Film & TV

Pet Shop Boys Serenade AOC, Socialism’s Useful Idiot  

Pet Shop Boys New Album Agenda
Neil Tennant (left) and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys perform in 2010. (Johannes Eisele/Reuters)
In Agenda, their political pop music veers into snark and contempt.

Dance-pop sophisticates Pet Shop Boys have just issued their most depressing recording — Agenda, a four-track EP that assesses Brexit-era strangeness. The first single released from this package is titled “Let’s Give Stupidity a Chance.” It’s not a comic riff on John Lennon’s Sixties anti-war sing-along “Give Peace a Chance,” but a Millennial novelty song, the first Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign cheer.

Pet Shop Boys lead singer–lyricist Neil Tennant and composer Chris Lowe are British Boomers who made their name with elegant, thoughtful, and danceable tracks during the 1980s, including “West End Girls” and the Dusty Springfield collaboration “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” 1993’s Very is their masterpiece. But this new song discards their pop savvy for left-wing populism.

“It’s all meant ironically,” Tennant told Clash magazine, yet the EP’s ironies confirm that PSB are up to date, clued in to why Millennials admire a neophyte demagogue like Ocasio-Cortez: They see themselves in her googly-eyed, unschooled optimism. Her image confirms their naïveté as a moral and political virtue, and the lead track’s cringe-inducing message name-checks many of her slogans and clichés, even some “Green New Deal” idiocies that have become media commonplaces. (The current crop of pusillanimous Democratic presidential contenders call the deal aspirational.)

But “Give Stupidity a Chance” won’t fire up Spotify or Pandora subscribers; it’s merely a hummable yet oddly unwinning try. PSB’s rejection of conservative nationalism pitches them into an ideational trap: By denouncing their adversaries, they take on the worst accusatory aspects of America’s Ocasio-Cortez and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, who both capture PSB’s attention because, sadly, they qualify as pop-media icons. PSB possess wit beyond AOC, but they know that the Left-weaned pop audience cannot resist a young-dumb rabble-rouser.

Youthful snark is second nature to PSB’s generation; they maintained the template for political sarcasm. But snark works only one way — ungenerously, as contempt, and never as self-mockery. In 1971’s “California,” Joni Mitchell serenaded America’s (and her own) social ambivalence with rich sincerity: “They won’t give peace a chance / It was just a dream some of us had.” But “Give Stupidity a Chance,” which at best sounds politically neutral, does not make a libertarian’s song. Its ironic litany of facile generalizations are too slanted, merely repeating the usual, snide Mathilda May insults and boilerplate anti-Trump japes. (The line that condemns “grabbing a peach-perfect piece of ass . . . just one of the guys” ignores the hypocrisy of such liberal icons as NBC’s Matt Lauer and PBS/CBS’s Charlie Rose, and it also contradicts PSB’s own former celebration of gay eroticism.)

“Give Stupidity a Chance” seems irony-free because its appeal is insular; there’s no honest way to enter its sarcasm or to escape its censure. It follows Bruce Springsteen’s insensible, judgmental Wrecking Ball (2012), which divided American citizens into villains and heroes. “Give Stupidity a Chance” gets Agenda off to a dishonest, even asinine, start.

The next track is much better: “On Social Media” jauntily scrutinizes the public platform that encourages petulance and immature insecurities, eventually dehumanizing “conversation.” Pick your favorite lines. Mine are:

The world is changing everywhere
With a speed that couldn’t be speedier. . . .
Console yourself with a selfie or two
And post them on social media.

This is PSB at their best. Having once analyzed compulsive consumerism and entrepreneurship (1985’s “Shopping,” “Let’s Make Lots of Money”), they now examine compulsive, impersonal communication. Their critique of social and spiritual desperation is definitive: “You’re part of the conversation / It’s like you passed the test.”

This Millennial anxiety is more confounding than mere politics; few can even pretend to understand it. But PSB comes close in this quatrain:

And sometimes you can fuel the debate
By biting the hand that feeds ya
Expressing pure anonymous hate
When you’re on social media.

That “hand that feeds ya” line echoes Elvis Costello’s great refusal on “Radio, Radio” (1978), which roused rebellion against mainstream-media enticement. But Costello’s principled resistance — in a still-thrilling performance — is now buried by Big Tech’s passive illusion of personal force. PSB’s assessment of hatred and revenge exposes the true powerlessness felt in this confused era.

The video for “On Social Media” depicts a cell-phone screen and Pong app that portrays solipsistic Millennial distraction. It departs from PSB’s concept for the other Agenda videos, all based on Jenny Holzer–style graphics (the stark delivery of block-like words and ideas as advertised in public spaces) against documentary footage of totalitarian parades and fabricated ceremonies. This artistic confusion makes an assumption about absolute political terror that ruins the song “What Are We Going to Do About the Rich?”

This track uses the most simplistic AOC economic-disparity sap. It doesn’t examine the class contradiction of millionaire socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren but appeals to half-baked, faux altruism. PSB, who are wealthy pop adepts, succumb to the facile sentiments of specious populist movements such as Occupy and the oxymoronic “democratic-socialists.” As critic John Demetry augured, PSB would show real compassion if they asked, “What are we going to do about the poor?” Having previously fitted Che Guevara and Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station into song lyrics, PSB have shown they can be masters at using liberal pleasantries. But “What Are We Going to Do About the Rich?” ignores what Robert Christgau called “the ineluctability of capital.” It pales next to Motorhead’s blunt, angry double entendre on “Eat the Rich” (“Bite down on the sonofabitch”). PSB outsmart themselves. The pointed caps that PSB wore in their Very-era videos no longer resemble the mitres referencing Hugo Ball–Alfred Jarry avant-garde dada. Now, they recall the dunce caps of socialism’s useful idiots.

Agenda’s closing track is the ballad “The Forgotten Child,” an elegant yet maudlin plaint for global refugees. Tennant explained that “there’s something being lost, and it’s summed up by the idea of the innocence of the child.” In other words, self-pity.

Like most of us, PSB throw up their hands at today’s unresolved division, wondering how we came to be so fractured, dishonest, and self-deluding. It’s disappointing that the song never rises to the complexity of Morrissey’s “Israel,” an existential lament that personalized — and eroticized — political compassion. Agenda addresses politics, but it goes soft on lost innocence. The real problem is that we have forgotten our former moral basis; and Pet Shop Boys, after suggesting that humankind has exhausted all intelligent and civilized options, are too discreet, too caught up in being “smart,” to come right out and say so.

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Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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