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.
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.
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.