10 things the Pet Shop Boys did to commit career suicide in the U.S.

It’s an ugly truth, a horrible reality, and a total embarrassment to all U.S. Pet Shop Boys fans. After being major hitmakers in the States during the late 1980s, the Boys have since then been reduced to a hitless "cult band" in America (aside from their tremendous ongoing success on the dance charts) while remaining major stars just about everywhere else—even becoming the best-selling duo in the history of the British charts. How did this terrible thing happen?

The answer is simple: Neil and Chris committed "career suicide" in the U.S. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think they did anything "wrong." I wouldn’t change a thing about them or the way they’ve handled their career. But, as fantastic as they are, they doomed themselves in America.

Well, that's America's loss. It didn’t happen all at once. It happened in stages, step-by-step. The U.S. mass market would have forgiven them one, two, or even three or four of the steps I’m about to describe. But, taken altogether, it spelled American career suicide.

Here they are—the ten things that the Pet Shop Boys did to commit career suicide in the United States:

1. "Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)"

I talk about this track, the Pet Shop Boys' second hit single in the States (following up on the #1 "West End Girls"), at some length in the main portion of my website, including how it made much of the American public extremely suspicious of the Boys almost from the get-go. In short, pop stars in the U.S. aren’t supposed to be so blatantly calculated and opportunistic. You say, "But Neil and Chris weren’t being ‘themselves’ in that song—they were merely playing roles." Yes, precisely. But the mass of the American record-buying public isn’t sophisticated enough to understand such concepts as a "lyrical persona." (Besides, in Ronald Reagan's America—as in Margaret Thatcher's Britain—the idea that a couple of guys could be so mercenary about pop stardom seemed downright realistic.) And while most members of the U.S. public do comprehend satire, they often don’t perceive it when it’s handled with any degree of subtlety. "Weird Al" Yankovic they get. "Opportunities," many of them didn’t.

2. The Disco album

By the 1980s, "disco" had become a dirty word in America. Remember: "Disco sucks!" Even the people who were still brave enough to continue making disco music weren’t calling it "disco" anymore. It was "dance music." Same thing, just a different label. The Pet Shop Boys, contrarians ever, went ahead and titled their first remix album Disco. Strike two.

3. Neil yawning on the cover of Actually

Again, I discuss this at length in my entry for Actually and even devote a special page to the image's iconic status. To summarize, Americans don’t like it when their stars yawn. At least not unless they’re yawning at something that they themselves would think is boring or "uncool." They especially don’t like them yawning, it would appear, directly in their faces, perhaps even at them. Chris's odd expression—halfway between a vacant blank and a scowl—didn’t help matters, either. They’re even wearing tuxedos. Rock stars do not wear tuxedos, unless they’re getting an award from the President, and not always then. "Just what are these guys about, anyway?"

4. "Shopping" and "Rent"

If the cover of Actually weren't enough, it had these two songs on it. Even fewer people understood "Shopping" than understood "Opportunities." A lot of music critics cited it as evidence that the Boys were triviality incarnate. And U.S. rock stars are anything but trivial, right? Besides, real men don’t sing about shopping. Hell, they don’t even like to go shopping, much less sing about it. Of course, "Shopping" isn’t really about shopping, but that went right over most people’s heads. And then there's "Rent," sung from the perspective of either a kept woman (according to Neil) or a rent boy (according to widespread interpretation). Either way, it doesn't play well in Peoria.

5. "Always on My Mind" not appearing on Actually

The Boys committed a cardinal sin with this one. They released a hit single that wasn’t on the current album. And "Always on My Mind" was a big hit in the U.S. So people expected to find it on the most recent album, the one released just a couple months before. Wrong. Major source of frustration. Of course, the U.S. record company knew this and so rush-released a "special edition" of Actually that featured a second disc, the 12-inch single version of "Always on My Mind." That only exacerbated the situation. Now fans who had already bought Actually felt ripped off. The result: nobody was happy.

6. The "Domino Dancing" video

Now we’re really getting down to it—the final days of the Pet Shop Boys’ tenure as major U.S. hitmakers. The "Domino Dancing" video received a lot of airplay on MTV. But, despite its heterosexual veneer, the video’s blatant homoeroticism, in which those two shirtless young guys were even more obviously posited as sex-objects than the girl who was their ostensible object of desire, was just too much for the bulk of their American fan-base to handle. "Domino Dancing" became a U.S. Top 20 hit for the Boys, but it would prove to be their last.

7. The Introspective album

Neil himself has noted how Introspective was a major blow to their U.S. popularity. How so? I mean, it’s a drop-dead brilliant record, right? Yes, it certainly is. But that’s not the point. You see, when U.S. consumers go out to buy an album, they expect the songs on that album to be pretty much exactly the same as the hit versions of the songs playing on the radio. Now, "long versions" are OK—in fact, they’re excellent. U.S. consumers usually like it when the album version of the song is the "real" version, and the hit single is just an edited "short version." But that’s not what Introspective was all about. The versions of the two major U.S. hits on that album, "Always on My Mind" and "Domino Dancing," weren’t the "unedited" originals of the hit singles. Rather, they were drastically remixed. Thus, from the American consumer’s perspective, the singles were the "real" versions, and the album versions were exactly what they were: extended dance remixes. Since the greater mass of the U.S. record-buying public has little use for extended dance remixes, Introspective indeed proved highly detrimental to PSB’s popularity in America.

8. "Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)"

By now our heroes were virtual has-beens on the U.S. singles chart. U2, on the other hand, were at their peak of popularity in America. And then along come Chris and Neil, who treat U2 with such apparent disrespect. (As The Edge was reported to have quipped, "What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?") Yes, it’s a brilliant deconstruction and demythologization, but who the hell knows and cares about "deconstruction" and "demythologization," anyway? This only confirmed what most of the U.S. record-buying public had long suspected about the Boys: they were not to be trusted.

9. The "Performance" tour

Chris and Neil didn't go on a live concert tour in the U.S. until 1991—which itself probably did serious damage to their longterm American success. When they finally did tour in America with their "Performance" stage show, they wanted it to be anything but your typical rock concert. That is, they wanted to do more than stand up there and perform their songs, trying as best they can to replicate the sound of the records. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what most American concert-goers want and expect. First the delay, then the unexpected. Once again, the original thing turned out to be the wrong thing by U.S. standards. (Incidentally—or perhaps not so incidentally—a reviewer for the New York Post infamously suggested that Radio City Music Hall needed to be "fumigated" following the "Performance" show there. Prudery and humorlessness are, by themselves, merely unfortunate. Combined, they're lethal.)

10. Neil "comes out" publicly shortly after the release of Very

The final nail in the coffin, though the body was already pretty cold at this point. From Neil's personal perspective, it was undoubtedly the right thing to do—but not if you want to be a major star in America, at least until the further decline in homophobia. Unless your name is Elton (and, unfortunately, even he has now apparently worn out his welcome on Top 40 radio), you cannot be a major ongoing mainstream star in the United States and be openly gay. You can be gay and in the closet. Or you can be open and achieve limited success as a flash in the pan or as a recurring bit-player. But not as a major ongoing mainstream star. Fortunately, that now appears to be changing for the better. It's two decades too late, though, for PSB. Ageism is now their bigger obstacle, and not just in the U.S. At any rate, Neil’s coming out regrettably pegged the Pet Shop Boys as a "gay group" in the United States—more or less by definition a cult band.

And that’s how the Pet Shop Boys went in ten easy steps from being major hitmakers to a hitless cult band in the U.S.