Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Very

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

Yesterday, when I was mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can you expect to be taken seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: Yesterday, when I was mad.

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

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