, song structure, and ironic pastiche. Like the Pet Shop Boys in their classic period, he understands that irony and detachment can be more affecting than simple earnestness. (After spending much of the week listening to 808s & Heartbreak, I can’t help thinking that Merritt could do amazing things with Auto-Tune.) And when he does decide to pull out all the stops—as in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” possibly his most underrated song—the result is stunning.

With his recent albums, Merritt has begun to move toward a lusher, more acoustic sound, but I still prefer his earlier work, where the songs sounded like they’d been recorded with a Casio keyboard on the lowest deck of the Titanic. (Get Lost, probably his strongest conventional album, represents an ideal balance between the two extremes.) And he still seems capable of almost anything. If great drama, to quote Mamet once again, consists of people doing extraordinarily moving things in the simplest manner possible, then Merritt isn’t just one of our finest songwriters—he’s one of our best storytellers of any kind.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 9:01 am

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