Ten anti-capitalist songs of the Pet Shop Boys
You can hardly call a band that has sold 50 million records anti-capitalist, yet underneath all the glitz, glamour, and partying, there are many subtleties behind some of their lyrical content, which direct apply to many of the problems of living in a capitalist system. What follows is an analysis of some of their more outspoken lyrics in relation to the contradictions of capitalism. There aren’t many artists that make a living based on contradictions, yet the Pet Shop Boys remain one of them, combining elements of sad lyrics with happy melodies, and vice versa.
West End Girls (1984)
The bass line of this song is sampled from “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, which is a protest song in itself, commenting on the harsh realities of living in a ghetto and the lack of opportunities available. In contrast to New York, the Pet Shop Boys cough up their own thought on London life. The chorus kicks in with “In a western town, a dead end world”, where “no-one knows your name”. It seems like a great existence in two of the supposed richest cities in the first world. It’s a critique of the concept of the individualism, “If, when, why, what, how much have you got?” and Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’, with “We’ve got no future, we’ve got no past”, which are both key influences of the ideological infliction of capitalisms most extreme model: neoliberalism.
In an interview, Chris said that it was about the mixing of the classes during their time off work, for example a group of likely lads stumbling into a wine bar, it's about the rough getting some posh. In the past it was rare for different classes to mix - there were clear distinctions between residential areas. When the class system became more blurred and the middle class grew, alongside intensive gentrification, more and more people found themselves in an unfamiliar environment, mixing it up with other classes. This caused many people to develop new psychological states, such as "existential anxiety" and "urban neurosis". It's a song that is deeply entrenched in class politics, which would naturally fit in with an anti-capitalist narrative.
Furthermore, the video to the song has clips from an anti-apartheid vigil, which was still a controversial issue at the time. In the endless pursuit of profit at the expense of human exploitation, South Africa during the apartheid era was one of the worst case modern examples of openly racist state policies. Even now, with supposed equal human rights, there is still a huge class divide between white and black in South Africa.
Left to my own devices (1988)
This is clearly an autobiographical account of Neil's experiences whilst growing up. The inner rebel is revealed when he sings about his ambition to be "Che Guevara and Debussi to a disco beat". Ironically enough, Neil worked for the teenage pop music magazine 'Smash Hits' before giving it all up to focus on the Pet Shop Boys full time. Perhaps that retrospective wisdom is confounded in the line "if you pass the test, you can beat the rest, I didn't want to compete or talk street street street". With most organisations now, following a scientific capitalist mode of production with a market based on competition, perhaps the best environment where one can still be openly creative, conscientious and critical, is the arts.
Go West (1993)
This was released a few years after the collapse of Soviet communism, and the imagery used in the video makes plenty of artistic references to this period. On the flip side, images of the West provide a stark contrast. The musical arrangements of the song even have thematic elements from the national anthem of the Soviet Union. Perhaps that was the reason why the song was so popular in Russia, invoking popular nationalism to go west. Unfortunately many Russians were duped during the hope of the post-Soviet era, which promised that change would be gradual and it would lead to people being better off. What ended up happening was the poor getting poorer and the arrival of a filthy rich oligarch class. Think about all those billions of roubles belonging to the Russian taxpayers, embezzled and spent on stupid projects such as lining the pockets of footballers at Chelsea - surely this was the greatest working class rip-off?
With it being a Village People cover, it’s likely to be more about a promised land, a gay utopia that isn’t achievable in a system that so heavily favors heterosexual relationships and families. In the past, being gay was demonised. They were an exploited class that didn't fit it with the ideal capitalist family unit. Of course things are very different now, those vultures working in media and consumer industries have found a way to make profit from gay identities and lifestyles.
Love etc. (2009)
It’s about greed and wanting more “you need more, you need more, you need more”, it’s a simple message, wealth does not put you in any better position to find true love. This relates to the issue of surplus value absorption: if capital can not be invested to make a further surplus, then the capital moves on to another place where it can. If we relate it back to the song, then if love cannot be reinvested to deepen it, then it becomes surplus to requirement and will find elsewhere to invest. Perhaps true love can never exist living under capitalist relations of production, because our souls are nurtured to always want more.
Kings Cross (1987)
There is a spine chilling lyric at the start of the song: “the man at the back of the queue was sent, to feel the smack of firm government” and the chorus ends with “Wake up in the morning and there’s still no guarantee”. I guess this relates to unemployment and it being an inevitable aspect of capitalism, as without it employers aren’t able to drive down wages in order to keep competition for jobs. Kings Cross is symbolic of escaping to Londoners. Neil Lowe in an interview stated that, "King's Cross is an actual train station in London that, at least at the time, was crime-ridden and dingy...prostitution, drug addicts, and a lot of tramps come up to you there. I just thought that was a metaphor for Britain - people arriving at this place, waiting for an opportunity that doesn't happen...it's about hopes being dashed...It's an angry song about Thatcherism."
“Stood by the bus stop, with a felt pen, in this suburban hell”. Town planning was a condition of the industrial revolution. It created new urban sprawls full of people hanging around with nothing to do but get in trouble, whereby workers had no fruits of their labour to revel in. The capitalist soon realized that and started to create new forms of leisure and consumption to absorb the little of amount of surplus we create from our own labour, all in an attempt to escape the alienation our labour produces. In this day and age, it is those people that create alternative forms of recreation, devoid of a price and rebellious in nature, which are the ones that find true happiness and freedom.
It doesn’t often snow at Christmas (1997)
This is a rare outing of a song from a fan club single. It’s about the commercialisation of Christmas and how the original meaning of love and family has been lost. This relates to commodity fetishism and creating false desires. “Now it’s all about shopping, and how much things cost”, leads the bridge to the chorus. Anyone with a large family Christmas list will understand.
The video is about an older rich woman supporting a younger poor man, which relates to dependency theory, the 99% being dependent on the 1% for money, and the 1% being dependent on the 99% for an escape. Rent itself as a tool for exploitation and capital accumulation. Perhaps in the later periods of the capitalist epoch, A new form of love based on economic dependency has emerged, and this permeates through the themes of the song.
Opportunites (Let’s Make Lots of Money) (1985)
It’s about the neo-liberal opening of the London Stock Exchange. “Ask yourself this question: Do you want to be rich?” and “If you’ve got the inclination, I have got the crime” – and that’s what the event was, a legalization of previously criminal activity. In a way it’s a satire of Thatcherism and its embodiment of Yuppie culture. According to Neil Lowe, “It’s actually a joke that the two people in the song won’t actually make any money – it represents the façade of capitalism that anyone can make it big”. Classic PBS Irony.
“We check it with the city then change the law”, “It's easy when you got all the information, Inside help, no investigation, no questions in the house, no give and take, there's a big bang in the city, we're all on the make”, “I heard it in the house of commons, everything’s for sale”. In the 1980s, shopping moved from being a necessity to a leisure activity to absorb capital surplus back into the capitalist class. Christ Tennant actually said that the song is about the government selling off national industries, which they were personally against. In the great neoliberal public sector grab, everything was for sale.
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