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Director's cut — May 2006

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May 1, 2006 by Tara Brabazon

Greetings to members and lurkers.

Popular culture often makes feel comfortable. More disturbingly, it can make us feel complacent and complicit. In the last few years, feeling anything has been helpful. The Paris Hilton effect has anesthetised us from doubt, questioning, fear and disgust. But the best of popular culture makes us feel, makes us conscious and builds a sense — or even better — a real community.

The problem is that most popular culture is nostalgic. Our job is to create popular culture with an agenda. Through our lives, the same popular culture can capture distinct functions. For example, I fell in love with the jacket first. It was long, black and nipped at the waist. It took several days to notice the man filling out the coat, and several weeks to realise that the song he was singing and the duo in which he was performing would become the sonic punctuation of my adult life. The Pet Shop Boys embody the essence of Thinking Pop, offering an intelligent guide through the paradoxes, hypocrisies and lies of media, nation and selfhood. Even at thirty seven years of age, they remain the soundtrack of my life through the marriages and breakups, through the professional successes and failures. No other contemporary popular cultural performer has been as influential and credible — for as long — as PSB. Unlike Madonna, they do not use Abba samples to get down with the kids. They don't look like an extra from Flashdance. They are satisfied to grow up and age in public. Adult love, loss, triumph and decline are catalogued by PSB's words, rhythms, clothes and politics.

The Pet Shop Boys have staying power. Twenty years after Neil Tennant appeared in that flowing coat clumping through London's streets, they have released their fifteenth album, the ninth of completely new music this month, in May 2006. Critics are already listing it amongst their best. Titled Fundamental, it attacks weak political leaders holding strong views on war. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have always been political, in a stoic and coldly threatening fashion. Songs such as 'Rent' and 'It's a sin' from the Actually album attacked the duplicity of an Iron Lady with a caustic will for social destruction. Although the bends and twists in sexual relationships and intimacy have been a constant companion to their backbeat, the excesses of greed, jealousy and envy have been dominant textual fodder. During our era of limp gossip being reported in the news as news — Nicole Ritchie buying new sunglasses, Paris Hilton attending another party, Lindsay Lohan choosing a new shade of lip gloss — the Pet Shop Boys draw us to the urgent and important. Using the relentless energy of disco, they create a disco(urse) of difference. They use pop to attack pap.

They are smart — too smart — in a dumb time. PSB were not invited to Number 10 after Tony Blair was elected into office. The Prime Minister could counter the (verbal) punches of Noel Gallagher. He simply could not fathom the political or linguistic palette of the Pet Shop Boys. After such active avoidance, and in his third term, Blair now must manage pointed sexual barbs from Tennant and Lowe's new album, which suggests that he is also an inept lover. Words matter to the duo, almost as much as rhythm. They have given their albums single word titles — Please, Actually, Introspective, Behaviour, Very, Bilingual, Release and Fundamental — and often deploy full sentences for their song titles, like "I don't know what you want but I can't give it any more" and "You only tell me you love me when you're drunk." For their current album, they adopted the full Kraftwerk effect, with sharp song titles as well. "Psychological," "Minimal," "Numb" and "Integral" duel with the disco excesses of "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" and "I made my excuses and left."

They have maintained a singular function for the last twenty years: to translate underground dance rhythms into popular culture through smart lyrics, puffed up jackets, pointed hats and more pointed politics. Their persona has created an archetype. The quiet, understated, unmoving and laconic anti-pop stars move through dance music without dancing. Their videos show them watching other people at parties, watching other people having sex, watching other people living their lives. They are distanced — disconnected — aloof — from their context. They perfected their archetype in the videos for Very. Wearing dunce caps and egg-shell helmets, along with primary coloured jumpsuits, they wandered through post-Soviet Russia and a computerised matrix looking more comfortable than in their 'real' context of Major's Britain.

The gift that the 1980s gave to popular culture was to bring sharp-edged design to the loops of sound. While fashion cynics became fixated on the Joan Collins shoulder pads and the Molly Ringwald water-stained taffeta, it was the razor-edged lettering, the clean lines of design and the splash of colour is the greatest stylistic revolution of the 1980s. The Pet Shop Boys, through their detached view of the world, created an intimate fusion of pop and design. Working with Mark Farrow, the detail of their visual work was precise and conscious. Graphology, packaging and texture mattered from the start of their career and it has continued in the subsequent twenty years.

They also took chances by deploying operatic and theatrical techniques in 1991 through the staging and costuming of David Alden and David Fielding. They then produced their own musical, Closer to Heaven in 2001 and a new soundtrack for the extraordinary film, Battleship Potemkin, in 2005. They have been prepared to make mistakes and take chances. It was no accident that their career anthology was titled Pop Art. It signalled either a double-barrelled noun to describe their work or a linear trajectory from pop to art. More likely, the two words provide semiotic tennis rackets that allow their sounds and vision to bounce and resonate between these categories.

Their new album has tracked this Pop‹–›Art reverberation, seeing a revival of their career and a reassessment of their influence. Although their hardcore fans have stayed with them since Very's release in 1993, each subsequent album enacted a stark separation from the previous remix. Bilingual remade the English duo into the soundtrack for a European community. Nightlife brought rhythm and movement back to the night-time economy, and Release — their great experimentation with rock structures and instrumentation — was an album of regret and loss. But for the chart-based fans of music, they have been quiet since the brilliance of Very and the charting singles "Go West," the stomping disco cover, and the fag hag anthem, "Can you forgive her?"

Spurting from this recent history, Fundamental becomes even more extraordinary. It aligns their long journey of suits, sights and sounds. For those who have not followed their career in the last ten years, it seems like a come-back. For those who have stayed with their musical journey with faith and openness, the sheer quality and topicality of this release could have been predicted. The revelation is the breadth and freshness of their vision. It is an album glacial in its emotional intimacy.

The War on Terror has provided the hook on which to hang these tracks. The Pet Shop Boys are sharp and probing in their anger. The neo-conservative fear of foreigners bubbles into the lyric of "Indefinite leave to remain." An attack identity cards and the disappointments of the Blairite third way pump through "Integral." The pounding politics of "I'm with stupid" transforms the Blair and Bush 'special relationship' into a homoerotic encounter between the mediocre and obtuse. The video highlights the camp comedy of the track with the Little Britain writers Matt Lucas and David Williams re-staging the Pet Shop Boys' video history. This collaboration has overshadowed the more significant reunion between the Pet Shop Boys and the producer Trevor Horn. They first worked together on the 1988 single "Left to my own devices." But Horn has rejoiced in bringing Barry White orchestration and the bumping excesses of disco into the 2000s.

Popular culture generally, and popular music specifically, has let us down since September 11. Part of it is the Australian/American Idol effect. Pallid ballads and try-hard rock covers have been the soundtrack to the Iraq War. We need a cultural circuit breaker, a rupture in the conformity and consensus of invasion and hyperconsumerism.

This survival against the odds — even while George Michael keeps getting arrested and Britney Spears continually breaks up with Kevin Federline — the Pet Shop Boys have settled into an important role: the undertakers of popular music. They gather the dark, damaged and decaying. Tennant's mournful tones, that confirm that there will not be a happy ending to romance, love or lust, is counterpoised with the hopeful swirling synthesisers of disco. There is none of Coldplay's blandness or Madonna's leotards. Right now, we do not need legwarmers. We do not need roller skates. Actually, we require a bright, sharp spotlight hitting the paradoxes of this paranoid time. Being defiant — rather than boring, banal or compliant — it is the Pet Shop Boys who might be able to reconnect popular culture with political change.

The label of 'dance music' has blocked the Pet Shop Boys from being recognised as powerful social commentators. Their critiques of Thatcher, through the songs "Opportunities," "Shopping," "King's Cross," and "Rent," were profound. Yet their attack on Blair is even more cutting and damaging. While Fundamental is their Casablanca with myriad innovations and rejuvenated clichés, their Claude Rains track of "Twentieth Century" should be played on repeat by every political leader with aspirations for war.

I bought a ticket to the revolution
and cheered when the statues fell.
Everyone came to destroy what was rotten
but they killed off what was good as well.
Sometimes the solution
is worse than the problem.
Let's stay together

Tennant's history degree has served him well. Similarly Chris Lowe, who has worn sunglasses through much of his pop life, sees the future more clearly than most. The Pet Shop Boys offer a history lesson from pop, and a lesson from the last century, to be carried into the next one hundred years. They not only sing the problems, but are the soundtrack for the solution.

I hope the Collective will listen to this album. It captures much of our project, and it is honest, passionate but — most importantly — courageous.

See you in June!