Positive Role Model

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2001
Original album - Closer to Heaven (performed by Paul Keating); Disco 3 (PSB)
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - bonus track with single "London" (released only in Germany)

      "I reject the notion of being a positive role model to anyone."
                                     – Neil in an interview circa 1994

Disco 3 includes the Pet Shop Boys' own version of the song that served as the closing number of their 2001 stage musical Closer to Heaven, and in some ways it's something of a quandary. This thoroughly rocking track, previously released on the German CD single of "London," was recorded in Germany with co-producer Chris Zippel and introduced "live" during their Summer 2000 concerts. The recording incorporates a string sample borrowed from the old Barry White hit "You're My First, My Last, My Everything," thus explaining the songwriting credit.

The lyrics of the Boys' version—quite different from those of the stage version—are intensely tongue-in-cheek. Neil has pointed out (again, in the April 2003 issue of Literally) that this song is "a satire about rehab," which explains the "back on everything" line; the narrator finds himself "back on" all of the vices he's been trying to kick. Neil's voice is heavily processed as he repeatedly sings "I want a positive role model"—a mantra often heard from or on behalf of people trying to overcome addictions. Perhaps more pointedly (and more relevant to its Closer to Heaven context), it also applies to young people of minority groups that have been under-represented in the media except in negative ways. (One can't help but feel that Neil is writing here from his own experience as a gay man.)

But the examples that the narrator provides of why he needs a positive role model ("My reflection on the street—is that the way I walk? …. I need to change the way I talk") strongly suggest internalized social oppression. While it's true that people—young people in particular—do indeed need positive role models, it's important that we consider how we define "positive." If by "positive" we only mean models that conform to rigid, stereotypical social conventions and expectations, then "positive role models" can themselves be agents (perhaps unwitting) of oppression. A far more positive role model would be one that would help people accept the way they naturally walk and talk—not one that makes them feel that how they walk and talk is somehow "wrong."

As is so often the case, Neil and Chris may be sending a marvelously subversive message—set as usual to a great dance beat that at least partially obscures their intent. But in light of Paul Keating's spectacular version from the musical, I wasn't 100% confident about this interpretation. (See the separate entry for the Closer to Heaven version of this song.) But then, because the two versions have major lyrical differences, they can be interpreted very differently in these separate contexts. In short, the Disco 3 version is clearly satirical, whereas the Closer to Heaven rendition can be taken more at face-value.

One other thing: unless I'm mistaken, the Boys have pointedly refuted the interpretation held by some that this song refers to being HIV-positive. From their perspective, it has nothing whatsoever to do with HIV or AIDS.

Annotations

Mixes

Officially released

PSB rendition

Paul Keating (as "Straight Dave") rendition for Closer to Heaven

Official but unreleased

PSB rendition

Paul Keating renditions

List cross-references