The Pet Shop Boys have written an orchestral work about Alan Turing. It’s a perfectly Pet Shop Boys thing to do. If you don’t understand why then I recommend listening to this fantastic conversation with Neil Tennant from last year. If you do, I recommend you listen to it anyway.
I have long loved the Pet Shop Boys. When I was 14, at the very start of 1990, the moment we all stepped forward together into a decade that sounded like the future, I moved to a new area of the country and had to change schools.
Being 14, a regular question from my new classmates was, what’s your favourite music? Being 14, my answer was an instinctive but calculated curatorial spin on reality. I quickly learned a routine line that worked: New Order and the Pet Shop Boys.
New Order, who no-one had heard of because World In Motion and Italia 90 were still six months away, were miserable and not really proper pop stars. The blank looks their name registered told me I was on to something. They were cool. They were my vinyl and NME-reading teenage future.
The Pet Shop Boys, who everyone had heard of, were pop stars of a strange and interesting type, and also miserable. They were my cassette and Smash Hits-reading teenage past. I had no idea whether they were cool or not. I still don’t. I still love them, though. Or at least my idea of them.
Later, I read someone describe them as ‘The Smiths you could dance to.’ That makes a lot of sense. They would make songs with found titles like What Have I Done To Deserve This? (very Smiths), sing it with a disappeared sixties icon like Dusty Springfield (ditto), and proceed to have a No 1 hit in the process (OK, but two out of three’s not bad).
More fundamentally they were very subversive indeed. They smuggled edgeland inspiration into mainstream spaces and combined them in extraordinary ways until no-one could see the join.
West End Girls is as much TS Eliot as it is Grandmaster Flash and Hi-NRG.
It’s A Sin is a repressed catholic priest fomenting his shame till it explodes, while God, in the form of Chris Lowe, smites him with Fairlight thunderclaps and portentous synths. Its video was directed by Derek Jarman.
These songs both went to No 1, too.
One which didn’t was my favourite even so. It was called Left To My Own Devices and imagined the sound of “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”. Of course, this is what all pop music should sound like.
I don’t know who called the Pet Shop Boys the ‘Greek chorus of the 80s’ but the description works for me. There they are, wryly commenting on the human damage wrought by that grasping, ugly decade. The AIDS epidemic (Domino Dancing), the financial Big Bang (Shopping), the lawless, economic horror of towns left to wither and die (Suburbia), the subjugation of happiness for money (Rent).
I love the Pet Shop Boys. Or at least my idea of them.
Why on earth am I telling you all this?
I’m telling you this so you have an idea of what goes on in my head when I listen to them, and perhaps therefore how I felt when I saw this.
Sorry, Spotify, I won’t. And I’m more than a little offended that you even think I would. Do you really classify the elegant art of the Pet Shop Boys with the sweaty ventriloquist’s goth-dummy that is Meatloaf? How could you?
How wrong could they get it, I thought? Surely some slip of the algorithm…
Well, apparently there are others.
What?! How is this even possible? ‘People who listen to the Pet Shop Boys are also listening to Foreigner’? Look at them. Look at them!
I started noticing this more and more. Spotify was surely playing a joke on me, toying with the uncertainty I had about the Pet Shop Boys’ cool rating by associating them with the worst acts of all time. To underline the insult, it even started taking into account that other pop obsession of my 14 year old self, New Order.
Of course. Nothing says ‘detached synth-pop with melodies the size of mountains ‘ like topographic fretsplorers and denim hairlords, Yes.
Still, somehow, there was more.
And, finally, what do you get if you cross Electric Ladyland with Introspective?
Well, I’d have thought more than ‘More Than A Feeling’ at least…
Spotify can’t get everything right, I know.
I imagine all these other bands feature on 80s compilations alongside the Pet Shop Boys somewhere. I also don’t doubt that my own critic-driven view of the group doesn’t necessarily reflect the way others, perhaps the majority, see them. (I should also say that I’m a terrible snob.) After all, you don’t get to subvert the mainstream without the mainstream subverting you. Even this morning, announcing the Turing work, the news described them as an 80s band.
So I’m not questioning the algorithm. My point here isn’t that there’s a ghost in the Spotify machine.
It’s that there isn’t one.
There is no singular story to pop. Liking music isn’t just about taste. It is about nostalgia and emotion and stories and love and fear and hope and anything else you care to throw in to the kaleidoscope of feeling that goes to make any of us. It’s an endless landscape to which we all have our own individual map.
Our idea of music, and perhaps therefore anything we choose to consume, is more powerful than its substance.
Digital tools and services like Spotify are really very clever, but we would miss the the human, curatorial touch if it became entirely absent. As digital services become more entwined with more intimate aspects of our lives, personalisation will have to stand for more than simply the next algorithmically served thing to consume.
We prefer the world editorialised. Being trapped in the uncanny valley of recommendation isn’t the same thing at all. Music streaming services can tag everything in their path but they will always struggle to define the meaning that listeners attach to the music. Perhaps we like knowing that someone cleverer and more applied than us — or just luckier and with more time — is in there somewhere, working, thinking about things.
Or perhaps we just sometimes need our idea of the world reflected back at us. Perhaps, now that the Pet Shop Boys are doing the Proms, more people will get a different idea of them, and maybe Spotify’s recommendations might come closer to reflecting my world, as well as everyone else’s.