Friday, June 4, 2021

"On" Being Boring




Bob Dylan's 80th birthday made me think of those artists who, despite their age, have eschewed the Las Vegas legacy set and continued to create incredible music through the years. One such band, as brought to you in the last post, is the Pet Shop Boys who have been at it now for nearly 40 years.

Those of you who read the column know that I rely on happenstance to determine what I'm into at the moment. I've been in this 80s mood for a month now and collected some of the LPs I once had, from Black Celebration to Heaven or Las Vegas. And I got a good price on something I’ve wanted for a while: One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem from Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennent. With a decidedly British eloquence, Neil’s words have inspired me for (ahem, cough, yikes) 40 years.

I read it in a day while I listened to Behaviour and Please and Very and although it’s not of the era, "Being Boring" (1990) still speaks volumes to me. I think because it signals the end of my youth in a way, at least my new wave youth, a little wild, full of myself – you’ve been there.
But happenstance is a funny bedfellow, and I was drawn once again to the song’s lyrics. I have a tattoo on my forearm; the last line of The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." And so, when I read Neil's words on "Being Boring," I shared a bit more synchronicity: "She covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it, and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do."—Zelda Fitzgerald.
The quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife infuses the song with its meaning. It places the reader and listener at the center of the song. It’s about change, and how change brings emotional turmoil, even when it’s for the better.
"Being Boring" is the story of life and love and loss. Of hope and expectation. Of youth and in/experience. Neil explains it better, of course, than I do: "My feelings weren't hurt. After Chris Lowe and I performed at Tokyo’s Budokan arena in early July 1989, a Japanese reviewer wrote, 'The Pet Shop Boys are often accused of being boring.' The words 'being boring' took me back to the early '70s and an invitation I had received to the Great Urban Dionysia Party in Newcastle, England, where I grew up.
"On the invitation was this adaptation of a 1922 Zelda Fitzgerald quote about a flapper friend who had died [he paraphrases]: She was never bored because she was never boring. Thinking of the invitation and quotation reminded me of a close friend who had died of AIDS four months earlier at age 34. He had organized that teenage party. I immediately began writing lyrics to a song I called 'Being Boring.' The theme was an autobiographical look back. My chorus came first:
"'Cause we were never being boring / We had too much time to find for ourselves / And we were never being boring / We dressed up and fought, then thought: 'Make amends' / And we were never holding back / or worried that / time would come to an end.'
"The first verse was about those parties and finding the invitation with the Fitzgerald quote: "From someone’s wife, a famous writer / in the 1920s / When you’re young you find inspiration / in anyone who’s ever gone / and opened up a closing door.'
"The second verse was about me leaving Newcastle on the train to study in London in the early 1970s. I assumed I was never going to move back: 'I'd bolted through a closing door / I would never find myself feeling bored.'
"By then, Chris and I had sufficient lyrics to begin writing the music in a little studio in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1989. The third verse would have to wait until we were closer to recording the song."
Later, he'd sum it up: "The first verse is set in the 1920s, when the woman writes the invitation, and then we move forward to the hedonistic 1970s when I’m moving to London to seek my fame and fortune. Someone said to us, 'The trouble with you lot is that you’ll have experienced everything by the time you’re 18 – you'll have nothing left to experience.' And then it moves to the start of the 1990s, when my friend has just died. It’s just the sadness of having a close friend die, because I always thought he’d be somewhere there with me. When we were teenagers, we would always discuss that we weren’t going to settle for boring lives, we were always going to do something different. And then when it came down to it, I did become a pop star and at exactly that time he became very ill."

On to another topic, if you're not bored yet:

It is common practice in literary discourse to title an article using the word "on." Articles that come to mind are "On Morality" or "On Keeping a Notebook" (both titles from Joan Didion) and of course, Darwin's "On the Origin of Species." That in mind, this little play on words enters into the PSB's 2019 track "On Social Media." While within the song, Neil is singing about people utilizing social media, the lyrics are clearly commentary "on" social media.

A group of my students was analyzing a fiction piece I wrote that was purposefully designed to illustrate the power of reading into things and how it’s not what a writer puts into a piece but what he leaves out. One of the students came up with an eloquent treatise on what I meant that was far more elaborate than anything I had considered. Okay, then, that’s what I meant. At least it was what I meant for this student. Neil's lyrics consistently do the same by allowing readers through their sparsity to make up their own minds regarding meaning. Here Neil does no such thing. "On Social Media" is direct in its approach with Tennent interpolating Marx's statement that "religion is the opiate of the masses." Simply replace religion with social media and there you go.

While democracy is losing its way
And greed is getting greedier
Console yourself with a selfie or two
And post them on social media

Of course, Marx wasn't nearly as funny as Tennent (well, I guess Groucho was, but not Karl). Anyway, the lyrics video herein is the perfect dissertation on our never-take-your-eyes-off-your-cell-phone society.

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