The Pet Shop Boys on texting Cameron and Russian homophobia

Part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster, the group are apparently too old for radio.

Earlier today, the two middle-aged men before me were sitting in a bus shelter in Acton, west London. The shorter of the two was wearing a hat. It covered his whole head. “It’s a very nice environment inside the mirrorball,” Chris Lowe says. “It’s like an internal disco ball, really . . . So nice. You can wear whatever you want and just plonk it on.”

His colleague, Neil Tennant, wore a matching glittery bowler: not conventional attire for someone who will be 60 next summer. Yet this ordinary/extraordinary scene sums up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys. Take any everyday environment – a central London scene where you’ll find West End girls, dogfilled suburbia, a bus stop on the Uxbridge Road – and this peculiar pair will infuse it with flamboyance, archness and fondness.

Behind the sparkle of the Pet Shop Boys’ music, deeper things have always lurked. First, there is their fascination with both the high and the low arts. In 2011, they put on a ballet at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and they are currently composing a song cycle about the life of the cryptographer Alan Turing; they have also written B-sides called “Sexy Northerner” and “The Truck Driver and His Mate”. Then there are their subtle explorations of big issues in song. In “Being Boring” (1990), Tennant wrote about a friend who had died of Aids. In their 1993 rejig of Village People’s “Go West”, they added new lyrics to comment on life after communism (it was a huge hit in Russia). For the 2009 Bside “We’re All Criminals Now”, they even wrote about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes (“Waiting for a bus in Stockwell/ Cameras on my back”).

Their longevity is impressive, too. It has been 32 years since Tennant, then an editor for ITV Books, and Lowe, a University of Liverpool architecture student in London on a placement, met each other at a hi-fi shop in Chelsea and got talking about dance music while waiting to be served.

Four and a half years later, they went to the top of the charts with their first hit, “West End Girls”, a song inspired by T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, with a new, atmospheric, electronic sound. In the video, they also looked very different from other popular male duos of the time: Tennant strutting around Petticoat Lane in a funereal black coat while Lowe stood behind him, blank-faced,fading into shuttered shopfronts. This dynamic – part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster – has remained their preferred mode on video and onstage ever since.

In the flesh, Lowe is slightly more vocal and funny but Tennant remains the band’s warm, urbane spokesman. This afternoon, we are in the Pet Shop Boys’ white-walled PR office in Kensington and they are in offduty wear: jeans, polo shirts and sweatshirts, no OTT millinery. Lowe has even brought a tub of M&S flapjacks with him. “Posh!” he hams, his Blackpool accent still ringing clearly. Tennant’s Tyneside upbringing is softly present in his voice, too, more pronounced than on the records. The pair drink tea from mugs with single words on them, the kind you get in fancy knick-knack shops. Tennant’s says “God”. Lowe’s says “Whatever”.

We are here because the Pet Shop Boys’ latest album, Electric, is their most successful in years (it reached number three in July, their highest chart placing in two decades). This followed a slew of high-profile activities: a much-praised support slot on Take That’s blockbuster Progress tour in 2011 and a memorable appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony (they arrived on winged rickshaws and wore orange pointy hats).

An upbeat mix of disco, house and pop, Electric is also their first album to be released not by Parlophone but by their own label, x2, in partnership with Kobalt, a new company that allows artists to retain rights over their music (Paul McCartney and Björk are also on its roster). Electric arrived only eight months after 2012’s introspective Elysium and the process seems to have revitalised them.

“I think we’ve learned that people don’t want from us a depressing album about ageing,” says Lowe, wiping flapjack crumbs from his mouth. “People want fun from us, a bit of a party, a bit of irony, with something a bit intellectual thrown in, the odd historical reference.”

All these things are found in their infernally catchy new single, “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”, written about a character in David Lodge’s 1988 novel, Nice Work. The song’s protagonist mills about at home trying to pretend he’s not in love and spends time “searching for the soul of England/ Drinking tea like Tony Benn”. “He’s reverting back to the extreme leftism of his university years and so we’ve mentioned one of the biggest figures of the Labour Party of his youth,” Tennant explains. “I quite like doing things like that.”

It’s not the only such reference on the album, at least according to the Libération writer who told Tennant and Lowe that Electric was the most left-wing album the Pet Shop Boys had ever made, dwelling in particular on its second track, “Bolshy”. The song plays around with the etymology of its title – “bolshy” comes from the word “Bolshevik” – and it includes passages in Russian about starting feuds and hesitating to intrude. “Bolshy” also confirms the band’s long-running interest in Russia: as well as the update of “Go West”, the Pet Shop Boys made a new soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in 2004.

But now there is the new anti-gay “propaganda” law from Vladimir Putin and the Duma, I say. The band has always supported gay rights, albeit sometimes subtly (Tennant came out in 1994, to the surprise of nobody). One of the best-known Pet Shop Boys songs, “It’s a Sin” (1987), was a narrative about growing up gay and ashamed in the guise of a club hit (sample lyric: “At school they taught me how to be/So pure in thought and word and deed/They didn’t quite succeed”).

“Our idea in those days was to be slightly subversive, to say things without really following through,” Tennant says, “which I think is quite a good approach. We never wanted to preach or anything like that, because politics in pop music is a very tricky thing.” The only two songs that have succeeded in that vein while being explicit, he says, are the Specials’ “Ghost Town” and Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” (the former about inner-city deprivation, the latter about the Falklands war).

In 1988, the Pet Shop Boys played a gig protesting against Section 28 and Tennant sees direct parallels between Margaret Thatcher’s and Putin’s politics. Was Section 28 frightening for him? “It felt weird, more than anything,” he tells me. “Like one of those things Thatcher did every now and then to vibe up the Tory right wing. You know, normally you pass a law when there’s a problem – when people are marching in the streets saying, ‘All they do these days is teach the kids you’ve got to be gay.’”

Tennant thinks that Putin’s attitude has much to do with the revitalised power of the Russian Orthodox Church. “It’s regained its position in Soviet society and Putin has schmoozed them as a result. He schmoozes everyone, actually, doesn’t he?” He remarks that if you go to Moscow or St Petersburg, you meet metropolitan, liberal people who find their government embarrassing. The band last played in Moscow in June: “I hasten to add, before this law was passed.”

On Electric, the Pet Shop Boys also tackle war. They do so in a surprising way: by covering Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 album track “Last to Die”. That song was inspired by a question John Kerry asked about Vietnam while testifying to Congress in 1971 (“How do you ask a man to be the last man to diefor a mistake?”). Lowe says that Springsteen’s opening riff is what won the pair over. Nevertheless, Tennant also changed a lyric to make their version more explicitly political.

“I changed ‘a mistake’ to ‘our mistakes’,” he says firmly. “So then the song casts more blame on us, as individuals in a democratic society, and the responsibility that we have for what happens in our name.”

Tennant finds public disillusionment with politics worrying and extends this to the current debate about digital privacy. “The public couldn’t care less about being snooped on and that’s very odd. Imagine a politician saying they were going to open your post before they delivered it to you, photostat it, then deliver it. On the internet, it doesn’t feel like crime because you can’t feel the crime happening. It’s the same way that people think of stealing music, to turn to that hoary old argument.”

Lowe has been quiet for a while. I ask him what he thinks about music being stolen online and he shrugs.

“I’ve sort of given up on it, really. I don’t think we expect to make any money from our music any more, do we? Music is just something that we do because we enjoy doing it. We just make money from touring.”

The Pet Shop Boys shy away from the internet in other ways (they aren’t fans of Twitter) but they do occasionally post messages on their website. Recently Tennant posted one in response to a campaign by the anti-Israel group Innovative Minds asking the band to cancel a gig in Tel Aviv in June. “What bugged me was that this group called Israel an apartheid state. That’s factually incorrect. That position actually does the cause – a cause we would probably to a large extent sympathise with – harm.”

The Pet Shop Boys didn’t play in South Africa in the 1980s, he adds, and tried to stop EMI releasing their records there. “If we’d played a concert there, it would have been to segregated audiences. When someone is buying a ticket in Tel Aviv, there is no segregation.”

The problem with modern political protest, Tennant believes, is that opinions are given precedence over facts. “Politics are too emotional now. Contemporary culture generally is too emotional, really, especially in music. These days, a performance can only be regarded as wonderful if it makes people cry. It’s that X Factor idea – that to properly sing a song, you’ve got to try to stop your mascara running. I’d rather people looked to the truth.”

Tennant and Lowe have other bugbears about the modern music industry. “I’ve realised recently just how ring-fenced pop musicis,” Lowe says. “Pop music wasn’t like that before. It’s now a very closed world.” Their age – Tennant is 59 and Lowe 53 – doesn’t help them, they say; the singles from this album, big, poppy, in-your-face songs, have barely been playlisted.

Tennant leans forward. “Radio people actually say to us now, ‘Oh, we won’t ever play your records, because you’re too old.’” Honestly? “Yeah. They’ve actually said that. They’re quite blatant about it. And someone else – who shall remain nameless – said, ‘If yours was Daft Punk’s next single, we’d have played it automatically.’” He shrugs. “Then again, they’re only 38.”

Why does that happen? “Because the system is unbelievably conservative and enclosed. For us to get played on the radio, we’d have to try a trick, do it under a different name.” BBC Radio 1 also takes YouTube hits into account when compiling their playlists. “These figures are called ‘measurables’. Don’t forget your measurables.” Tennant sighs. “That’s the world we live in.”

Perhaps the band’s next single after this one – “Thursday”, featuring the 31-year-old London rapper Example – will finally tick the boxes that radio producers are so keen on. But for now, there are more pressing commitments. By Christmas, they plan to finish their 45-minute work on the life of Alan Turing, A Man from the Future.

“It’s called that because of the scientific aspect but also because of his attitude to homosexuality,” Tennant explains. “Turing told his sister he was homosexual – she was appalled – in 1946! He refused to be anything other than matter-of-fact and honest about who he was.”

As I leave, Lowe puts the lid on the flapjacks with a wink and Tennant gives me some back issues of the Pet Shop Boys’ fanzine Literally which tell me a little more about the band’s passion for Turing. The fanzine also reveals one of their subtlest political acts yet.

A month after the closing ceremony for the Olympics, the Pet Shop Boys were begged by Boris Johnson and then David Cameron to play at the winners’ parade on the Mall. Despite initial concerns about overexposing themselves and with other commitments overseas on the same day (they were eventually flown back to Britain by the government, by private plane), they ended up playing and enjoying the event.

So Tennant texted David Cameron’s assistant to say so. His message read as follows: “Thanks for asking us – actually it was really worth doing. And sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”

In the week when Electric was released, the government announced that the third reading of the bill pardoning Turing had been tabled for October. Sometimes pop and politics do shimmer together, after all.

“Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” will be released as a CD single on 30 September (x2/Kobalt, £7.99)

Hat trick: Chris Lowe (foreground) and Neil Tennant are still pushing the limits of fashion and going where the air is free

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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What we can learn from Harry Potter’s “mad women”

We revist the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between.

Madness is a fluid thing. To be “crazy” has no fixed meaning, it changes to fit the definition required – whether that’s a quick fix to deflect blame for the powerful (think racism, terrorism or fascism damagingly dismissed as “mental illness”) or a cunning way to dismiss the powerless: She’s not telling the truth! She’s crazy! Madness may be utterly meaningless, but it has infinite power.

In the often unreal space of mental illness, the fantasy world of books, movies and television can intertwine with one’s lived experience. I hated reading until Harry Potter came to me as a traumatised ten-year-old. In between bouts of psychosis and extreme suicidal ideation I would read, and read, and read. They were big books too, so thick, no picture – but it was worth it. A whole world just for me! Now isn’t that magical?

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of this wonderful, wizarding world, I find myself returning to the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between. Bellatrix Lestrange, Moaning Myrtle, Luna Lovegood, Professor Trelawney... Who are these characters beyond their exaggerated mannerisms and super cute style? What are they telling us about the cultural codes of madness and the construct of the “mad woman”?

Because despite being more distressed when I was sorted into Slytherin than when I was presented with a personality disorder, pop culture and medical realities cross over in interesting and unexpected ways. These culturally agreed upon outfits of “madness” are retold and remade over and over. Who can wear the costume of madness, and in what way, in the popular imagination?

Luna Lovegood

First, let’s go for one of for one of the “good guys”. “Looney Luna”, the dazed Hogwarts student as pale as a full moon, is portrayed in the films with a quietly mesmerising performance from Evanna Lynch. Bullied for her “horrid” dress sense and marked out for her “distinct dottiness”, Luna was one of my teen idols. Young, brilliant, equally skilled at making novelty hats, riding thestrals and saving the wizarding world, Luna is up there with the best of them!

An heiress to madness, as the child of Xenophilius Lovegood, notorious for his “lunatic rag”, The Quibbler (known for its coverage of elusive magical creatures and defiantly radical politics), Luna, in her ability to embrace the impossible, is often characterised as an ‘anti-Hermione’, she is more than a mere shadow of another girl.

After all, in inhabiting such a distinct world of her own creation, shaped both by the grief of losing her mother and her own personal vision, it could be easy to dismiss her as a mere manic pixie dream girl, especially when considering her ability to recognise and support Harry’s struggles when others could not, but Luna’s character is more robust than these misogynistic tropes. Not only does she save Harry’s reputation with an interview in the much-maligned Quibbler (another reminder not to judge the ‘loony’ on first glance), she serves as a dedicated member of Dumbledore’s Army, acting as an essential force in The Battle of the Department of Mysteries, The Battle of The Astronomy Tower and of course, the final Battle For Hogwarts. Yes, her eccentricities are dismissed as ‘loony’, but they belong to a heroic character in possession of creativity, wit, intellect – and, of course, unique style. (A necklace made of Butterbeer corks, anyone?)

Pale, pop cultural misfits are funny things. Winona Ryder, Audrey Tatou in Amelie, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Bush… sometimes outsiders are more insiders than you’d realise. Nonetheless, I will fangirl for Luna forever.

Professor Sybill Trelawney

Perhaps seen as another antagonist to Hermione’s bookish rationality, and an adult mirror for Luna’s own dream logic, Professor Sybill Trelawney is a shining star in a long line of magical “mad women”. Can’t you just imagine her and the Log Lady from Twin Peaks bonding over a pint of Pumpkin Juice? The links between madness and the mystic run deep, it is no coincidence that Sybill’s Grandmother takes the name of Cassandra. Who would believe a mad woman? But who but a mad woman can see the truth in a chaotic world? (Luna, too, is characterised as keen observer, after all.) The pop cultural mystic provokes so many questions in regards to the mythology of madness (an often unhelpful fetish for those of us who are actually struggling with our mental health) and broader questions of believing women when we are constantly dismissed as irrational, ridiculous or unreliable.

Though her exaggerated costume and “woolly” predictions could reduce her to a mere comic support act, Sybill has far more nuance than the (seemingly) ridiculous individual we are presented with in the start of the third book. Throughout the series, her character deepens and develops: we see a heartbreakingly vulnerable side to her in the fifth book, and though her gift for The Inner Eye may have been dismissed early on, her predictions eventually become essential in defeating Voldemort. Sybill even plays a fearless role in The Battle of Hogwarts, knocking out Death Eaters with her crystal balls. One of Harry Potter’s many lessons is not to dismiss unconventional women like Sybill too quickly. As a result, Sybill stands out as a beautiful branch on the tree of mystic weirdos. Who knows what miraculous things we might discover if we take the time to listen to her?

Moaning Myrtle

Existing as an exaggeration of teen girl melancholy, Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the school that bullied and eventually killed her. She’s pictured as forever crying in the girls’ bathroom on the first floor, unwanted and unmissed, with even her attempt at high school revenge washed out. There’s been so many perceptive conversations on the post-Kraus female gaze: wouldn’t it be interesting to locate Myrtle within them? She’s depicted as crushing on any boy that comes her way (be it Harry, Cedric or Malfoy), though the only thing she has to offer them is a toilet. Even her acne is “morose”.

This is a world where Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” plays on loop for eternity, effortlessly brought to (after)life by the brilliant Shirley Henderson, Queen of crying in public bathrooms. I’ll leave with my favourite quote that could one up even the most contentious Lana Del Rey soundbite:

Myrtle: “I wasn’t paying attention. Peeves upset me so much I came in here and tried to kill myself. Then, of course, I remembered that I’m — that I’m —”

Ron: “Already dead.”

Bellatrix LeStrange

And then we have Bellatrix: crazy in love with the Dark Lord himself, escaped inmate from a madness inducing institution, and a total Amy Winehouse prototype in her aesthetic of long black hair, low voice and heavily-lidded eyes.

It’s striking how frequently certain traits reoccur in pop culture when we envision the criminally insane, especially when it comes to women. Much like Harley Quinn of the Batman universe or Drusilla in Buffy, Bellatrix talks in the bizarre baby talk so popular with the fantasy mad woman. We are presented with a woman infantilised. This is also at play in her relationship with Voldemort: she’s totally dependent and utterly out of control.

If we can read Luna and Sybill as playful antagonists to such rational figures as Professor McGonagall and Hermione, Bellatrix serves as an active threat against Molly Weasley, the only true maternal figure Harry really has in the series. Sirius’ face may be the one burnt off the House of Black’s family tree, but it is Bellatrix who is the real destroyer of families: from the torture of Neville Longbottom’s parents, to the murder of her cousin (and Harry’s Godfather) Sirius Black and her own niece, Nymphadora Tonks. She even kills Dobby! In setting Bellatrix up as a total monster, it’s unsurprising that she became the only character to earn an all caps curse word in this child-friendly book. Because female evil has a particular kind of power, it provokes disgust in ways that others do not. Consider Umbridge, another reigning villainess with her hot pink get-ups and kitsch cat study, a sort of Nurse Ratched of Hogwarts. To use the building blocks of femininity to make a monster harbours true horror, so it is the female villains, both mad and bad, that stand out most sharply when it comes to Harry’s nemeses.

In the exaggerated fantasy world of Harry Potter this cast of mad women may seem like simplistic set characters of quirky creatives, cry-babies, unrealizable narrators and outright she-Devils. However, if we look closer at these ghostly voyeurs, escaped prisoners and outright eccentrics we can position these characters within a longer cultural history of ‘insane’ and outrageous women. Madness is often presented as a sort of magic and it is these mad women, existing in the already improbable space of witches and wizards, that push even further against our received ideas of rationality, respectability, even human goodness. Pottermore may have sorted me into Slytherin, but it is the Hogwarts House of Mad Women whose robes I choose to wear.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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