Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What Ails You?

Twenty-five years ago, the Pet Shop Boys scored a #1 ranking on the US Billboard chart with West End Girls. This song was a stark contrast to the popular music of the time with its dark, moody synthpop sound and complex lyrics, filled with allusion and shifting narrative voice. Moreover, the message of social class stratification didn't usually make for pop music hits.

Consider this progression, Prince and the Revolution's "Kiss", Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love", Pet Shop Boys "West End Girls", Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All", and Madonna's "Live to Tell." One of these things is not like the others. Four songs, albeit in different styles, speak of personal concerns, from love to pain, but West End Girls provides social commentary.

Additionally, its "meaning" is complex. Because the narrative voice shifts throughout the song, there is no single personalized point. Rather, the song's premise is revealed as a composite view of a "dead end world." The unifying image that pulls the song together is that of implied class conflict, the "East End boys" and "West End girls", and varying grades of exploitation, "a hard or soft option?" At the end, the need for social upheaval is made in the allusion to Lenin and the Russian Revolution, "From Lake Geneva to the Finland station."

Yeah, that's definitely not your standard pop music message!

Anyways, here's a vid of the song:

And here are a few other hit songs from 1986 for context and contrast:

Here's the Pet Shop Boys' Wikipedia page and official website.

Here's Heart's Wikipedia page and official website

And here's Patti LaBelle's Wikipedia page and official website

A list of the 1986 Billboard Hot 100 #1 songs can be found here.


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