How to Have Sax in an Epidemic

By Watney, Simon | Artforum International, November 1993 | Go to article overview

How to Have Sax in an Epidemic


Watney, Simon, Artforum International


For more than a decade gay men have responded to the presence of HIV and AIDS in our personal lives in a wide variety of ways. At one end of the scale, some, sadly, have been terrified into celibacy or loveless monogamy; at the other, some evidently find Safer Sex difficult to sustain. Yet the great majority of gay men have found ways to feel confident about sex.

Community-based HIV education has insisted that Safer Sex is an issue for all gay men, regardless of our HIV-antibody status, and a remarkable collective response has emerged that is intimately informed by our awareness of the epidemic in our midst. HIV hardly interrupts our common need for love and sexual expression, and most of us have found ways to move through sexual relationships without being overwhelmed by anxieties on behalf of ourselves or our partners.

Disco music has been at the heart of gay youth culture for two decades, so it is hardly surprising that pop music has responded to the epidemic far more pragmatically and directly than any other culture medium. Indeed, nothing is more indicative of our determination to live through this appalling tragedy than the intensity of contemporary gay dance and "rave" culture, which articulates the complexity of our lives and feelings with passionate precision. No band has responded to this challenge with more integrity and musical imagination than the Pet Shop Boys, who more than anybody else have helped "get us through" these bad times. They have done so, moreover, with grace, wit, and intelligence; and their latest album, VERY, is their finest achievement to date.

Like the Smiths, Marc Almond, and Jimmy Somerville, the Pet Shop Boys emerged out of nowhere, in 1985, with an all-time-classic pop standard, "West End Girls." They are unlike other bands, however, in that their identity is extremely fluid: while they have released many singles and albums as the Pet Shop Boys, they have also produced records with other performers who have become part of their musical project by simple contingency. Liza Minnelli's 1989 album Results, for example, is in an important sense a Pet Shop Boys record, as is Electronic's magnificent 1992 Disappointed, or the music "by" Cicero and Boy George for Neil Jordan's film The Crying Game. To understand this music it is necessary to understand (and respect, and probably love) the sensation of being one among hundreds of others on a packed dance-floor, dancing because dancing is what we enjoy most, and because dance music (like sex) binds us intimately.

VERY exhibits in the highest degree the Pet Shop Boys' ability to produce classic pop-songs that are also great dance-music, while combining humor, pathos, and lyrical intensity. It opens with a song about a man who can't accept his homosexuality, though his attempts to pass as straight are transparent to his girlfirend because he dances to disco rather than rock. There follow two wonderful gay love-songs, about the excitement of falling in love for the first time, and the sense of liberation this can bring after years of adolescent guilt and loneliness. In this sense the album traces the whole narrative of coming out during the epidemic--falling in love, relationships going wrong, infidelity, insecurity, and so on. Yet the Pet Shop Boys' approach is not in the least didactic. On the contrary, by leaving the genders of the people who populate their songs open, they enlarge the number of people who can meaningfully identify with them.

VERY also contains at least three great pop standards. "Dreaming of the Queen" is an extraordinary and moving musical response to the epidemic: dreaming a tea party attended by the Queen and Lady Diana, as well as by Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant and an unnamed other (taken as his boyfriend), the song offers us the astonishing scenario of the Queen asking why love doesn't often seem to last these days. …

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