Friday, June 12, 2015

Revolution to Revelation

Pet Shop Boys, despite the disco, EMD gloss, have for thirty years immersed their lyrical meaning in the political and moral turbulence of modern society. From AIDS to aging, the PSBs are the most social and thoughtful of musical artists, yet unlike Dylan or Leonard Cohen, they wear nothing on their sleeves (but what is fashionable, of course).

Based on the lush, club scene focus often associated with their music, the political emphasis of the lyrics is often overlooked, but not, it seems, by the Chinese government.  The lyrics for the song "Legacy" include two sections: "Time will pass, governments fall/ Glaciers melt, hurricanes bawl/  High speed trains, take us away/  North or south... and back the same day;" and, "Seasons will change, more or less/  Species vanish, art perplex/  Resentment remain, both east and west/ Police expect... an arrest." The Chinese government insisted, despite the vagary of the lyrics (governments fall? east and west?) that they be replaced with an instrumental bridge.  Said Neil Tennent in an article for The Observer, a Sunday only British newspaper, "Does the Chinese government really fear the power of a song to bring about change?" (I remember no such controversy in the US with the release of the Tony Blair/George W. Bush inspired "I'm With Stupid," nor any wining from even the Soviets upon the release of "My October Symphony." The song, a treatise on a party member who now regrets his affiliation with the Marxist ideology, gets a pass.  Kind of interesting.) 

Those of us who grew up and old with the Pet Shop Boys can take note particularly of "Invisible," on which even the ennui of aging is so beautifully explored. Tennent and Lowe weren't spring chickens when they started (Tennent began his career as a writer/editor for Marvel UK and Smash Hits), but they were the essence of cool - they were who all us club kids wanted to be and thought we were. Now, even at a point when they're no longer cool, they still say it so coolly: "Am I tragic or a joke/ Wrapped in my invisibility cloak?" (Wow, a Harry Potter reference.)  From another angle, the same topic is tackled in "Casanova in Hell." So much emphasis is placed on our youth, on someone we cannot be when we are old. The lyrics are written from Casanova's perspective as an old man who , no longer able to seduce, no longer able to even get an erection, bitterly relies on voyeurism, spying on a young couple making love. A little silly, yet so very sad.

Pet Shops Boys have never shied away from topics, yet even [rock's] obsession with love has never been in better hands. There are love songs (sort of), songs of unrequited love ("I Made My Excuses and Left") and the end of love ("You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk"), but it takes only a simple song like "E-Mail," to reveal, not only the changing ways in which love is communicated, but also how fragile we are, how meaningful "I love you" remains, even sent through the ether. From complex emotions to simple ones to a gamut of literary and political references, the Pet Shops Boys can only thinly veil their compassion with EDM.

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