Birthday Boy

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2002
Original album - Release
Producer - Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

An interview with Neil and Chris posted on the Boys' official website reveals the genesis of this enigmatic track. Neil was stuck for ideas for lyrics to an appealing chord sequence that Chris had developed. Chris picked up a newspaper and noted a reference to a "birthday boy," which struck Neil as a promising start. It was around Christmastime, which made Neil think of Jesus Christ as a "birthday boy" who also happened to be a figure of martyrdom. This brought to mind a pair of other, much more recent martyr figures: Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager who had been killed by racists in London, and Matthew Shepard, a young gay man murdered in Wyoming. Neil views these two as modern-day Christ figures who had in essence "died for our sins"—young men whose tragic, violent, untimely deaths resulted in greater awareness and understanding ("from pain comes pity"), forcing people, as Neil has put it, to "confront their own hatred." From another angle, Neil stated in his 2018 book One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem that he imagined Jesus "coming back to earth on the eve of his birthday" and being similarly murdered, "dying for our sins all over again."

The line "He's been through all this before" is, in effect, a reference to the words of Jesus (as translated in the King James Version of the Bible), "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." That is, the persecution of another—and particularly of those who are disadvantaged or underprivileged—is tantamount to persecution of Christ himself. (If only more professed Christians would remember that.) The virtual riddle posed by the lyrics ("If you knew his name would you feel the same?") is explained by Neil in this way: "If you knew he was Jesus would you still be killing him?"

The sheer profundity of it all is heightened by the music: a slow, dirge-like arrangement provides an almost creepy air of mystery and foreboding, yet during the chorus and bridge the melody positively soars, building with sweeping, epic intensity. Its power-ballad-like arrangement even features a legato "hard rock" guitar solo—only it's actually played on keyboard by Chris.

In sum, it's an incredibly powerful musical and lyrical statement. As such, "Birthday Boy" stands as one of the Pet Shop Boys' great triumphs—although, to be honest, some fans seem to dislike it intensely.


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