Yes, Actually

5.11.2009

By Andrew Sullivan

I've been lucky enough to meet and talk with some serious politicians in my time as a political journalist in Washington, D.C., and I have the jaded skepticism to prove it. I've hung with Obama. I've dined with McCain. I've seen the Pope. I've grilled a prime minister. These are privileges and perks for the purpose of my work in Washington. But the nerves and thrill I get from talking with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe surpass them all.

Why? Because their music has been with me for my entire adult life. They have described the chapters of my gay and nongay life in the hinges of the 20th and 21st century. Unlike Papal bulls, their lyrics elude any one interpretation and, further, render the gay experience as expansively and confusingly human. The swelling brilliance of their dance anthems always comes undercut with a drop shadow of pain and loss, working through and beyond the grief of the plague to the work ethic of the survivors. I love them because they can write for Kylie Minogue and champion Dusty Springfield even as they write a score for Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin for the Dresden Symphony Orchestra. I love them because no man sings as a woman as well as Neil Tennant; because no techno master is as unashamed of disco or as contemptuous of rock 'n' roll as Chris Lowe; because they have written the simplest song about gay love, 'Nervously,' and the most wrenching account of gay death, 'Your Funny Uncle.'

Their music is about big things -- Casanova and Catholicism, terror and religion, politics and pretension -- but it is guided by an intelligence that doesn't balk at fun. They have never put out an album, or even a single, without an intense and exquisite sense of design, nor have they bent themselves to their retrograde time. Because they have seduced fame without being seduced by it, they need celebrity less than pop music needs them, and less than we do.

In America -- where pop and vacuousness are often synonyms -- the Pet Shop Boys have been a very well-kept secret for the last decade or so. There are those here who think the last song the Pet Shop Boys recorded was in 1986, but there are also those, like me, who have devoured every B-side every year for the past 20 and sense that their best work still lies ahead. In the yap and yammer of contemporary culture, there are so many pop confections in search of a market, so much soulless music chasing mindless lyrics, immune to history and thought and wit and the energy that comes from something more than restlessness.

The Pet Shop Boys are different. Yes, actually, they are.

Andrew Sullivan: a misconception people seem to have is that you are trapped in '80s synth-pop -- not that there's anything wrong with that.
Neil Tennant: We love it.

I love it too. But for more than 20 years now, you've been the ever-changing soundtrack of many lives. Am I over-reading this, or do you think of the arc of your work as covering a distinct period of history?
NT: I do, actually. The Pet Shop Boys' 10 albums are a sort of social history, from 'Let's Make Lots of Money' to 'Love Etc.' They're both sort of bookends of the 'market is the only thing that counts' money culture, which we've had for over 25 years. And that's deliberate. One of the things we do is comment on what's going on, normally in a satirical or ironic or funny way.
Chris Lowe: I think we're one of the few groups who does humor intentionally.

The funniest thing I've ever heard, actually, is your cover of u2's 'Where the Streets Have No Name.'
CL: That's not meant to be funny. [Laughs]

Within your music, also, there is the arc of the AIDS epidemic.
NT: There are a lot of songs about the AIDS epidemic.

I guess it started with 'It Couldn't Happen Here,' right?
NT: My best friend was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, and that song is a description of a conversation we had. I remembered him saying in the very early days that AIDS was not going to happen in Britain for various reasons. And we were being a bit complacent about it.

Is it his funeral in 'Your Funny Uncle?'
NT: Yes, and it's the same guy in 'Being Boring.' When I grew up in Newcastle my first band was a folk group called Dust, inspired by the Incredible String Band, believe it or not, and he was the other guy in it. There were two girls as well. And then we split up due to musical differences, namely because he wanted to be the Incredible String Band and I wanted to be David Bowie, but 'Being Boring' is the description of a party we had, 'Your Funny Uncle' is his funeral, and 'It Couldn't Happen Here,' again, was looking back at us as teenagers.

There's also a sense in your recent work of foreboding, of the combination, as you put it, of religion and nuclear energy. You have a fear of fundamentalist religion. But, you also have a fear of the police state.
CL: We were very annoyed about the surveillance culture.
NT: I don't see why, when we're walking down the Kings Road in Chelsea, I should be filmed by masses of surveillance cameras. I don't think we should create an apparatus, which is open for, firstly, abuse, of course, but -- even more likely -- to being cocked-up by some complete moron, which is what normally happens.

It's not the conspiracy theory of history -- it's the cock-up theory.
NT: Oh, I'm much more of a cock-up theory person. Let's face it. This decade has been pretty dark since 9/11. And it wasn't really set up to be like that, was it, at the beginning?

But your songs, in a way, don't really offer solutions.
NT: No, and they don't intend to. Otherwise, one would be a politician.

They Do, However, offer a critique. For example, 'Luna Park,' on Fundamental, is set in a fairground. Is that a metaphor for the West in this period?
NT: It's probably America. Someone is looking at a fairground at night and all the lights and people screaming on the Big Dipper and the rifle range and all the rest of it. I mean it's not a particularly original metaphor, but it's about why people enjoy being scared and whether that is used politically. I think it is done politically, and I think America at that particular time -- the American president and his cohorts -- were doing it.

Although, obviously, the original terror was utterly understandable.
NT: The original terror was understandable, yes. There was a moment, at that period, when America had the moral leadership of the world and threw it away.

And Obama is a belated attempt to regain it at some level.
NT: Yeah, I think he probably is.

You have your usual skepticism.
NT: No, no, no, we love Obama. We're crazy about Obama in Europe. We're all Obama crazy. Everyone thinks he's sexy. Lovely teeth, as my mother would say.

And he glides. He has a great physical fluency about him.
NT: He actually would have made a very good cardinal, that sort of gliding across St. Peter's Square thing he does. He's got that kind of bearing. He's just brought back dignity, which is an amazing thing to put back on the cultural agenda. There's a slightly corny song on our album called 'More Than a Dream,' which was written when Obama was slugging it out with Hillary in the primaries, and you could feel the potential for the world to change away from the sort of paranoia -- justified as it may be -- to something different. And that spirit is what we're riding at the moment, although of course we wrote that before the economic crisis.

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