Inside a dream

Imagine if someone decided that it would be a good idea to create a whole event dedicated to your favourite musical act of all time. Imagine if it focused on aesthetics and graphic design, gay politics, journalism, music composition, branding, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and enduring pop perfection – amongst many other things. How perfect would that be for me? It would be like living inside a dream.

Last week I attended Pet Shop Boys Symposium at The University of Edinburgh’s School of Art. For two days, I sat there, taking in every word, making notes, enthralled to discover that I wasn’t alone. It was quite a revelation to discover that other people really have thought about this subject similarly to me. I was reminded of that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where a group of disparate strangers congregate in that one isolated place, compelled by some strange shared invisible force, not really knowing exactly why or what to expect.

A good friend asked me “What is it about Pet Shop Boys that makes them any more worthy of this degree of scrutiny over other ‘eighties’ pop groups?” My haughty response was something like “We’re not talking about Five Star or Bros here! This is Pet Shop Boys, there’s so much that makes them worthy.” Without being able to elaborate on the complexities at that point, I realise how fatuous and biased my response probably sounded. I felt a sense of vindication however, upon seeing the comprehensive list of subjects that were covered. Over the two days, a wide range of fascinating and occasionally esoteric subjects were presented by many esteemed academics from all over the world:

  • A very queer construct: Pet Shop Boys in retrospect.
  • Between revivalism and survivalism: Pet Shop Boys, ‘New York City Boy’, disco pastiche and the haunting of AIDS.
  • ‘One More Chance’ and Hi-NRG: Gay Music, Essentially?
  • Gay and queer perspectives. This must be the place/space: Pet Shop Boys’ cultural capital and the memorialisation of gay cultures.
  • Latin American Party: Pet Shop Boys and the queerness of Latin freestyle.
  • Soviet fidelity and the Pet Shop Boys.
  • Love and the state: revolution as metaphor for love.
  • It couldn’t happen here: vapid vanity vehicle or overlooked British cult movie classic?
  • ‘The nicest eyelashes in the history of pop music?’ Pet Shop Boys, the representation of pop, and the discourse of girls’ magazines of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
  • Finding Dusty: Pet Shop Boys and the disco divas.
  •  Q&A with Professor Scott King.
  • Songs: cover versions and narrative form.
  • Rhetorical and performative strategies in Pet Shop Boys’ cover versions.
  • Social commentary as storyworld specification in the music of Pet Shop Boys.
  • Escapism, utopia and modernism.
  • Technology, abstraction and escapism in the music and videos of Pet Shop Boys, 1993-1994.
  • Pet Shop Boys, pop and modernism.
  • Sodom and Gomorrah, and other utopias lost.
  • Reluctance, hesitation and frustration.
  • Musical desire and frustration in two early songs by the Pet Shop Boys.

As a graphic designer, studying, and then working from the mid-1980s, HIV/AIDS public health campaigns comprise an important part of my formative design portfolio. More latterly, writing about design and pop, and taking an interest in human rights and gay politics means that the above subjects were music to my ears and Pet Shop Boys have provided a consistent soundtrack and aesthetic to my entire adult life.

I want to thank Dr Glyn Davis and Dr Jonny Murray from The University of Edinburgh for organising this event. Thanks also to all the speakers who made it so interesting and educational. Finally, big thanks have to go to the design students at the School of Art for the beautiful graphic design and badges that are now proudly on display in my design studio.

Snapshots of the two days are online so you can get a flavour the event at these two YouTube links: Day One and Day Two

Who said It couldn’t happen here? It did, and it was Super. There is talk of an academic publication to further explore some of the subjects covered at the symposium which I have been approached to contribute to. Follow me on Twitter @disheedee if you’re interested, as that’s where I’ll be sharing information upon completion.

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