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Pet Shop Boys made gay okay: discuss

Pet Shop Boys are performing at Carriageworks in Sydney tonight and over the weekend as part of Vivid festival. Their live shows are described as incredible and dazzling, and after almost three decades…

I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money. Vivid

Pet Shop Boys are performing at Carriageworks in Sydney tonight and over the weekend as part of Vivid festival. Their live shows are described as incredible and dazzling, and after almost three decades in the business, they’re still getting great reviews and sales for their albums.

Their brand of British electronic dance pop has become known for its ambition, intelligence and self-awareness, and its ability to be simultaneously meaningful and frivolous, melancholic and joyful.

To many fans, their music was great and their sexuality was irrelevant. To others, their music and image were deliberately and flamboyantly queer.

Pet Shop Boys formed in the early 1980s. Neil Tennant, who had been a writer for British music magazine Smash Hits, was the lyricist and singer, and Chris Lowe played keyboards and programmed their music. The pair were a study in contrasts – in a review for Q magazine, Stuart Maconie described their personae as the academic and the hedonist – and played on this in their public image and lyrics.

As Neil Tennant sang in their hit song Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) (1985):

I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money.

The line spoke to their self-awareness and use of irony. The song was also a critique of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. But, because Pet Shop Boys made pop music aimed at the dance floor, the song didn’t sound as serious as its subject. This smart, multi-layered dance pop was what broke them commercially and it became one of their hallmarks.

Released in 1985, their first single West End Girls, about the British class system, went to the top of the charts in countries around the world. Tennant’s sibilant, deadpan, polite white rap contributed to the song’s success and the duo’s distinctive sound.

The rap was inspired by Grandmaster Flash’s The Message (1982), but rather than emulating black rap Tennant revised it to fit his cultural context.

In a decade in which popular music was characterised by earnestness and excess, even the title of their first album Please (1986) spoke to Pet Shop Boys’ play with irony and manners.

They rejected rock culture as pretentious and inauthentic, a stance that took musical form in their cover of U2’s 1987 hit Where the Streets Have No Name. They transformed the serious rock anthem into a camp show tune by combining it with the crooner classic Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.

Perhaps because he’d been a pop music critic himself, Tennant knew how to play the music and media game, which helped the duo earn critical respect. As music writer Don Watson commented in NME magazine:

Everyone ends up rather liking them, perhaps because they seem to feel no need to make a fuss about their intelligence, they’d rather make a song and dance with it than about it.

Since then they have influenced and worked with artists including Madonna, Yoko Ono, George Michael, Guns N' Roses, U2 (ironically), Coldplay’s Chris Martin, The Killers, Lady Gaga and Daft Punk. The artistry and design of their live performances earned them the reputation of being the best ever group to perform at Glastonbury, which in turn influenced music festivals to shift from a pure rock music focus to incorporate dance acts.

Pet Shop Boys performing at the Balaton Sound Festival in Zamardi, Hungary, 2010. EPA/ Balazs Mohai

But their reach and impact extended beyond music circles, dance floors and commercial radios. With lyrics about escaping from the suffocating confines of conservative suburbia, Pet Shop Boys appealed to people who felt like outsiders. Their music helped to create a space for people at the margins.

Indeed, part of the hype around Pet Shop Boys in the 1980s was whether or not they were gay. They wouldn’t comment on their sexuality in interviews and a rumour circulated that their name referred to a mythic gay male sexual practice that involved using gerbils and other small rodents for anal stimulation.

For their part, the duo seemed happy to play with the rumours and the uncertainty around their sexual identities. Tennant used a non-gender specific pronoun in his lyrics, and the fey sound of his voice could pass for straight but might also signal that he wasn’t.

Gay aesthetics and meanings could be found in a lot of their output. The duo recorded hit songs with gay icons Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli. Their song Rent (1987) was interpreted by some as about male prostitutes, while the lyrics in It’s a Sin (1987) dealt with religious guilt and social transgression and could easily have been about sexual identity.

Pet Shop Boys’ performance of queerness was significant in the 1980s when AIDS was discovered and became an international pandemic. Because it had circulated in and decimated gay communities, conservatives characterised AIDS as a gay disease and as God’s punishment for being homosexual. As part of the homophobic hysteria, governments, including Thatcher’s, took anti-gay positions through policy.

In this context, by flaunting an exuberant queer aesthetic that also flew under the radar, Pet Shop Boys both undermined and defied conservative culture. Their pop was a political statement. By the time Neil Tennant officially came out in 1993, his and Chris Lowe’s music had given visibility to queerness and helped to carve a bigger space – and greater tolerance – for it in the mainstream.

Their 1990 song Being Boring, written about a friend of Tennant’s who died of AIDS, is a poignant and moving eulogy of its time. But as much as the song is about loss, it’s also about how to live. Which is what the never-boring Pet Shop Boys continue to do.

Pet Shop Boys perform at Modulations on Friday 6, Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 June.

Join the conversation

4 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Perhaps the PSB made gay "ok", or not.

    The disco era was in full swing before the arrival of the duo.
    Gloria Gaynor was the first disco superstar, with "I Will Survive" a gay anthem across the world in 1979.

    It was the gay community that embraced disco with fervour initially, but as with a few other social phenomena, it was later taken up by het society.

    And without thinking about it too much, gay pride seemed to flourish about the same time as disco emerged.

    Perhaps the beat released an inner need for speed.

    If you want to hear a beautiful and haunting song about death (presumably from aids), listen to George Michael's version of "You Have Been Loved".

    It moves me every time I listen.

  2. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    I'm the biggest PSB fan in the world, but sadly I'm not sure about some of the assertions in the article:

    'Their live shows are described as incredible and dazzling' - actually their concerts are often panned as overprogrammed, overchoreographed, and emotionally cold. And Neil Tennant can't sing live.

    'They’re still getting great reviews and sales for their albums' - sure the last one went well (number 3 in the UK, 26 in the US), but for a decade they haven't been getting in the US top 100.

    'They made gay okay' - oes anyone outside their fan base know (or care) that Neil Tennant is gay?

    The article sounds a bit like an ad for Vivid!

  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Never heard of em, did they make gay okay? maybe to some people but obviously homophobia is still alive and well, especially in people that were around during this no, they failed

  4. Tim Brook


    Surely Bros need to get a mention!

    But seriously it sounds like Rebecca is a fan of the PSBs and wanted to write an article on them. Maybe the PSBs made 'gay ok' for Rebecca personally? This is a good thing and I am sure different people had different role models or people who changed their view from timid teen to adulthood. I am sure there have been a few gay role models or simply 'cool gay people' that have affected different people in different ways at different times. Be it Henry Rollins, Greg Louganis, Peter Allen, Morrissey, Billy Bragg or whoever. I'm pretty sure the PSBs cant claim the mantle for the whole gay world. Bit of a stretch.

    But I still see the value in the article because it is really about how people in the arts can change middle class adolescents views on things. For Rebecca it was the PSBs. So that is a cool thing.