My (least) favorite "PSB myths" that have been (or need to be) put to rest

Please note that this list does not include falsehoods that have taken the form of mere rumors. This list is reserved for more sweeping and, in most cases, somewhat existential generalizations that would seem to aver who the Pet Shop Boys "are" and what they're "about." I have a separate list of notorious rumors about the Pet Shop Boys, most of which are indeed false—although some are at least uncertain or even quite true. But here are what I consider my favorite—or, from another perspective, my least favorite—outright myths about the Pet Shop Boys that either have been or need to be put to rest once and for all:

  1. That they're minimally talented

The Boys allude to this once widespread falsehood—and, in some thoroughly benighted quarters, still a common one—in "Yesterday, When I Was Mad" when Neil "quotes" the line "You've both made such a little go a very long way." In another infamous example, Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan reputedly described them as "two queens and a drum machine." The most notorious expression of this myth, however, was in the 1998 book An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, in which Roger Scruton undermined his own arguments by suggesting that the Pet Shop Boys make only "a minimal contribution" to their recordings. Chris and Neil quickly filed suit in defense of their reputation and won their case after proving that their involvement in their recordings was anything but "minimal."

Now, after more than three decades of success in music, having composed hundreds of songs (including dozens of hit singles and several certifiable, generally recognized classics), a complete film score, a stage musical, a ballet, and a quasi-classical orchestral/choral work, with numerous studio albums to their credit, several world tours, and no shortage of other artists covering their songs—sometimes even soliciting them for brand new material or requesting their input or assistance in other ways (production, remixes, etc.)—only the most blindingly ignorant, dismally misinformed, or hopelessly prejudiced people could fail to recognize the very considerable musical talents of Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant.

  1. That they're "inauthentic"

Some people dismiss certain performers with the accusation of "inauthenticity"—that they're somehow "not real," at least from an artistic perspective. Artists who rely strongly or even exclusively on synthesizers, samplers, or—worst of all—computers to generate their music are particular targets for this libel. And, not surprisingly, the Pet Shop Boys are often among those targets.

According to this viewpoint, music generated by computers or other such "technological" means is presumably "inauthentic" because it's not really being "performed" by human beings but rather by machines. But what music, aside from the unamplified human voice itself, isn't dependent on some form of technology? Every single musical instrument on earth relies on "technology" of one sort or another. How is the skill of a person playing an electric guitar (lots of technology there) any more "authentic" than that of a person who programs a computer to create music? They're both artists and performers; they're simply using different devices to create art and to perform it.

Ultimately, any assertion about the "authenticity" or "inauthenticity" of an artist reveals as much (if not more) about the person making the assertion as the artist whom he or she is talking about. For me, the Pet Shop Boys are far more "authentic" than any number of other artists more widely regarded as such. For instance, I personally find the proletarian posturings of certain multi-millionaire rock stars to be the height of inauthenticity.

When [fill in the blank as you choose] gets up on stage and begins his/her/their presumably "authentic" performance, that's precisely what it is: a performance. And not just a musical performance, either. It's an "image performance." They're projecting an image loved by their fans every bit as much as they love the music. PSB is no different, except perhaps in that they make absolutely no bones about the fact that what they do is performance, including a performance of image. So who, then, is truly being more "authentic"?

  1. That they're "not rock"

Neil and Chris bear much of the responsibility for this one, and it's not without an element of truth. Indeed, the vast majority of the music they've made through the years isn't "rock"—at least based on certain definitions of the word. But as I've noted on other occasions, "rock" and its presumed antithesis, "pop," aren't antithetical at all, and are hardly polar opposites. Rather, they're overlapping realms within the overall spectrum of music. I would argue, in fact, that while not all pop is rock, all rock is pop—that is, "popular music." Rock is simply one type of pop. What is often referred to as "pop" is another type of pop. And, as I said, they overlap.

Were the Beatles and/or the Beach Boys "rock"? In one sense, yes, always. In other sense, no, never. And in yet another sense, sometimes yes, sometimes no. It ultimately boils down to definitions. And I defy anyone to give me one succinct, concrete, widely agreed upon definition of "rock." I'm reminded of what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1915-1985) once said of pornography: "It's hard to define, but I know it when I see it." Only, in the case of rock, it's when you hear it.

All that being said, the Pet Shop Boys by their own admission have made little if any rock. After all, they themselves wrote "How I Learned to Hate Rock 'n' Roll." But, then again, rock isn't completely alien to them as a style of music. "Birthday Boy" is a superb rock ballad, and "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today" is in both style and mood an uptempo rock track of the first order. Meanwhile, so many metal bands have adopted "It's a Sin" that I've come to the conclusion that the only thing that stands between it and full-fledged rock is the technology used to produce the original PSB version—and, as I've already noted, the specific technology involved should essentially be a moot point.

Setting aside musical styles, I would argue that the Pet Shop Boys are very much in the rock vein with regard to their stance and attitudes. They're iconoclasts through and through, and rock has always been steeped in iconoclasm—or, as it's usually described, rebellion. Their traditional "anti-rock" stance, in fact, is itself a supreme act of rebellion, a blatant thumbing of their noses at the rock establishment. In a manner of speaking, they pull a rock attitude on rock itself. That's pretty much what "How I Learned to Hate Rock 'n' Roll" is all about. (I discuss this angle of the song a little more in my list of the Boys' "greatest acts of deconstruction.") No wonder rockists tend to hate them so much. Nobody likes being called to task by their own standards. In that light, the Pet Shop Boys might possibly be the biggest and baddest "rockers" of all.

By the way, if you would like to see a list of instances where I believe the Boys really do rock, here you go.

  1. That Chris Lowe doesn't "do" anything

    Virtually everyone has been disabused of this notion by now. But it was surprisingly common in the early days of the Boys' career. Even their first manager, Tom Watkins, apparently believed at one time that Chris had next to nothing to do with the creation of their music and was simply along for the ride at Neil's presumed insistence, for whatever reason—although we can probably imagine the sort of reasons Watkins might have had in mind. In fact, according to Neil, Watkins encouraged him to dump Chris "because he obviously didn't do anything." In 1990, a pop music journalist wrote that "In Wham!, Andrew Ridgeley did whatever it is that Chris Lowe does in the Pet Shop Boys," the obvious implication being that Chris's contribution was minimal at best. Even as late as 1995, a writer for the U.K. newspaper The Guardian stated that Chris was "possibly more famous for not doing anything than almost anyone else in the history of popular entertainment." That observation, of course, could easily have been made tongue-in-cheek, or maybe it was simply an allusion to Chris's notorious lack of movement, comparatively speaking, when performing onstage. But it nevertheless expressed a by-then all too familiar idea: that, in effect, Chris "did" nothing.

    One especially galling example appeared in the April 15, 1991 edition of the Toronto Star in a review of the Boys' Performance Tour show in that city. Chris Heath even felt it worth quoting in his book Pet Shop Boys vs. America:
    The British techno-poppers showed that Tennant is the talent behind all the studio artistry, while Lowe is simply the 's' that makes Pet Shop Boys plural rather than sigular.… Lowe appeared as little more than a roadie who had forgotten to exit the stage.… Lowe acted more as a prop than a performer.
    Nowadays, of course, it's completely demonstrable and generally acknowledged that Chris Lowe is a major contributor—fully co-equal with Neil Tennant—to the Pet Shop Boys' success, both commercially and artistically. While Neil is clearly the "dominant partner" with regard to lyrics, Chris is at least equal and quite possibly himself somewhat dominant when it comes to their music. A number of people who have worked with the Boys have testified to Chris's talents and full involvement. But perhaps the greatest yet most succinct testimony to Chris's tremendous contribution was offered by Neil himself when he once confessed, "I'm clever, but Chris is a genius."

    Besides, does anyone really think that Neil (or anyone else, for that matter) would willingly split the credit—not to mention very substantial earnings—over the course of more than thirty years with someone who didn't do anything?
  1. That Neil Tennant is not a good singer

I've had arguments with friends over this one. I'll concede that Neil is not a great singer. But dammit if I'm going to let anybody tell me he's not a good one. I'll offer as support no less an authority than famed critic Robert Christgau, who, in reviewing the album Very, wrote, "I dare anybody who still thinks he's just talking to notate his high notes." Not only is Neil's singing on that album consistently superb, but he has continued to improve through the years. He's actually doing some of his best singing literally decades after his first hit. That's not exactly commonplace. (In fact, it's usually said only of the very finest singers.) Neil's vocals on 2009's "King of Rome" are both beautiful and deeply moving, and his performance on the Boys' 2012 remake of the Bee Gees'  "I Started a Joke"—not exactly the easiest song to sing—is outstanding. And it's not mere studio trickery, either. As if to prove that very point, Neil has steadily improved as a live vocalist as well.

Neil himself has commented on his voice, alluding to its flaws, on various occasions. To take just one incisive example, in 1996 he told interviewer Ben Thompson of The Independent, "What you can't do is always what shapes your sound and defines your style.… I realise a lot of people don't like my voice, but to me it expresses quite a lot of emotion—there's a yearning quality to it which I really like." To be sure, many good and even some great singers have made the most of their technical limitations by developing a highly distinctive, evocative style. (Consider, for instance, Bob Dylan. End of discussion.)

As he himself observed, many people don't like Neil's voice. That's a matter of taste. But with vocals, perhaps more than any other "instrument," one can readily separate subjective and objective assessments. I'm personally not very fond of the voices of most opera singers—that's a matter of taste, too—but I'd simply and objectively be wrong to suggest that they aren't great singers. By contrast, as I've already said, Neil isn't a great singer. But he is a good singer—and at times very good. What's even more important to me, however, is that I really, really like his voice. Those are both objective and subjective judgments, and they're both quite accurate.

  1. That Neil Tennant sings in falsetto—all the time!

    Now, don't get me wrong—I know full well that Neil sometimes sings in falsetto. There are numerous examples of his falsetto voice in his background vocals, and he'll swoop up to a falsetto in his leads when the melody calls for it and he can't otherwise hit the note. There's even the occasional song where he sings mostly or completely in falsetto, such as "Some Speculation" and "Nightlife." But I'm sick to death of writers referring to "Neil Tennant's falsetto" in such a way as to suggest that that's the voice he most commonly uses and is best known for. I think this stems from the fact that too many people simply don't know what a falsetto really is.

    A relatively high-pitched male voice is not a "falsetto" if it's within the singer's normal modal vocal range. It's only a falsetto if the singer, by increasing the tension in the muscles and ligaments of his or her vocal cords, forces his or her voice into a register beyond the range of their normal speaking mode. (And I include "her" because, yes, contrary of common belief, women can and do also sing in falsetto. It's just that their falsetto range isn't as distinct in timbre from their normal range as a male's, and it's therefore not recognized as such by most untrained listeners. Female singers commonly call their falsetto their "head voice," as opposed to their normal range or "chest voice.") Many of us—though clearly not all of us—can hear the difference, and there's a decided "break" in the voice if a singer moves from his or her normal voice to a falsetto in the same vocal line. (The technique known as yodeling is absolutely dependent on this.) But if a male has a comparatively high normal vocal range—which Neil has—then he may not be singing in falsetto. And that's indeed generally the case with Neil.

    I also suspect there's an undercurrent of subconscious heterosexism at work in at least some allegations about Neil's falsetto. I've read the same kind of incorrect assertions about Erasure's Andy Bell. Again, Andy does sometimes sing in falsetto, but usually not. Some people seem to think that gay vocalists are more prone to falsettos than non-gay singers—Sylvester and Jimmy Somerville notwithstanding—as if a falsetto suggests quasi-femininity. This is wrong on various counts. (Tellingly, you rarely see writers mentioning, say, "Bruce Springsteen's falsetto," even though he, too, sometimes sings falsetto in his background vocals and occasionally in his leads when he can't otherwise hit the note. But Springsteen is something of a heterosexual "macho" icon—he's "The Boss," after all—so it generally doesn't behoove writers to mention his instances of falsetto.)

    I don't think I need to belabor the point any further. Neil Tennant simply doesn't sing in falsetto any more than most other singers.*

    *By the way, a corollary to all this business about Neil's high-pitched singing can be found in the way at least one writer has pointed out with relish—clearly thinking that his readers would find it remarkable—that at times Neil sings higher than Dusty Springfield (gasp!) during their duet in "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" Actually, repeatedly listening to the track, I really don't think he does. But, for the sake of argument, let's go ahead and accept the writer's premise. Even if that's the case, it's not nearly as unusual as he seems to think for male singers to sing at pitches above their female partners in rock/pop duets. To take just one notable example, Don Henley often sings higher than Stevie Nicks in their 1981 duet "Leather and Lace." But I've never read or heard anyone comment on this fact. Why? I suspect it's simply because Henley isn't gay. In other words, one doesn't get much traction impugning the masculinity of Don Henley on account of his high-pitched voice. But if one is inclined to impugn the masculinity of gay men like Neil, then their singing seems to provide what they regard as fair-game ammunition.

  2. That they can't cut it live

I think we can put this one to rest even more easily than the others. But once again the Boys themselves asked for it. They came right out and said that they "couldn't cut it live" almost from the start, and they resisted touring until they could do so on their own terms. Yet, even if you set aside the Performance Tour, the DiscoVery Tour, and their other live shows before the year 2000, all you need to do is consider their many excellent concerts since then—which have often left critics raving—to see that, yes, the Pet Shop Boys can cut it live. They cut it live very well indeed.

  1. That it's all about the irony

    While there's no getting around the fact that the Pet Shop Boys have written and recorded more than a few ironic songs—"Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" probably being the most famous, with its release right out the gate and its tremendous popularity pretty much setting the trope for them—too often they've been unfairly pegged by music writers as being "ironic," period, as if virtually everything they've ever done is steeped in irony. I have to confess that I myself was caught up in this one for at least my first few years of fandom. And it so happens that this myth has come to gall the Boys somewhat, even leading Neil once to overstate his case by proclaiming "Irony is shit." On numerous occasions they've felt the need to emphasize how, more often than not, their songs are quite sincere and straightforward.

    To stereotype the Pet Shop Boys as "ironic" is to miss and/or misunderstand most of their work. To be sure, many of their "non-ironic" songs retain an ironic undercurrent or subtext. One notable example is the marvelous "King of Rome," in which there's indeed a touch of irony in the predicament of a fabulously wealthy man who, for all his riches, nevertheless finds himself miserably forlorn in love. But just because "King of Rome" has an ironic subtext does not mean it's an ironic song. Or take "Liberation," the narrator of which had always been skeptical of romance but who now finds himself falling deeply in love. Another touch of irony—but only a touch in a genuinely heartfelt lyric. And such is the case with perhaps the bulk of Tennant-Lowe material. One of Neil's strengths as a lyricist is his ability to discern and express the piquancy and poignancy embedded in otherwise relatively mundane situations. Is there an element of irony in such expressions? Often, yes. But does that mean that the resulting songs are "ironic"? Just as often, no.

    Another somewhat ironic angle is the way they frequently set quite sad lyrics to upbeat, joyous-sounding music, a characteristic they share with (notoriously) ABBA and the Beach Boys, among others. But that doesn't make ABBA and the Beach Boys "ironic" bands, and nor should it be the case for the Pet Shop Boys. When you get right down to it, there's probably not a much greater ratio of truly "ironic" songs in the PSB canon than there is in the catalogues of most rock and pop artists. Maybe they're just so much better at it than most that it stands out more.

  2. That "likes the Pet Shop Boys" = "gay"

    An incredibly commonplace myth online—and not just in the United States, although I will admit that it's especially common among my fellow Americans. But, no, I've seen it coming from British writers as well. In effect, "He likes the Pet Shop Boys" or some variation thereof (invariably used in reference to a male) has become a snarky, allegedly humorous euphemism for "gay," usually applied as a thinly veiled insult, on both sides of the Atlantic. Examples of how it's used include:

    • There's someone you don't like and you want to insult them by calling them a "faggot," but you know that's awfully politically incorrect and will get you nailed as a bigot, so you say something like "I hear he's a Pet Shop Boys fan."

    • You want to poke fun at somebody by calling their sexuality into question: "I bet you like the Pet Shop Boys!"

    • You find out that someone you don't like happens actually to like the Pet Shop Boys, so you use that fact to cast aspersions upon them: "See, he even likes the Pet Shop Boys" (nudge-nudge, wink-wink).

    • You discover that someone you do like is a bona fide PSB fan, which then becomes sufficient reason to question their sexual orientation. Brandon Flowers is a common target of this trope.

    • One of my site visitors has suggested that it may not always be snide or meant as an insult—that some gay-supportive people may use it as a means of "meaning 'gay' without saying 'gay,'" somewhat like the old euphemism "Friends of Dorothy," only the "Pet Shop Boys" is a more modern, hip signifier than The Wizard of Oz. (I generally don't see it being used that way, but I'll concede it's a distinct possibility.)

    It's become so familiar that when a man with indisputable heterosexual credentials is found to like PSB, people will comment on it by saying something like "He must be the Pet Shop Boys' biggest straight fan." In other words, he's an exception to the rule, the presumed rule being "PSB fan = homosexual."

    But this, of course, is a myth. Yes, the Pet Shop Boys do have many gay fans, especially among baby-boomers. No doubt about it. And maybe—maybe—gay men constitute the largest PSB fan demographic here in the States. Gay men, however, do not constitute the majority of PSB fans worldwide. I can attest to that from years of first-hand experience running this website. The majority of my correspondents are, as best I can tell, heterosexual men. Yes, there are even some American heterosexual men among them. When I ran a poll on the subject some years back, the plurality outcome was "Heterosexual male." (And people would have little if any reason to lie in a completely anonymous survey.) I've lost count of the number of times I've read of men talking about their wives, girlfriends, and/or children in relation to the Pet Shop Boys.

    I've even read of one guy complaining about how, when his toddler son was observed dancing to a PSB song playing on Dad's home stereo system, one of Dad's buddies said to him, "Sorry, dude, but I think your kid is gay." I hope Dad then gave his son a big hug just to show him that there's nothing at all wrong with being either gay or straight and liking the Pet Shop Boys.

  3. That they're not still active and making new music

    This pernicious myth takes a number of different forms:

Of course, it goes without saying that this belief, in all of its forms, is utterly false. As of this writing, they're still putting out new music and still going strong after more than thirty years.