Saturday, February 22, 2020

Not being boring

In a recent feature published to coincide with the release of Pet Shop Boys' new album Hotspot, the Guardian's Alexis Petridis noted "The duo are famously entertaining interviewees". It was a totally redundant statement - that much was abundantly evident from the quotes he included. Whether it was revealing that they regularly go to Berghain in Berlin for pre-Sunday lunch drinks or Neil Tennant describing partner Chris Lowe as "the sort of person who, if he'd been a pop star in the 1970s, would have posted a turd to someone he didn't like", the piece only cemented their status as national treasures.

Perhaps inevitably, the comment that made the sub-editor's eyes light up and was subsequently reported most widely was Tennant's "I think the acoustic guitar should be banned, actually". It came during a dissection of modern pop, with Tennant sniping about "narcissistic misery" and pointing out that "authenticity is a style" just like any other.

On the one hand, a blanket ban on acoustic guitars would be too severe - think about some of the babies who'd be thrown out with the bathwater (some of Neil Young's best songs, Radiohead's 'I Promise') - but on the other, it would at least spare us from being enraged by 2 am festival campfire maulings of 'Wonderwall' and bored to death by Ed Sheeran and his ilk.

The latter thought presumably occurred to Petridis, given that he had only recently contributed an article about pop's "ordinary boys" to the Guardian's The Decade In Music series. While the caveats he issued are important - music fans/journalists of a certain age have a tendency to view the past with rose-tinted specs at the same time as either ignoring or being ignorant of the most exciting current talents and developments - he also had a point in suggesting that bland pop stars (very often men with acoustic guitars) have been one of the last decade's most defining phenomena.

Relatability and proximity to your audience, he argued, have become selling points, largely thanks to TV talent contests like Pop Idol and The X Factor and to the game-changing influence of social media. Ironically, those were the same factors that fuelled punk's popularity - young kids were suddenly able to see that anyone could do it - but in this case they've resulted in sterile, say-nothing, lowest-common-denominator dross that impoverishes pop culture rather than enriching it.

Petridis speculated that, faced with the turbulence of contemporary life, "perhaps what people want from pop culture isn't the thrill of the unknown but reassurance and stability". I'd add a caveat of my own here: not "people", but "most people". Thankfully, some are still happy to be challenged - and thankfully some musicians are still happy to oblige.

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