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The Star Online: Entertainment: Music

Pet Shop Boys: Simply electric


Pet Shop Boys continue to synthesize time and style with its new music.

Even by the outre standards of the 1980s – when music was full of smooth criminals and material girls – the Pet Shop Boys stood out. Two fashion-conscious English guys with the crisp enunciation of schoolteachers, the pioneering duo made electronic synth-pop that looked to the future just as it drew on the old-fashioned storytelling of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.

But nearly 30 years after it broke out with the worldwide smash West End Girls, the group might be more singular now than it was back then: It's the exceedingly rare veteran act that's gone about its business – and held onto much of its fan base – without coming across as desperate or uninspired.

Neil Tennant, the band's singer, has an idea why. "What the Pet Shop Boys have never done – except maybe accidentally in the mid 1980s – is sell sex," he said recently.

"When you sell sex you get much bigger sales and controversy, and everybody knows what you're about, because ultimately the culture's about sex. And shopping. And violence."

He chuckled. "We've done shopping and violence. But when you sell sex and you get older, that's when people will say the desperation sets in."

It's a persuasive idea, especially given the degree to which Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe have appeared determined in recent years to maintain their place in a fast-moving music scene.

For 2009's Yes, the group allied with Xenomania, the British songwriting-and-production team behind a number of young British pop acts. In 2012, it hired Andrew Dawson to produce Elysium based solely on the fact that Dawson had collaborated with Kanye West. 

And to oversee this year's Electric, the Pet Shop Boys recruited Stuart Price, known for his work under the name Jacques Lu Cont and on records by Madonna and the Killers.

"Maybe the desperation is just lingering beneath the surface," Lowe said with a laugh.

In fact, the group's recent material reflects what Price called the Pet Shop Boys' "completely uncompromising" nature.

Though Electric pounds with the high-energy club beats now ubiquitous on Top 40 radio, the album examines matters of art and politics and celebrity with characteristic depth and humour, as in the wry Fluorescent ("I can't deny you've made your mark," Tennant sings, "with the helicopters and the occasional oligarch") and Love Is A Bourgeois Construct, which lives up handily to its title.

There's even a stirring electro-disco rendition of Bruce Springsteen's The Last to Die that finds an unexpected intimacy in the Boss' anti-war grandstanding.

"Neil and Chris are so focused on their quality threshold, which is why they haven't lost it," said Price, who described Tennant, 59, as "a real lyric Nazi" and said Lowe, 54, "is equally brilliant at understanding high culture and trash culture."

Arriving at the studio for work, the producer added, "they'd be as present as two 17-year-olds walking in to do their first song."

If the Pet Shop Boys still summon some of that early-days energy, perhaps it's because they view their new music – even the score they composed for a 2011 ballet – as part of the same project as West End Girls, which kicked off a string of indelible hit singles that also includes It's A Sin, Suburbia, What Have I Done To Deserve This? and the band's cover of Go West by the Village People.

"We set out to create our own universe that we could invite people into," said Tennant, sitting with Lowe in a conference room at Santa Monica's KCRW-FM. The duo had just performed on the radio station's Morning Becomes Eclectic program and was due to depart soon for a show in Las Vegas. "It's all a giant work of art that keeps expanding."

But that doesn't mean the group's music continues to occupy the same space in an outside universe that's grown only raunchier.

A wilfully slow-moving meditation on aging that Tennant and Lowe recorded in Los Angeles, Elysium drew largely lukewarm reviews last year (though that didn't prevent them from doing the beautiful Invisible on KCRW). Even at home in Britain, the album peaked at No. 9 – considerably lower than Yes or Fundamental in 2006.

Electric, which came out in July, has been received more enthusiastically, perhaps in part because it taps into the hard-driving sound of current electronic dance music, known as EDM. Tennant acknowledges the overlap – one watchword during the album's creation was "banging."

"Often when we've come to America, people go, 'This is a great time for you guys!' And we go, 'Oh, great'," he said. 

"We just do what we do, and sometimes something comes along, like EDM, and it seems we're in the groove. Other times we're working totally against it." 

He laughed. 

"Besides, any minute now people are going to hate EDM." – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dressed to thrill


From the get go, Lady Gaga has set herself apart from the slew of female artistes with her penchant for outrageous outfits. 

Designed and made by Lady Gaga and her team at Haus Of Gaga, the singer has presented us with mind-boggling dresses, outlandish headgears and death-defying shoes. We take a look a the evolution of Lady Gaga.


2009: Disco Diva


2010: More than 'meats' the eye


2011: Star light, star bright


2012: Unicorn madness


2013: Ethereal goddess

Related story:
A round of Applause

A round of Applause for Lady Gaga


Sticks and stones may break her bones, but cruel words from naysayers will never hurt Lady Gaga.

Back in 2008, when Lady Gaga mania began, it often felt like you couldn't avoid her. There were the hit records, of course – Poker Face, Telephone and Bad Romance to name just three.

But in the space of a few years there were also the meat dresses, the Grammy performances in giant eggs and an almost regular stream of controversy.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the popstar, born Stefani Germanotta, was constantly thrusting herself into the public eye – but the reality, she says, was quite different.

"I hid in my house," she explains matter-of-factly when I met her before the opening night of the iTunes festival at the Roundhouse in north London.

"I hid a lot ... to preserve my image as a superstar to my fans. I don't mean I am a superstar, I mean that they only ever see me at my best. And it really drove me crazy. So I've really had to make more of an effort to go out more. I mean, can you imagine what it's like not to feel real wind? Honestly, I hadn't felt real wind for years!"

Gaga prides herself on putting her fans first, and in this instance it seems she didn't want her fans to ever see her as a normal human being.

"I would be indoors all day and then I'd get in a car in a garage and then drive to another garage and get out and rehearse and then do it again, from country to country, and never walk outside. I remember some of the longest walks I had were from the car to the aeroplane on the tarmac."

Perhaps aware of her Marmite appeal, today Gaga is immediately on the charm offensive, giving me a kiss on arrival and complementing me on my shoes (at one point she bends down to stroke the material).

Her PR and manager, both lurking near the door, are instructed to sit down and "stay quiet". Shuffled back on an armchair so that her giant heels swing off the ground, she has the mannerisms of a well-behaved toddler.

But there's also an ever-present strain of determination that underlines everything she says. You sense she's aware that while 2011's Born This Way album sold six million copies worldwide, many saw it as the end of her imperial phase, with the album's last single Marry The Night becoming her first to miss the US top 10.

With only one single released so far – the 1980s electropop of Applause – there's a palpable feeling that the Artpop campaign is already stalling, with the single yet to reach the top three in either the US or Britain. 

Gaga recently tweeted a Michael Jackson quote that read: "The bigger the star, the bigger the target". Does she feel persecuted? "Yeah, for sure I do," she replies without hesitation, her skintight jumpsuit parping with her every movement.

"Yes! I certainly feel that at this time it's almost as if people are surprised they haven't already destroyed me."

She puts a straw to her mouth and takes a dramatic slurp. "It gives them a sense of pleasure when they believe that they've destroyed me or taken me down. It's almost entertainment for people to poke fun at Lady Gaga, but at the very same time they have no idea the album I've made.

"They have no idea what I put into this, they have no idea the work that I've put behind my performances and what I do. In fact, people have no idea what it really took for me to get here. So it doesn't bother me, it's just an interesting observation of where we are as a society."

Before being asked about it, she brings up the success or otherwise of Applause: "It's literally not even been two weeks since my first single came out and it's all, 'She's over', or because I'm not No. 1 yet, 'She's finished'.

"People focus less on the music and focus more on how the music's doing; how it's faring from a numbers perspective, from a financial perspective. If you think I give a damn about money then you don't know me as an artiste at all."

She adds: "I think that once you've had a few No. 1s in your career that you've kind of proven yourself and I don't feel the need to prove anything anymore."

For some, Applause's failure to connect in the way her previous singles have done is down to the fact that it appears to be solely about Gaga and for Gaga.

Written after she had to cancel her Born This Way Ball Tour at the beginning of the year, the result of a severe hip injury that required an operation and left her in a wheelchair, the song is about the need she has as a pop star to experience adulation from a crowd.

Gaga says she would have tried to keep the hip operation a secret – to shield her fans once more – if she had managed to make it to the end of her tour, but it wasn't possible.

"I was wheelchair-bound two weeks before that even happened," she says. "That I did hide from them because I didn't want to stop the show. I know everyone was thinking I was trying to be a bit silly with my gold wheelchair but I was really trying to keep a bit of strength for my fans because it really upset them and scared them."

Gaga disputes the idea that Applause is a song for herself. Rather, she says, it is as universal as any love song.

"It's so interesting for people to say that the lyrics are all about me the performer," she says, somewhat disingenuously.

"I want you to feel that way about yourself, that's why I wrote the song. I want you to wake up in the morning and say: 'I live for your applause, look at me today, I'm having a great day, I'm going to work and I'm going to have a fantastic lunch with my friends.'

"But it's not to be taken quite as seriously and as literally as people make it to be, which is why in the verses I'm sort of making fun of what people think about fame."

Gaga concedes that it can be "uncomfortable" to fall in love with a pop star that has more to her under the surface.

"Suddenly the pop star takes off her sheep's clothing and you see the kind of dingy, underground, metal-loving girl from New York who wants to talk about equal rights and go on and on and on about loving yourself. I made a choice to show people that," she says.

"I made a choice to do that because I wanted them to know that for the rest of my career, underneath every outfit that I have on, that girl is always underneath. With Artpop I'm veering in a new direction in terms of my messaging, but Born This Way was all about that particular message."

Did she anticipate that this would lose her fans?

"I was comfortable with just speaking to the ones that really needed to hear the message and confident that I had enough great songs on the album that the general public would latch on to," she says.

"People can say whatever they want about whether or not I enforced change [in her fans' lives] or if it's all fake, but the truth of it is I travelled the entire length of the world with the tour."

We talk briefly about the recent MTV VMA awards, which she opened with a dazzling, Botticelli-influenced performance of Applause. Even that, however, was overshadowed by Miley Cyrus and her semi-naked grinding of Robin Thicke's groin area.

"For me, my performance was not about taking clothes off, if that makes sense. I wanted it to be strong and beautiful and powerful and full of confidence. It doesn't bother me, though, that there was a lot of attention paid to any other performances, it's not a competition.

"I do what I do and they do what they do. Isn't it nice that it all happened and that it's all been recorded and we can watch it all – it's not like the good things stay and everything else gets erased."

It's rare for a pop star of Lady Gaga's stature to acknowledge failure and she seems, on the surface at least, happy to concede that some of the novelty of what she does has worn off slightly. In fact, she is open about the fact that things needed to change following Born This Way.

"For Artpop, I, in the most metaphorical explanation, stood in front of a mirror and I took off the wig and I took off the makeup and I unzipped the outfit and I put a black cap on my head and I covered my body in a black catsuit and I looked in the mirror and I said: 'OK, now you need to show them you can be brilliant without that.'

"And that's what Artpop is all about. Because I knew that if I wanted to grow, if I really wanted to innovate from the inside, I had to do something that was almost impossible for me." – Guardian News & Media

Related story:
Dressed to thrill

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