Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?

maxresdefaultWhen I first heard ‘Being Boring’ by the Pet Shop Boys I thought it was about me. Not that I thought they were calling me boring, necessarily; as we shall see, the song is actually about not being boring. I was at university at the time, in my first year, and I had, like Neil Tennant, left from the station (in his case presumably Newcastle, in mine Sheffield) with some luggage and a sense of apprehension about what lay ahead. Also like him I had kissed some people, some of whom I’d subsequently lost contact with. And I was listening to the song for the very first time in my room in the university residences (which was rented) in a ‘foreign’ place (well, Norwich) in the 1990s! If you add in the fact that all of the experiences I had had had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s, it was uncanny. As for ‘you’ not being ‘here’ with me, well, I suppose in a very real ‘you’ (and you, and you) weren’t. I certainly hoped I could rely on my friends, and that I would get to become the person I wanted to be. So far, so very Alan de Button. I suspect that, especially given that it features Johnny Marr on guitar, it may well be David Cameron’s favourite Pet Shop Boys song. He probably heard it at the same time as me, with the references to old photos, dressing up and never holding back bringing his Bullingdon Club days flooding back like it was all yesterday. (Maybe it even inspired his political career.) The same is probably true for everyone who has heard the song, from Robbie Williams to Basher Al-Assad. The song is essentially a succession of Barnum statements, insights that are seemingly designed for the listener but could actually apply to pretty much anyone.

There’s also a problem with the chorus. A couple of years previous to 1990 I’d, to my eternal shame, purchased and listened to the second album by (I have to bear in mind that this blog now carries my own actual name) a certain pop artist from Newton-Le-Willows. One who, and no-one saw fit to mention this at the time, looked like Billy Bragg. I shall give away no more clues. In any case, on that album there was a ballad called ‘Hold me in your arms’, the chorus to which goes:

‘If you hold me in your arms
I won’t feel better’

…which is nonsense. It’s a love song. It’s supposed to make sense because the line before that, the one that is not part of the chorus, which is the bit designed to be remembered and sung along to, is ‘….and who would be the fool to say’. Now, I’m just about to do something which in an ideal world would get me into trouble with the police, which is to google the words ‘Rick Astley discography’. Doing so I see that it got to number 10, which isn’t bad, but it’s not exactly ‘NGGYU’. (While we could use the term Tennant-coined expression ‘imperial phase’ to explain his commercial decline, I’d rather we didn’t as it has become ruinously ubiquitous).

‘Being Boring’ commits the same error, meaning that the implicit chorus to the song is actually ‘We were always being boring’. It cemented rather than challenged their growing reputation as morose. Now, it’s not that Tennant is by any means a bad lyricist. At times he’s clearly a genius. Chorus mishaps aside, ‘Being Boring’ is a very great pop song. There are countless lyrical highpoints in their oeuvre, including ‘West End Girls’, ‘If there was love’, ‘Nothing has been proved’, ‘LTEODORO’ (incidentally I’m presuming that anyone still reading this is a fan and knows what I’m referring to), YWIWM (having now made that assumption I’m now going to exploit it to the full), YOTMYLMWYD, and obviously LIABC. And it’s not just wordy ones, which do tend to be my personal favourites. There’s also songs like ‘So sorry, I said’, ‘The loving kind’, and ‘Minimal’, which take a more, well, minimal and vague approach, which is obviously fine for pop music, and also works well in poetry. There’s the allusiveness of ‘Two divided by zero’ and ‘Domino Dancing’, with the ‘you’ slipping and sliding all over the place – maybe it’s the listener, maybe it’s everyone alive today, or perhaps it’s the listeners ex-lover or perhaps their cat. ‘You choose’ is another very good example – it could be fruitfully (or, perhaps, fishfully) used in an advertising campaign for cat food. Such lyrics leaves space for the listener to fill in the details of their own life. Their history songs can also be good, like ‘The Resurrectionist’ and ‘Don Juan’. Then they can get away with songs like ‘Vocal’ and ‘All over the world’, transparent attempts to revive a flagging base. But that habit can fail them, as is the case, for example, of ‘The Pop Kids’, which sounds like it was written in the back of a taxi on the way back from a disappointing meeting with their new record company.

However, given the immense promise of West End Girls – not so much Che Guevara and Debussy as WH Auden meets Melle Mel – there is undeniable decline in the quality of their lyrical output. A thesis on this subject might usefully be called ”West End Girls’ to ‘Winner’: What Went Wrong?’. As it happens, ‘You know where you went wrong’ was the b-side of ‘It’s a Sin’, and it had something in common with other early tracks like ‘A man could get arrested’, with a clear hiphop influence in its rhyming schemes. In their early days they were famously more daring and experimental with their b-sides, both musically and lyrically: ‘The sound of the atom splitting’ and ‘Your funny uncle’ being cases in point. One reason for their relative lack of lyrical development in their more commercial products is that they appear to be still chasing chart success even though it has ceased to be relevant in and to society at large (although try telling that to these people). Having got this far, then, let’s have a look at some of the lowpoints of Neil Tennant’s career as a pop lyricist.

  1. ‘Beautiful people’

‘Buy the latest magazine
And aspire to the dream
Perfect home and perfect kids
Not a life lived on the skids’

This could have been written by the younger brother of one of the lesser members of whichever boyband came between Westlife and One Direction. There is no way that that verse took more than ten seconds to write. None. And it repeats the same theme as ‘Love, etc’: wealth and fame are empty illusions. We get it.

  1. ‘Ego music’

‘Ego music
It’s all about
vacuous slogans
innocuous sentiment
Ego music
It’s all about
fake humility
sense of entitlement’

Again, repetition! This has the same message, or at least targets the same set of attitudes, as ‘HDYETBTS’. It’s also a hungover b-side idea which should have been tossed away before they stepped into the studio and took off their expensive coats.

  1. ‘Everything means something’

‘Everything means something
yes, even our mistakes
Carelessness means something
not simple give-and-take
Everything means something
and something has occurred
Everything means something
although the meaning can be blurred’

Vapid. Has something of the Roxette about it. Estimated time to write: ten minutes.

  1. E-mail

‘Communication’s never been
as easy as today
and it would make me happy
when you’ve gone so far away
if you’d send me an e-mail
that says ‘I love you’
Send me an e-mail
that says ‘I love you”

Love the hyphen. Released in 2002, ie (to be extremely generous) seven years too late. In 2002 if they really wanted to do a song about communication issues they should have called it ‘I’d like to text you to tell you how much I love you but the limit on any individual text is 160 characters and then it automatically sends it as two texts, which is confusing and twice as expensive’, or ‘ILTTYTTYHMILYBTLOAITI160CATIASIATTWICATAE’ for short.

  1. Winner

(I do not want to be exposed to the lyrics of this song).

A calculated insult to every single human being alive in 2012. I would like to publicly express offense on behalf all their fans, my friends and family and my as-yet unborn daughter. It is humiliating to listen to and accompanied a phase in their career which was all about smiling in photographs and actual flagwaving, in other words when they went full-on Elton John. The video was good.

  1. Hold On

Look around, look around
The rain is falling from the sky
Planes taking off to fly

Why else do planes take off? To go for a fucking swim? To go to an art opening with Janet Street Porter? Your taxi’s here, Neil. Can you fax over those lyrics before you leave? Oh, wait, why don’t you ’email’ them over on your ‘smartphone’? Speaking of which…

  1. ‘Twenty-something’

‘Twenty-something
In the mix
Always that
Ironic twist
Got a start-up
Good to go
When the money
Starts to flow
Oh, Twenty-something
Up to tricks’

Another title for that thesis would be ‘Smartphones, startups and ideas trending: Why don’t the Pet Shop Boys just give up?’. This is a parody of what you’d expect a Pet Shop Boys song to be about in 2016. It is the contents of an Samsung Galaxy memo written after too much champagne in yet another taxi after yet another gallery opening with Janet Street ‘yet another’ Porter. It is the draft lyrics to a potentially good song, but no more. Plus the video is inappropriate. The song is clearly about the UK, and the setting for the video is Latino LA. It’s good, but it doesn’t work. ¡Más esfuerzo!

  1. ‘Se a vida é’

The lyrics to this are actually quite nice, simultaneously wistful and euphoric as all their best songs are. That’s not the problem.

On my first visit to Rome in 1997 I banged into someone in the crowd next to the Trevi Fountain. ‘Scusi!’ I exclaimed, to which to his reply was a cheerful ‘I’m Brazilian!’. Quick as a flash, I came out with ‘Se a vida é!’ (the only Portuguese phrase I knew at the time), to which he looked at me, still smiling (he was, as I say, Brazilian) but also clearly puzzled.

As I subsequently found out when I learnt the language, ‘Se a vida é’ doesn’t mean anything in Portuguese. Even if you pronounce it correctly, which, despite (at that point) having the resources of a major record company behind him, Neil Tennant does not. It just means ‘If life is…’, which you’d assume is some sort of idiomatic expression, but it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t mean (‘That’s the way life is’). Imagine someone just saying ‘If life is…’ to you out of the blue. You’d expect a little bit more. Although if what they said was actually /aif liv ais/, which is a reasonable attempt to represent how inaccurate his pronunciation is, you’d be even more perplexed.

There are more examples below. Now, to be scrupulously fair, there are also times when Neil Tennant simply tries too hard to be lyrical, ‘Legacy’ and the one about leopardskin being good working examples. He has to be given credit for trying. There are also occasions when his lyrics are actually very good: thoughtful, moving, original, memorable. Recentish examples include ‘This used to be the future’ (admittedly a co-write with my personal friend Phil Oakey, but still), ‘The Dictator Decides’, ‘The Sodom and Gomorrah Show’ and ‘Brick England’. I suspect those are the ones he put a lot of time into and ultimately enjoyed writing. Maybe someone just needs to apply a bit of…pressure. There was a very entertaining documentary about twenty years ago in which Michael Bracewell locked Barney off of New Order in a room with some Prozac and basically refused to let him out until he’d written some good lyrics, something more along the lines of ‘I feel so extraordinary/something’s got a hold on me’ and less like ‘Is there anyone out there who cares/If a child can run free/Can a girl walk the street/will United get beat’ (NB those are the actual words to an actual Electronic song). It sort-of worked. Perhaps something like that needs to be done to Neil Tennant. His lyrics are often simply underworked. Perhaps now they get help with the music they need to call someone in and pay them a lot of money to work on the words.

In order to help address this situation I’ve decided to put in my two centavos (hey look, I’m bilingual!). That’s why I’m created a playlist with the most lyrically gauche Pet Shop Boys songs. If anyone reading this has any connection to Neil Tennant, please forward it to him. He needs to hear this. If it doesn’t work I’m going to tweet Michael Bracewell and ask him to bring over a camera crew and a new notepad, popping round the chemists on the way. Or maybe Neil just needs a gun pointing at his head. Now that might be a bit extreme.

UPDATE: I posted a link to this in a Pet Shop Boys Facebook group and I’m glad I did so because it’s starting to open up an interesting discussion about the difference between making pop music and making music to be popular. My point about songs like The Pop Kids is that they are too much the latter. You could legitimately argue that my exaggerations in the piece, the bits of devil’s advocacy, were guilty of the same (ahem) sin in that I wanted it to be read and discussed so I played up the ‘commercial’ (meaning, in the context of the ‘attention economy’ of the internet, controversial) elements. I think the Pet Shop Boys would have been an (even!) more interesting group if they had gradually lost interest in commercial success after their initial run of pop triumphs was over and the charts had ceased to matter (with the accompanying diminishment of the space in the culture for ‘pop’ music as such) and concentrated on following their more experimental interests as (mostly) expressed on their b-sides. Or maybe I’m wrong, perhaps it’s that tension that has kept them interested and interesting. It’s certainly possible that I should apply the lesson to my own writing by avoiding writing things designed to annoy people. But then, if you’re not popular, you’re no longer a pop group, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t have readers. Maybe it’s just a fruitful contradiction/unresolvable paradox/dialectical thing to be further explored and exploited /end of ramble.

9 thoughts on “Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?

  1. Looking at that playlist (and I couldn’t listen to it beyond the ‘dialup’ sample of ‘E-Mail’, bad memories), it seems starkly upbeat, lyrically speaking, in comparison to the average verse done by the disco miserablist duo. It’s well known that it’s easier to write something profound which is unhappy, negative, paranoid, rather than contented.

    I remember Barney Sumner several years after doing that documentary saying it was a shit idea for a tv programme and that he only took part in it in order to ascertain free drugs. The drugs don’t work. The link relating to the work Electronic did after that programme shows that they were reduced to doing Duran Duran covers.

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  2. “Happiness writes white on the page”, according to Vladimir Nabokov. Mind you some of Neil Tennant’s better lyrics are in happy songs, although no examples spring to mind right now…well, actually ‘Se a vida è’ is one I suppose. Certainly euphoric pop songs don’s stand up as their own as great poetry, but then that’s not their job. I had no idea about the Duran Duran covers.

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  3. That’s impossible because ‘Lolita’ was published in 1955 and Tippex wasn’t invented until 1958.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipp-Ex

    … so it must have been spaff.

    I googled “when was semen invented?” but couldn’t find a specific date. Assuming it was used as pre-tippex though, that would explain why female authors found it difficult to get published in days gone by. Every time they made a mistake they would have to go to a sperm bank.

    Even after the invention of Tippex, sperm continues to be useful to writers in other ways:

    “When the British Secret Intelligence Service discovered that semen makes a good invisible ink, the world’s best example of nominative determinism, Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, noted of his agents that “Every man (is) his own stylo”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semen#cite_ref-37

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  4. Impressive research. There are details in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ by Thomas Pynchon of British Secret Services using a similar scheme to decode messages. Btw I didn’t know you could put ribald jokes on Wikipedia.

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