How much are you obligated to love someone if they pay your rent? There is a famous short story – later adapted into a film – by Tama Janowitz titled Slaves of New York. It was initially published in, you guessed it, The New Yorker. The title is obviously, um, shall we say, not great, but in some ways it’s apropos and and becoming more so. New York City is hellishly expensive to live in, and people do degrading things to survive there. The point Janowitz was making in her story is that ambitious creative types are so in love with the idea of being New Yorkers that they compromise their integrity and wellbeing by staying yoked to lame partners just for the real estate. Yes, there’s plenty of people who stay in loveless marriages because the apartment. That’s sad, but it’s also…hello, hashtag first world problems! People – mostly the female kind – all over the world literally fucking end up dying because they don’t have the means to leave abusive partners, which is not the same as hanging on to a sexless marriage because rent-controlled Manhattan real estate yada yada. But the New York literary and creative scene is its own beast, one that exists in a paradoxical bubble. On one hand, New York City is so vibrant and diverse it’s almost like the capital of the world or something. On the other hand, the scenesters there can be shockingly ignorant and isolated (see, Lena “I don’t know any black people” Dunham.) Having maintenance-sex with somebody who doesn’t excite you like they used to because you share a lease is not actually equivalent to the institution of slavery, Tama Janowitz, and I’m likely not the first person to have pointed that out, but I think the point remains worth making. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with music, so you’re probably wondering. Yes, I’m drunk and I didn’t sleep very much last night. But also, this is exactly what this Pet Shop Boys song is about. The things we do for rent money, and that weird grey zone between sincere love between consenting adults and the kind of love animals have for you because you feed them. So, although my liberal-white-feminist-SJW self draws the line at slavery equivalence, the age-old phenomenon of being kept is a real social issue. A lot of people, mostly young and in some way disadvantaged, compromise their integrity and wellbeing by allowing themselves to be kept. Whether you’re married to someone who’s on salary while you’re on hourly, or just straight up cashing checks from a sugar-daddy, you’re being kept, and it’s a power imbalance and consent-wise a slippery slope.
This is one of the gayest pop hits in all of history. The video, in its time, was immensely controversial for its overt gayness. Frankie Goes to Hollywood would hardly make a bleep on the controversy radar today, because yay progress, but 1983 was not a good time to be gay. The 70’s were an alright time to be gay, because at least there were nightclubs you could go to without fear of getting thrown in jail. There’s some who insist that those were the very, very best times for gay people and it’s all been downhill from there, because assimilation and loss of subculture and group identity, etc. but that’s just old-person nostalgia talking. Gay bars are not the identity-building sanctuaries that they used to be, because young people today don’t need to build their identities around what they do with their genitals, and that’s a good thing. The 70’s were a lot of fun for a lot of people though. There was a lot of partying. Lot of cocaine. Lot of casual sex. Lot of people finally learning to enjoy their sexuality without fear and shame. Then the AIDS virus came along and wiped all of that happy progress right back to the stone age. Suddenly gay people weren’t just seen as disgusting but mostly harmless; they were disease vectors who had to be quarantined. Today, at least in the developed world, AIDS is a manageable chronic disease on par with diabetes. In the 80’s it felt like a biblical plague punishing the wicked for their sins, which is exactly how the right wing spun it. Patients were treated like lepers, abandoned by their loved ones, wasting away in infectious disease wards surrounded by nurses in hazmat suits. In that context, an upbeat pop song celebrating the gayness of gayness was…pretty damn brave. Dance-in-the-face-of-death brave. That it became a huge hit despite being banned by the BBC and MTV for offending the sensitivities of people who didn’t know that a gay subculture even existed, that was a small symbolic victory. Now it’s a little time capsule from a bygone era when wearing a mesh tank top and a leather cap meant something else than a Freddie Mercury Halloween costume.
I just read an article about Bob Marley and his legacy, and the take-away seems to be that aside from making a huge amount of money, nobody can make heads or tails of it. What does it mean? Who was Bob Marley and what does he represent? Why is his face on a bottle of iced tea? Marley has somehow managed to be all things to all people, which makes it profitable to put his face on literally any product, and yet doesn’t take anything away from the impact of his best music. Ironically, for such a ubiquitous face, Marley’s work remains poorly known. There are about ten hit songs, of which this is one, that are universally known. There is a huge body of albums that are almost never written or spoken about as part of popular music history, though they are essential and far more powerful than the hits. Most people couldn’t name a single one of his studio albums, though they may be attracted to his brightly colored paraphernalia. His personal legacy is poorly understood as well; a lot has been written about his life, but we don’t really know who he was as a person or how he actually would have wanted his legacy to be remembered. That’s because he’s dead and can’t speak up for himself, and his family and associates offer conflicting testimonies. Obviously, he had no way of knowing just how much his family would benefit from untrammeled capitalism, or what his music would mean in a world that stays the same as much as it changes. Maybe the legacy needs explaining, maybe it’s enough that people want to buy Bob Marley branded bongs not only because they like pretty colors but also because they sense that the brand represents something noble. In the collective mind Bob Marley represents everything that’s vaguely good and vaguely noble. For some people, he still represents the specific things he worked for and cared about. What matters is that his music still matters. And also, you know what? There’s worse heroes to idolize, worse families to give your money to, worse vague ideals to subscribe to, and whether you want to signal that you believe in the redemptive power of music in helping mankind overcome the insufferable, or just ‘good vibes, man’, by all means, put a Bob on it.
This is a fairly dispensable pop song, which is not what Al Stewart fans are shopping for. If it’s not thought-provoking or educational, Al hasn’t done his job. I’ve actually always thought it was a very cute song, though. It’s an ode to the kind of quirky, eccentric muse that’s come to be known, in Hollywood parlance, as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the free-spirited love interest who brightens up the hero’s life while remaining a cipher for his repressed sense of fun. You can’t load a movie’s worth of shitty screenwriting tropes into a song, although you can stretch a song into a movie. I’m charmed by this particular muse, as I tend to be charmed by these sort of dream girl characters (or dream boy, who knows, girls don’t wear toupees…) It’s charming and light, and it could well yet someday be on the soundtrack of a cliched romantic comedy. But in the historical scope, this song is significant for only one reason: the backup singer is a pre-fame Tori Amos, coincidentally or not, a well-known eccentric redhead.
It’s a PSA! It’s educational, it’s a warning. It might be a satire of the particularly 80’s trend for cheesy PSA’s. It’s Timbuk 3 and it’s all of those things. Timbuk 3 is the cult 80’s band that everybody needs to know about, but nobody does. They might be remembered for having one popular hit song, which satirized the 80’s glaringly misguided sense of optimism. What makes their small output still relevant is their clever and sardonic writing. Some things are forever marked as products of their time, whether it’s bad production decisions or too-pointed cultural references, but big issues don’t change much, and the human condition changes not at all. Driving poorly, for example, is forever.
Billy Idol is like a gleaming Mattel figurine of a punk rocker. He claims he earned his nickname for his ineptitude in school, not his looks, but who’s he kidding? It doesn’t matter that his music is essentially pop, it just makes him the father of all punk-pop and you can’t fault him for also being the father of a million five dollar pleather wristcuffs. Billy Idol is, in his own words, flesh for fantasy, if your fantasies happen to run towards studded leather. And you gotta say “daayymn, boy!” to that. Real punks are gross, but who doesn’t dream about a chiseled shiny one who wears clean leather and doesn’t neglect to freshen up his roots every two weeks?
Do you ever get the feeling you’re the only person living in the world? An age-old question, a topic of endless philosophical debate. We can all take our alienation for granted as a symptom of modern life and get on with it. This song doesn’t ask the deep questions; it makes floating through life alone sound quite jaunty. Unlike the bulk of Al Stewart’s work, it isn’t educational or challenging. Stewart could have had a heckuva career writing the kind of songs that end up in commercials selling upscale casual fashions. Doesn’t this make you want to purchase a nice pair of capris? Fortunately, Stewart is too hopelessly intellectual to pursue the easy listening route, and he’s too fascinated and delighted by the world to write about alienation like a pro, either. You’re not the only person living in the world – the world is too full of stories to ever be alienated from.