Friday, November 3, 2017

Classic Music Videos: "West End Girls"

Growing up in rural Nebraska in the 1980s and early 1990s, MTV was absolutely essential. In those pre-internet days, it was my main conduit to the hip world. (That and the magazine rack at the library and Walgreen's were it.) When I was older I would sit enraptured on Sunday night to 120 Minutes, taking notes on songs that I liked and then hoping the albums were available at the local Musicland.

Before that point, MTV still mattered in the ways it presented the pop music I liked on the radio. A great example is the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls." I knew the song, I thought it was super cool (mostly because my older cousin who had good taste liked it), but the video was like a trip into another world. Even though I've been there, when I think of London, I think of this video. At first it doesn't show the London of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace, but the London of boxy modernist buildings, cluttered streets, and turned up collars. Later, when we see some of the monuments they look washed out, faded.

The song itself is about the feeling of disconnection and quiet alienation that one can feel in the city, perfectly embodied by the gorgeous synths and Neil Tennant's wonderfully arch, emotionally detached delivery like Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. In the video he strides in a determined fashion, his long overcoat flowing with Chris Lowe in a tough black leather jacket, quietly half scowling.

At the time I did not know anything about Tennant and Lowe's sexuality, but I definitely put them in the context of other British New Wave/synth acts of the time, who did not project the over the top masculinity of hair metal, the dominant musical genre in my hometown. These men were less testosteronal, and being a nerdy kid who tended to fail to conform to masculine ideals at school, I found that attractive. (It should come as no surprise that the second CD I bought was Depeche Mode's Violator.) I could watch this video and imagine myself in a big city, striding down the street in an overcoat. That's perhaps why when I finish my morning commute by walking up Broadway from 72nd street, I pop this song in my headphones and feel like my life took me in the right direction.

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