We Are Still the Pet Shop Boys

By Geoffrey Stueven

A large fluorescent square hung with the image of a brain projected in the center. Two men in white enter and stand, arms crossed, while strains of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score played. The curtain is pulled aside, revealing giant outlines of two men, one in a baseball cap, the other in a top hat. Men emerge in pairs, and the last pair gets the biggest cheer: they are Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant.

For the past 20 years, they have been the Pet Shop Boys, and, as Tennant made it clear Saturday night at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, they are “still the Pet Shop Boys.” Lowe is the duo’s sound-sculptor extraordinaire, while Tennant is its voice, a class-conscious, witty, slyly subversive pop songwriter, Oscar Wilde re-imagined for the clubs. To paraphrase their song “Opportunities,” he’s the “brains” to Lowe’s “brawn,” or what might be better termed “presence.”

Last weekend’s show (and it was quite a show) at the Orpheum was more the New Pet Shop Revue than the Pet Shop Boys, and for that, it was great. Lowe stood at a keyboard stage right, and it was unclear whether he was in any way responsible for the music being heard. But that’s beside the point. In his trademark sunglasses, he was there merely to assert his authorial control over some of the greatest electronic melodies and textures in modern pop music. Tennant is also quite a rigid performer, moving fairly little for all the aural and visual excitement coming from the stage. This time he’s the brains to the sheer physicality of his own stage production, controlling the proceedings with his choir-boy voice and a grin.

The show was, at the very least, a major technical achievement. The square turned out to be a cube, which in turn separated into three large squares that took many configurations throughout the show, all very geometrically pleasing, and embellished with all sorts of aesthetically complementary projections. Singers and dancers dotted the stage, striking awkward poses and wearing flamboyant costumes. “Dreaming of the Queen” was set to footage of Princess Diana’s funeral procession, while the mise en scène for “It’s a Sin” suggested a city’s nightlife underneath a stormy and electric sky, perfectly suited to the song’s theme of persecution.

Meanwhile, the deep bass and the wall of crushing manufactured beats were like a metaphor for some pulsating subtext I couldn’t quite figure out. The gay metropolitan and suburban couples in the audience seemed to love it. But to go to a show like this and expect emotional or nostalgic fulfillment is asking too much. Tennant promised “an evening of electronic music,” and excluding a rare moment of acoustic guitar in “Home and Dry,” that’s exactly what they gave. Despite an insurmountable barrier between entertainer and entertained, to call the show they put on disingenuous is missing the point.

These songs are to be experienced for a different reason entirely, whether it’s the uplift of “Go West,” the gay rebelliousness of “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show,” or the political overtones that emerge from a seemingly innocuous pop song, such as “I’m With Stupid,” which attacks Tony Blair’s role as George W. Bush’s apologist. Or there’s that great line from “Can You Forgive Her”: “She made you some kind of laughing stock / Because you dance to disco and you don’t like rock,” reminding the audience that they’re not in the realm of a rock ‘n’ roll concert, but at a show that is simultaneously very pleasurable and a reinforcement of their right to take pleasure in something so flamboyant.