Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2002
Original album - Release
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."
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 anotherand particularly of those who are disadvantaged or underprivilegedis 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 latter-day triumphs—although, to be honest, a number of fans seem to dislike it intensely.
- As noted above, the lyrics allude to three "martyrdoms": those of Jesus, of Matthew Shepard, and of Stephen Lawrence, allegorically connecting the latter two to the first, who is the "birthday boy" of the title (given the song's implicit Christmas setting).
- The song obliquely evokes Jesus's words as recorded in Matthew 25:40, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
- More forthrightly, the words "Taking all of the blame" allude to the traditional Christian concept of Jesus having died for the sins of humanity, which the song applies by extension to the murders of Matthew Shepard and Stephen Lawrence regarding the respective sins of homophobia and racism.
- "A quick betrayal / A speedy trial / As before, complete denial" – These words clearly allude the the betrayal of Jesus by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot; his subsequent trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; and his denial by another disciple, Simon Peter (who, when accused, swore that he didn't even know Jesus). They can also apply specifically to Matthew Shepard's murder, which followed his "betrayal" at the hands of two young men who offered him a ride home.
- At its very end, this track includes a sample from a recording of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, performing a setting of the Christmas hymn "In the Bleak Midwinter" by English composer Harold Edwin Darke.
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