Happy together – pop duo the Pet Shop Boys – Brief Article – Interview
Quintessential ’80s band the Pet Shop Boys has been called snide, but lead singer Neil Tennant says the group is misunderstood, In a candid talk he disses bitter gay hipsters –and talks about the Boys’ new attitude
It’s hard to believe that a band as successful as the Pet Shop Boys has an image problem. After all, in its 15-year career the group has released 12 albums, charted five top-ten hits, and won a host of awards. And several dates on the band’s current North American tour were sold out moments after the shows were announce. Yet despite the Boys’ huge following–which includes the likes of George Michael and Frasier’s John Mahoney (the dad), who told a Chicago magazine that the Pet Shop Boys is his favorite band–some critics haven’t taken the group too seriously, looking at it as sarcastic and gimmicky.
“People tend to think of [the Pet Shop Boys] as a complicated joke,” a weary-sounding Neil Tennant says. “I get offended by that because it’s not what we intended. We always get stuck with this tag of being ironic because we’ve written three really ironic songs. In fact, most of what we do is painfully sincere, really.”
Tennant and music partner Chris Lowe’s reputation in some circles as snide and sneering dance-pop fops probably began with the disaffected Brit-boy rap of their first international hit, “West End Girls.” Tennant’s droll delivery, even when he was wistfully singing songs such as “I Want a Lover,” seemed as distant and detached from emotion as it was from the beats that propelled the song along. And if “West End Girls” and its 1986 parent album, Please, raised questions about the band’s level of involvement in its subject matter, not to mention its music, critics were given more ammo when they saw the cover of its second album, Actually. Tennant was actually pictured yawning.
In many ways the band perpetuated its own myth. For years band members refused to play live (“I can’t see the point, really,” Tennant had said), and they dismissed their 1987 ballad “Rent” as a “mercenary love song.” If the comments, which Tennant now says were “flippant,” were well within the band’s control, Tennant’s removed-seeming voice is not. “Because I have the singing voice that I have, people don’t find [our songs] emotional,” says Tennant.
The truth is, they often are. Feelings–even warm, fuzzy ones–can be found all over the Pet Shop Boys’ latest release, Nightlife. “Its about the good and bad things about nightlife,” Tennant explains. “The excitement, the fantasy, the thrill, but also the abuse, the exploitation.” Despite some unflinching candor on tunes like “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk,” Tennant insists, “This album is not so personal. There are things influenced by my own life, but I’m not the person in [new songs like] `In Denial.’ I’m playing characters.”
But Nightlife does boast at least one surprising autobiographical moment: “Happiness Is an Option,” a trip-hop hymn to optimism that’s destined to shatter the band’s image as sarcastic naysayers once and for all.
“I don’t normally do positivism,” Tennant says, laughing. “But I know people who are bitter. I’m saying you can make choices, you can choose to run your life in a way that you can be happy, but you’ve got to know what you want. You can’t just float around in misery. I actually believe you can do anything you want in life if you put your mind to it and if you’re any good at it. I would never be doing what I’m doing now if it weren’t for that attitude.”
It turns out the notion of happiness versus bitterness is something Tennant has given a lot of thought to, especially in terms of his homosexuality. “Do you think nowadays everyone wants to be young always?” he asks. “That’s one of the things Nightlife is about. But it’s not just a gay thing. You can have the same kind of life in your 50s as you did in your 20s, but at the end of the day, is it really going to make you happy?”
He’s not done.
“Everyone wants to be hip nowadays, consequently nothing is hip,” he says. “I think that produces a lot of bitterness. I don’t think trying to be hip will ever make you happy! People think that because you’re gay, you’re different. I don’t think being gay is that important. I think what makes a difference in people’s lives as they grow older is how they live their lives. I don’t think you should have different expectations of life just because you’re gay.”
Along with Tennant’s more outspoken take on emotional well-being, the Pet Shop Boys has a new look to accessorize its new attitude. “It’s a disguise, really,” Tennant offers about their Ian McNeil-designed visage. “The pants come from samurai warriors, the eyebrows come from Kabuki theater, the hair is a reference to punk rock.” The band is seen wrapped in its new garb in the video for “I Don’t Know What You Want but I Can’t Give It Anymore.”
“We try to create our own world in what we do,” says Tennant of his die-hard band. “We try to make the Pet Shop Boys a little culture all its own, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. This is just the latest attempt.”
For more information about the Pet Shop Boys and its impending tour, go to www.advocate.com
Gdula is a freelance writer based in Washington, D. C.
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