The Pet Shop Boys' greatest acts of deconstruction

I hope you don't mind if I get a little "academic" here. (Yes, even more academic than usual.) Maybe even a little pretentious, but I hope not terribly so.

The term "deconstruction" has various meanings in art criticism. My favorite definition, however, is offered by U.S. professor and scholar Richard Rorty in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (1995), in which he describes deconstruction as an act of "betraying" or "subverting" the apparently "essential" message of a work of art.

So, by nature, deconstruction is generally something that one does to someone else's art. A critic or analyst (like myself) might "deconstruct" a work by offering a radically new interpretation. (In light of some things that Neil has said about this very website, he may feel I've already done precisely that to some of his lyrics. ) But artists themselves can also deconstruct the work of other artists. In fact, Chris and Neil are masters of recording deconstructive cover versions of other people's songs.

Here, then, are what I consider to be the Pet Shop Boys' greatest acts to date of deconstruction:

1. Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)

It subverts U2's deeply heartfelt but somewhat self-mythologizing work by emphasizing musical form at the expense of lyrical function, exposing it as the dance pop that it always was but tried deperately hard not to be. By linking it in a medley with the Frankie Valli chestnut "I Can't Take My Eyes Off You"—a blatant piece of pop fluff that may nevertheless be every bit as heartfelt—the Boys suggested by implication that there was little if any difference between the two. It was a stridently demythologizing act, immediately regarded as utterly loathsome by most U2 fans, even in those cases when they only partially understood what was going on. That partial understanding was sufficient. Fully understanding it would only have intensified the loathing.

2. Go West

Written at the pre-AIDS height of the disco era as a dual paean to gay liberation and idealistic west-coast hedonism (no, idealism and hedonism are not necessarily mutually exclusive; one can be quite idealistic about hedonism), this song couldn't help but take on a bitterly ironic retrospective cast in the wake of AIDS. Virtually any performance of the song in the early 1990s would have been an act of deconstruction. But it was the Pet Shop Boys who actually did it. And how they did it! In a masterful stroke, the Boys kept it every bit as celebratory as the Village People's original, thereby letting it speak for itself. In a sense, it wasn't PSB that deconstructed the song, but rather history that did their dirty work. (To put it in the words of critic Greil Marcus, "As you listen, you hear history tearing the song to pieces—but the song will not surrender its body.") The result is a "disco dirge" with strikingly tragic implications. But not content with letting matters rest there, they then added in the video an entirely new deconstructive layer, giving the song yet another meaning linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Two deconstructions for the price of one—what a bargain.

3. Always on My Mind

PSB first performed this song as part of an Elvis Presley tribute televised on the anniversary of his death (as opposed to his birth—a possibly significant fact). Rather than pick a song from Elvis's youthful heyday as the "King of Rock and Roll," they pointedly chose a non-rock number from his late "fat Elvis in Vegas" period, after he had become little more than an outrageously glorified lounge singer. By taking a song that lyrically can be read as a statement of either profound devotion or equally profound selfishness, stripping it of emotion—including all the emotional baggage that Elvis checked it in with—and revving it up with a fast, completely synthesized musical track that seemed totally at odds with the words, they transformed it into a work that struck some as being, in the words of one critic, "supremely mean-spirited." Neil, in fact, has described it as a "tactless" song written from the perspective of "a selfish and self-obsessed man." So that mean-spiritedness seems directed to the lover (or ex-lover), imaginary or otherwise, to whom the narrator is speaking. But, given the circumstances of the Boys' original performance, could a bit of that mean-spiritedness also be directed toward Elvis? After all, these are the same Boys who would later write and record a song called "How I Learned to Hate Rock 'n' Roll." Whatever the case, you can count this song as having been thoroughly deconstructed.

4. Je T'Aime…Moi Non Plus

Our heroes take on the notorious 1969 Serge Gainsbourg duet with Jane Birkin—notorious not only for its overt sexuality but also its infamously ambiguous title, which defies a definitive English translation and is now, then, and forever the source of debate. The female role is now handled by the Boys' friend and occasional collaborator Sam Taylor-Wood; the male role by a computer. It's still overtly sexual, but to what end? Half of the passion is still there, but the other half is devoid of passion, lending the song an air of incredibly creepy sexuality that was never (or only just hinted at) in the original, or in any other rendition for that matter. By coating an already controversial song with a whole new glaze of ambiguity, the Boys (and the Girl helping them out on this one) leave you arching your eyebrows, scratching your head, and quite possibly suppressing your libido for fear of what you might discover in yourself while listening. Consider this— What does this performance suggest about men? What does it suggest about women? And what does it suggest about sex itself?

5. How I Learned to Hate Rock 'n' Roll

Although, as noted above, deconstruction is usually something that one does to someone else's art, that's not always the case. Look no further for evidence than the Pet Shop Boys' own "How I Learned to Hate Rock 'n' Roll," which deconstructs an entire genre of music—or, perhaps more accurately, the subcultural paradigm that emerged in its wake. In an act of arch-heresy, the Boys made a musical statement that a generation earlier (and in many quarters still today) would have labeled them hopelessly "uncool." But in so doing they subverted cool itself, pointing out the hypocrisy and sheer nastiness that underlies much of what is termed "rock and roll." "Someone states the obvious" despite pretensions of newness; "someone sneers at all you love" despite assertions of individuality; "someone preaches ugliness, excluding some, including me" despite claims of peace and brotherhood. But their bitterest accusation: "Everybody does what everybody does." The rock and roll rebel has become thoroughly mainstream, hardly a rebel at all, serving ultimately "to recreate the status quo." (Their more recent song "The Former Enfant Terrible" specifically zooms in on one such character.) What is truly rebellious now is to reject the traditions, standards, and mentalities that pass for "rock and roll"—which is precisely what Neil and Chris do. In short, they expose rock and roll as having become everything that it has always purported not to be. If this is what rock and roll is, they essentially say, who the hell needs it?

6. Try It (I'm in Love with a Married Man)

This is deconstruction of the simplest and (if you'll pardon my choice of words) most straightforward variety. When a man sings a song originally written to be sung by a woman, or vice-versa—complete with gender-specific pronouns that go unchanged—it's inherently deconstructive, transforming an expression of heterosexuality into one of homosexuality. Even if the singer insists (as Neil has done on several occasions) that he or she has adopted a persona of the opposite sex and is singing from that perspective—thereby maintaining a "heterosexual stance"—it nevertheless runs dangerously close to the intentional fallacy to interpret the performance solely in that light. There's simply no denying that, to most listeners, it will "sound gay." And, as they say, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…. At any rate, while the Pet Shop Boys have done this sort of thing on more than one occasion, they generally do so with songs that they themselves have written with precisely that sort of gender-shift in mind. In such cases, the results aren't deconstructive at all. But here, in "Try It (I'm in Love with a Married Man)," they're doing it with a song written by someone else. So, yes, it deconstructs like a duck, too.

7. Assorted "love songs"

If I may risk overstatement, the Pet Shop Boys have created what sometimes seems like a virtual subgenre of songs devoted to deconstructing love itself. To be sure, they’re hardly unique in this respect. Any artist who has at one time or another undermined conventional romantic expectations about love, usually as the result of the pain arising from its loss, has engaged in a "love deconstruction" of sorts. Nevertheless, Neil and Chris have been particularly adept at doing this in singularly imaginative ways. Consider just some of the examples:

And there are definitely others, but that's enough to make my point. Despite all this, however, for every PSB song that deconstructs love you can find one or two others that cast love in a much more traditional, positive light. Still, it's safe to say that the deconstruction of love is a recurring theme in the PSB catalogue.

Note: Although it may be tempting to include their covers of "Losing My Mind" and "Somewhere" in this list—and, to be sure, there may indeed be some deconstructive elements in their renditions—I personally believe that these recordings are not particularly deconstructive but rather are "reconstructive," adhering closely to the likely "essential messages" of the songs. "Somewhere" is an especially good case in point. Although written for the Romeo and Juliet "musical update" West Side Story (itself in many ways a deconstructive work) and therefore closely linked to its core storyline of tragic heterosexual love, it has long been embraced by gay listeners and performers alike as an expression of their own longings for love and acceptance. There can be little doubt that the Boys' performance of the song is deeply informed by their own "gay sensibilities" and socio-political views, which may well be somewhat aligned with those of the song's authors: bisexual composer Leonard Bernstein and gay lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Therefore the PSB version is only minimally deconstructive, if at all. If anything, it reconstructs the song's core message.