Pet Shop Boys: Young Offender
eil Tennant and Chris Lowe were dismissed as fags even before Tennant came out of the closet. They were swishes because they couldn’t contain their glee at how long they got away with their shtick. One more British synth-pop duo—like Tears For Fears, without guitars! Hitting number one on the American singles chart with 1986’s “West End Girls,” they sent another song into the Top 10 that rubbed their mercenary intentions in your face and demonstrated their spectacular skill with parenthetical titles (“Opportunities [Let’s Make Lots of Money]”). Their songs were all over MTV and radio in the late eighties, but then again so were Johnny Hates Jazz’s.
There was every reason to hate the Pet Shop Boys, except no one really did. They dusted off worthy icons (Dusty Springfield), showed great taste in covers (“Always On My Mind”), and could yawn with more panache than Ronald Reagan himself (see the cover of Actually). Tennant and Lowe acted like they were on the spree of their lives, flaunting their insincerity like proper English boys schooled in Oscar Wilde, their irony more allusive and elusive than was good for them.
Ah, irony. Do a keyword search for “Pet Shop Boys” and “irony” and count how many hits you get. Like peanut butter and jelly, the two commingle with predictable synergy. Detractors—the ones who sent them packing after 1988’s “Domino Dancing”—say Tennant and Lowe hide their hearts behind irony, that they don’t have hearts. This accusation, made by Lady Bracknells who programmed the well-wrought, thinking-man’s pop of Paula Abdul and Skid Row, clings to the Boys to this day.
Okay, look: the Pet Shop Boys were never ironic, at least not in the way you think. “Irony” is too often confused with “sarcasm,” and with a couple of leaden exceptions (“Shopping” and “Hit Music,” har har) Tennant and Lowe didn’t dirty their hands with it. However, if you mean irony as an etiolated form of skepticism, you’re on to something. Their music was suffused with irony in its purest form: the irony of abashed romantics who have known pain and loss but remain skeptical of the forms in which pop musicians traffic these experiences. 1990’s Behaviour was the first album on which Tennant was blatant about wooing the cute boyfriend of the girl who loved the Boys’ pop hits, and the autumnal, symphonic sweep of the music was as much a signifier as his insistent use of the second-person singular pronoun.
By 1993 the American hits had stopped coming. Very was released at the height of grunge’s ascendancy, although I remember my college radio station, with an enthusiasm lost on its deejay descendants today, programming the Boys around the Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield. The heady beats of “Can You Forgive Her?” and “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” confirmed that Tennant was finally hitting the clubs instead of thinking about it, marrying Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat with more verve and intelligence than Erasure.
“Young Offender” always grabbed me. As everyone from Paul McCartney to Steely Dan knows, songs about older men falling for jailbait are commonplace; what’s less emphasized is the loss of dignity and humor—love is a grimly serious business. The young offender Neil’s pining for is probably not worth the risk (“How graceful your movements, how bitter your scorn,” he notes without emphasis), and it scares him. In a voice between an intimate come-on and a frightened whisper, Tennant gives the lie to the haters who say he can’t sing. We know Neil’s in love because he’s so adamant about seeming diffident; he’s afraid to take the risk: “I’ll do what you want if you want me enough / I’ll put down my book and start falling in love,” and then adds the crucial, “Isn’t that dumb?” It’s a game, only now Tennant’s playing it instead of observing it.
What makes “Young Offender” so moving is that while the frisky insistent beat is trying to unbutton Tennant’s shirt he never quite drops his guard. It made for entertaining melodrama in “It’s A Sin”; now we understand there was really something to hide. The arch manner in which he enunciates “offender” as “offend-ah-ah-ah-ah,” the impeccable grammar of “who will give whom the bigger surprise” (and the uncharacteristic dirty joke therein)—he’s touching in his uptight Englishness, a cross between Somerset Maugham and Bryan Ferry. Although he admits, “I’ve been a teenager since before you were born,” it’s the bravado of a man courting a hot guy who’s hardly his intellectual equal; the Nintendo beeps and chirps with which the song begins signal that this kid doesn’t know shit about Debussy, and Che Guevara is just another cool T-shirt logo. The “fire in [his] eyes” is indistinguishable from “the glow of machines.”
We know the relationship didn’t last. On 1999’s Nightlife Tennant was the man from Pleases thirteen years older, still wry, ruminative, one more aging anonymous club rat hitting the bars. Irony no longer suits him. The young offenders are getting younger.