by Alec Lane Kicking the Canon Music

Pet Shop Boys | Actually

August 4, 2020
Credit: Parlophone

“I love you / you pay my rent.” These words, sung in a chorus on the 1987 classic Actually, are probably the sharpest distillation of the uncompromising aesthetic and sociopolitical concerns which Pet Shop Boys were steeped in at this early point in their career. The tension in this short lyric — between emotional and material needs, love and commerce — isn’t beholden to either a wholly nihilist or idealist sentiment, and, much like the rest of the album, is an expression not subsumed by simple irony or sincerity. Rather, the suggestion is that love becomes possible through material exchange as well as existing completely above it, and accommodating a contradiction of such fundamental terms achieves a brash, singular resonance. The sounds of the album, the duo’s sophomore effort, conjure a distinctly urban sense of both decay and decadence, and the swift entry of the beat on opener “One More Chance,” accompanied by distorted sounds of tires skidding, plunge us immediately into a persistent, accelerating motion interrupted by continual, abrupt halts. From here, a pitched-up, squeaky vocal is incorporated into the beat, and Tennant’s vocals treat the desperation in the lyrics with a cool lethargy, a moment that establishes Actually’s tone as a reflection of the schizoid nature of human participation in political and economic systems. The robustness of the aesthetic is such that the popular track “Shopping” is still frequently licensed for British television, where it essentially operates as a destabilization of commodity logic from the inside. The robotized performance of the chorus in the track, backed by plodding guitar in the arrangement, hardly lends it a pro-commerce tenor, yet the lyrics are superficially an uncritical description of privatization. The critique, then, is located in its aesthetic handling, the song eschewing more direct moral-political statements in favor of implicit suggestion built through conflict and contradiction.

In other words, it’s pure camp. The album’s cover art refers to a television commercial consisting of members Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant in black tie, Lowe disdainfully mugging on camera as a voiceover lists the hit singles from their debut, Please, as well as those supporting the upcoming album. The advert ends with Tennant letting out a yawn, generating the image on the cover and acting as a fitting extension of the album’s ambivalent dialogue on economics and politics. As Tennant yawns, the image freezes, the voiceover fades, and we’re left with the chorus of “Rent” to soundtrack the ad’s final seconds, which display the album title and formats. The music, and its marketing, continue in the absence of the authors, further emphasizing the perfunctory nature of public personae. They’re bored and over it, that much is evident, despite the vitality evidenced on “It’s a Sin,” “Heart,” and the several singles from their debut, which are perfect dance-pop. The ad illuminates the duo’s foremost brilliance, which is simply to prioritize decorative, even ornamental communication over any explicity articulated political alignment or cultural ideology. 

It’s precisely this form of restraint that accounts for a certain distaste toward the music in many circles — it privileges the deliberate fashioning of image over political dissent. Yet there is great profundity in Pet Shop Boys’ calculated nonchalance; it is effectively pitted against the breakneck speed of capitalism, which is in turn embodied in the ecstatic sensations of their music and pop as a genre and sensibility. The duo is essentially a multi-media performance offering reflexive, ongoing commentary on social and political reality, and bearing out both the overwhelming pleasures and potent paranoia, anxiety, and, ultimately, detachment therein. Actually is their best record because it is so aware of what it is to be human within its contemporary moment: specifically, to be faced with a burgeoning emphasis on progress and some vision of an ideal future, despite visibly widening disparities. It’s a paradox which the duo condenses into the album’s profound conflicts — between the tone of their lyrics and that of their production, and between their personas as musicians (artists) and as commodities (celebrities). The pair would go on to hone their songwriting talent and produce a collection of structurally-perfect disco the next year (Introspective), but they have never sounded as simultaneously chilling and joyful as they do on their second album.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.

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