For a new cultural criticism – thirty-five years since the Pet Shop Boys’ Please
By Mark Wegierski
Introduction (2021): I would like to offer to readers this rather “experimental” piece, redolent with Eighties’ nostalgia and high ambitions. Initial drafts of this piece indeed go back to 1986.
It is an interesting question from where certain trends and fashions, particularly in clothing, music, and film, ultimately derive. Is it the music and film industry moguls and fashion-designers that dictate such trends, or is there some deeper source for these popular trends and directions?
Let us look back at the hugely successful debut album of the Pet Shop Boys, Please. It is instructive to note that Neil Tennant, clearly the leader of the two-man group, was formerly the editor of Smash Hits, Britain's bestselling pop-music magazine. It might well be argued that this experience had given him some insight into the elements of mass culture, as well as of the subconscious strata which lie beneath it. How else could one explain the vast popularity of an album whose songs "Opportunities", and especially "West End Girls" (both initially released in 1985) had become cult club hits in Canada and elsewhere with virtually no radio-play or promotion? The popularity of the Pet Shop Boys -- however banal they may seem today -- was initially built upward from the mass of modern youth, rather than downward by corporate methods. This would suggest that they had struck a rather deep chord in the music-listening audience.
Why, one wonders, were the Pet Shop Boys so hugely popular? If one could identify some of the reasons for their popularity, one could get a clue as to the directions of a large section of Eighties' (and possibly, today's) society.
The Pet Shop Boys' music can be classified as electropop/technopop/New Wave. It makes heavy use of synthesizers and electronic effects, and is spoken melodically rather than sung, punctuated by electronic beeps and other effects. The use of synthesizer technology is the defining element of the melody. When listening to it, it suggests an electronic world, a world of computer monitors, push-button controls, instant communication, and satellite networks, in which power is projected through comm-links and images on telescreens. It is, of course, an exciting, dynamic world, so different from a world of boring, petty bureaucrats and administrators, overseeing a decaying welfare system and urban rot.
The lyrics of the songs decry the meaninglessness of today's society, as well as possibly suggesting some kind of alternative, a full self-actualization by those persons who are capable of it.
The first song of the album, "Two Divided by Zero", conveys the sense of high adventure in the abandonment of conventional, plodding, middle-class life. There is an exciting intrigue going on throughout the song, centered most likely around vast sums of money. The desire to escape a boring existence is shown in lines like:
"We'll catch a plane to New York...And a cab going down, 'cross the bridges and tunnels, straight into town...Tomorrow morning, we'll be miles away, On another continent and another day."
"West End Girls", a far more somber song, may be read as a strong critique of a worthless and spiritually sterile, materialist civilization:
"Too many shadows, whispering voices, faces on posters, too many choices...If, when, why, what, how much have you got? Have you got it? Do you get it? If so, how often? Which do you choose, the hard or soft option?"
There is also an interesting geographic reference, "from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station", which was the route taken by Lenin's sealed train on the way to the Russian Revolution. It is used as an ironic device in the song, presumably signifying the ultimate dissipation of revolutionary energies today.
In "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" the call for self-actualization is made. The point of the song is that any moron can "make lots of money". If this is the case, an intelligent person should also be capable of it:
"There's a lot of opportunities, if you know when to take them...if there aren't you can make them...make or break them..."
There is no reason for a relatively decent and intelligent person to remain downtrodden and unknown. They could become a part of the power elite by the force of their intellect, and the strength of their image. Instead of being passive vessels for other people's images, they must become image-makers themselves.
As the next song reminds us, such a person should also remain in touch with the better side of his or her nature. "Love Comes Quickly", whether for someone who is living "lonely, heavy as stone...learning and working alone", or someone living a "life of luxury, taste[ing] the bitter pleasures". The main message seems to be that it is love that is most important: "You can fly right to the end of the world, but where does it get you to?" It is not material pleasures that make one happy.
It appears that, ultimately, love is more important than technology or the power gained through technology. But the fully-actualized person can integrate both aspects of existence.
"Suburbia" is a protest against the sterility and aridity of much of modern urban (and, of course, suburban) life. It is only a rare person who sees the shallowness and stupidity of it all. "I only wanted something else to do but hang around." It seems that one solution being offered is the launching of violent revolution (as the explosions at the end of the song indicate), with the anomie and mindlessness of the dehumanizing suburbs erupting into violence. It is, of course, an uncontrolled and undirected violence, which is incapable of discerning the root-causes of these problems.
The second side of the album begins with "Tonight is Forever", an evocation of the excitement of night-life, in the face of a rather pessimistic future, unless one can obtain an unlimited line of credit, or its equivalent. It is also a love-song, expressing the hope for a long-term attachment with the chosen person, despite the dim prospects of the future.
"Violence", while ostensibly an anti-vigilante song, really underscores the general meaninglessness of society in respect to violence, as in the gang-warfare and spiraling crime-rates of large North American cities.
"I Want a Lover" expresses the viewpoint of a man going to a singles' bar, looking for a good time with no strings attached.
"Later Tonight" complements the song before it, giving the viewpoint of a woman in a singles' bar, searching for an idealized (and non-existent) boyfriend.
A resolution to the problem is offered in the next song:
"There comes a time, in everyone's life, When all of the parties every night, They're not enough...You want something more...you want me, I want you! I want you!"
"Why Don't We Live Together?" thus offers a possible positive resolution to this whole problem, albeit expressed in the contemporary idiom -- an idealistic, meaningful, and enduring relationship. Since this is the concluding song of the album, the final message seems to be that real love is better than promiscuity or outstanding material success.
Yet, another possible message of the album is that relatively decent, intelligent people are capable of achieving real success and power because they understand better the nature of an electronic media society. They must project their intellectual strength, and the power of their healthier life-instincts across the media channels by an appeal to the human imagination and deeply-seated human feelings. It is only they who can undermine the rule of the petty administrators and bureaucrats and corporate controllers who are mechanizing and stifling human existence.
Perhaps implicit in the message of the Pet Shop Boys' album is the hope for the possible emergence of what could be called a postmodern consciousness. Humanity today is enslaved by the structure of the mechanical, by the system of petty apparatchiks and bureaucrats and corporate controllers, and by the metallic technology itself. Men and women with intimations of greatness are effectively crippled and enchained, in almost every field of human endeavor. Yet it is they alone who can awaken the human imagination and overcome the structure of mechanism, which will eventually result in a new synthesis, where technology will be generally used for truly creative, humane (human) ends.
Since music, even of the most banal, popular type, is often a reflection of certain deep-seated feelings and shifts in the human unconscious, we can conclude that the popularity of this Pet Shop Boys' album possibly may have had its ultimate origins in its reflection of certain deep-seated archetypal needs of the young population, which were not being fulfilled by the Eighties' sociopolitical regime. (Nor, manifestly, are they being fulfilled today.) The question remains, how do we get from here to there?
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.