After the Event

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2009
Original album - Format
Producer - Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - Fundamental 2017 reissue Further Listening 2005-2007 bonus disc
Other releases - bonus track with single "Did You See Me Coming?"

This is one of many songs that were written by the Pet Shop Boys during the incredibly creative streak they enjoyed in early and mid-2005, when they composed most of the songs for Fundamental. Neil has described it as "one of those songs we keep changing. It's sort of good and sort of not-good." The Boys put off finishing it, however, until April 2009, when they pegged it as a potential bonus track for the "Did You See Me Coming?" single. After putting the final touches on it, Chris hailed it as "an epic song!"

"After the Event" comes across initially as rather transparent in some ways but truly enigmatic in others. The first verse describes a "typical day," with Neil rattling off a series of mundane observations of everyday urban life ("a snapshot of my home in London in the morning" says Neil in the Format booklet), backed by a relatively simple backing track. But then the chorus suggests something much more serious going on. Its denser music features—rather unusually for a PSB track—either an organ or a keyboard sampler employing the sound of an organ, playing a musicbox-like motif with, conversely, a somewhat sinister sound. The words of the chorus describe strong contrasting emotions: how something that may be taken as upsetting and threatening can, "after the event," leave people happy and smiling.

The second verse resumes the everyday observations. But we get the strong impression that it's all building up to something—presumably the "event" of the title. Then, after another even denser rendering of the chorus, comes the bridge—the promised "event":

Evening comes as a surprise
Suddenly someone dies
Everyone's over-reacting
With clichés and bad acting

Neil goes on to sing even more disapprovingly of the ensuing activities: of people leaving "flowers in their cellophane," public comments from the Queen, and other expressions that nevertheless add up to "drama without meaning." As it turns out, this, too, is "perfectly routine."

The "event" is death. And perhaps not just any death. Could it be a school shooting in which a student responds to a ill-perceived threat ("Someone gets upset/Doesn’t hear the laughter/Takes it as a threat") with sudden, terrible violence? If so, are the Boys suggesting that's ordinary as well? In the modern world, unfortunately, such violence is indeed becoming all too commonplace. The blistering irony is that what once would have been truly shocking is now becoming as mundane as the morning paper. As a result, people react in an increasingly meaningless fashion with superficial gestures of collective grief: mourning as a pop-culture activity in which one puts flowers in their cellophane, stuffed animals, and other such twee tokens of sorrow in some public place because that's what one does under such circumstances. And then life goes on precisely as before.

The death of Princess Diana, not so incidentally, is simply the most internationally famous example of an event that triggered such a response. Neil has even personally cited it as such. But I seriously doubt that's what this song is specifically about. If so, the Boys are rather late commenting on it. Besides, there's that chorus, which suggests something else altogether—something much more threatening on a personal level. The 9/11 attacks are another possibility. But then this song would seem in some ways to trivialize it, and I don't think that's what Neil and Chris have in mind at all. No, I don't believe they're talking about any one real-life event in particular. Only they, of course, could say for sure.

As for that chorus, it reminds me of something the late Christian existentialist author Walker Percy once wrote—and I'll have to paraphrase here—about how people are never more alive than when they face something deadly, like an earthquake or a tornado. He noted how TV news interviewers often catch people smiling even as they describe horrific, life-threatening events. Yes, they're terrified, but they're also thrilled. In the words of this song's chorus, they're "happy to be here," able to appreciate life itself more than ever before: "Blue skies heaven-sent."

Existentialism from the Pet Shop Boys? You bet.

List cross-references