Ever since the mid-1980s, the Pet Shop Boys have seen the world as a London dance floor. They're nearly as celebrated for their smart, chilly dance pop ("West End Girls," "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)") and their arch cover versions ("Always on my Mind," "Where the Streets Have No Name"). The duo, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, met in 1981, and a lot has changed in 28 years. But their 10th album, Yes, new this spring, is typically complex and passionate, blending delightful experimentation with masterful pop.
Tennant spoke with WalletPop about how the Pet Shop Boys' work has documented social history, how to make a living with music videos no longer appearing on MTV, and musicians' latest professional challenges.
Q: What's the meaning of "Love, etc.," the first single on your new album?
A: In our society, we celebrate the market and money and celebrity so much. I don't think it really makes people happy; I think it makes them panic, really. We live in a very claustrophobic society, with the obsession with fame and all the rest of it. But there's a place for love and affection and friendship -- you don't need all this stuff. You need love. Love is going to be the only way of achieving fulfillment or happiness or security.
Of course, that was before the legendary credit crunch. And so now "Love, etc." seems a bit like an anthem for that.
Q: You're a band known for high-concept videos. Is there still a place for these videos out there, with MTV and VH1 mostly broadcasting reality shows?
A: I think most people watch videos on YouTube, now, don't they? So "Love, etc." works very well on YouTube. I've actually never seen it on the television. The animator came over and filmed Chris and I. Took about five minutes. He just wanted some facial expressions from us. And he did the whole thing. It's really a bit '60s I think: It's basically "all you need is love." So this is an updated psychedelic video.
Q: The whole album is really upbeat. Is that a response to the credit crunch?
A: No, we start writing these songs before the credit crunch. We had no kind of manifesto; we just wanted to kind of have fun. I mean, we were all interested during the album in what was going on -- there were all the subprime leases in America, and Obama was everywhere, Hillary Clinton. There was a sense of the world changing that I think is reflected in the songs.
Q: Your second big hit in the U.S., "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," was a Reagan-era song. Is that song hopelessly out of date now, or do you feel there's an entrepreneurial spirit in the air?
A: I think we do reflect the times a bit, either knowingly or unknowingly. We wrote "Opportunities" in 1983. It was a comment on Thatcherism. And then "Love, etc." -- you know, it's amazing: It's 26 years later, and it kind of bookends the whole era. You know, you could write social history from "Opportunities" to "Love, etc." When we wrote "Opportunities," money was huge -- although actually, when you look back, it was in the 90s that money really took off. And in this decade it really, really took off. There's a huge influence from Russian and former Soviet oligarchs: people saw that kind of money and suddenly realized that rich people weren't that rich. We've got this thing today where money has become sort of postmodern. It's not real anymore.
Q: If "Opportunities" was a comment on Thatcherism, is "Love, etc." a comment on capitalism?
A: There's been a sense in the last 20 years that capitalism has run to benefit the few guys at the top. I remember EMI was sacking this guy who was running it, and they had to pay him $15 million to pay him off. You sort of think, Where did this $15 million come from? How many records have you got to sell to get that, to pay off people?
EMI signed Mariah Carey, and then she made that film that was a disaster. And so they terminated the contract. They had to pay her $30 million to pay it off. I remember saying to somebody, "Do you really think Mariah Carey is no longer going to sell any records and have no career anymore?" It's not my kind of music, but I don't think that.
Q: How has the recession affected you? Have you had to cut back?
A: We live relatively modestly. We don't live like rich people -- he says, sitting in a house in Chelsea -- but I get taxis, I walk, I get the tube. So no, it hasn't really affected me. I don't have enough money to have lost that much.
Q: Are musicians getting paid less than they used to?
A: The Internet has destroyed the old music business. When you make an album, some people will make the moral choice to buy it, rather than nick it for free on the Internet. This is quite a humiliating business to be in now: You speak to people who download your album, and they say, "Don't worry, I'll buy your copy," as if that's a really funny thing to say. The attitude is, "If I feel like it, I'll buy a copy," and you're meant just to have to accept that. You spend a year making an album, and people steal it. Few people make the decision to buy it, or they buy it because they like the packaging. That has affected musicians.
There is some weird influence from the Internet on the recession. I haven't quite worked out what it is yet. I know people who work for magazines and newspapers, and they're just going down the pipeline. Anything digitalized is going to be impacted. And I wonder if we won't regret it in the end.
Pet Shop Boys' album Yes is now out.
Pet Shop Boys on love in the time of the credit crunch