On Pop

Calculated absurdity

I want to listen to music that sounds like the dumb hopefulness of being young that I once couldn’t wait to rid myself of, says Sarah Ditum

People think pop music is all about the now. It absolutely is not. Pop music is about the moment of living in between two times, the breathlessness of feeling so present that you become dislocated.

People think pop music is trash. It is only trash if you think the most important things you’ll ever feel are trash — desire and ecstasy and the completeness of being alive. People think it matters that pop music is derivative, as if every human thing is not derivative, as if the things your heart snags on aren’t the same things that tear up everyone in the privacy of themselves.

When it comes to people who love pop music, there are people who just love pop music, and then there are people who come with exhausting theories about why things are good and will militantly try to make you listen to neglected singer-songwriters of the Noughties by lecturing you about their Italo disco influences, regardless of whether you know or care what Italo disco is.

People think pop music is trash. It is only trash if you think the most important things you’ll ever feel are trash

I am firmly the latter type, and this column will probably feature plenty of me hectoring you to enjoy things that are only strictly enjoyable from the perspective of the overcommitted pop nerd. Sorry. (I’m not remotely sorry.)

But there are acts that combine a knowing love of pop with being genuinely popular. Ones that consciously understand all the things that make pop music amazing, without that impeding their ability to make amazing pop music; ones that can have their tongue in their cheek and your heart in your mouth at the same time. And no band is more of an ambassador for that way of doing things than Pet Shop Boys, who have been doing it peerlessly since 1981, and have done it again with new album Hotspot.

The typical Pet Shop Boys song combines irresistible musical urgency with lyrical distance, so you’re in the moment and out of it at the same time. The most Pet Shop Boys thing in the world is that “Domino Dancing”, probably their most danceable song, is about seethingly watching a lover dance with other people.

Having Pet Shop Boys back is a delight, because they enjoy the whole business of being pop stars, in all its calculated absurdity. Compare that to, say, Taylor Swift, who is fantastically adept at being a pop star but increasingly gives the impression that she is pasting an impersonation of candy-coloured happiness over the fact that she would rather be eating her own hair than playing the part she has created for herself.

Pet Shop Boys enjoy the stupid outfits, the absurd videos, the baroque visuals of arena tours, the opportunity to say teasingly provocative things in interviews. (Sample from this media cycle: Chris Lowe telling the Guardian that he’s quite looking forward to running out of ideas “because that’s when you go and work with Brian Eno”.)

The first of their songs that I became obsessed with was “Before”, a sunshine-sounding, Latin-inflected promise to a friend that love is possible. But the possibility comes framed by a catalogue of tragedy: unanswered phones, tears, jealous murder.

Neil Tennant sings, “One day when the phone starts ringing/You’ll answer to the words you’re longing for/It’s happened before,” but so has love.

Hearing this as a teenager, the romance of it was unbearably allied to the sophistication of this adult sadness. Imagine how much I’ll know when I too have had my heart shattered a few times! I wanted to listen to music that would catapult me forward into the maturity of melancholy.

A friend recently sent me a line from the novel The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide: “One’s thirties are a cruel age […] a time I whiled away unaware of the tide that can suddenly pull you out, beyond the shallows, into the sea of hardship, and even death,” and I gave it my wholehearted assent while barely feeling melodramatic at all. For Tennant and Lowe, who were in their thirties during the Aids crisis and lost friends to it, that sea presumably came in particularly hard.

Now I’m nearly 40, I feel like I’ve had my fill of knowledge for now. I desire no more lessons for a while. I want to listen to music that sounds like the dumb hopefulness of being young that I once couldn’t wait to rid myself of.

Hotspot is exactly that kind of record. There’s something ridiculously affirming about hearing Tennant, now in his mid-sixties, demanding “Margaritas, champagne and red wine” and promising to swing from the rafters in “Monkey Business” — a song that is so much the party anthem that it comes close to parody before sweeping you along with it anyway.

In the storming opener “Will-o-the-Wisp”, Tennant narrates a longing glimpse of a one-time lover who has traded in his “battered leather cap” and nightlife for respectability. Being at hip replacement age and charging back towards the dancefloor: nothing is more pop music than that.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover