I recently stumbled across the song “Suburbia” by The Pet Shop Boys. The song first caught my attention because of its title: Suburbia. It’s a word I’ve been both directly and indirectly discussing and writing about for the past few months, but when I really sat down and thought about it, I don’t think I really even know what suburbia is.
Is suburbia simply a level between the city and the rural? Or is it a way of life?
Is it full of stepford wives and corporate husbands? Or is it a place that blue-collar workers and pregnant teens call home?
Can suburbia house scandal? Or is it a ‘clean cut’ place of safety?
Nonetheless, for me, suburbia has become a place of intrigue.
I looked to the Pet Shop Boys to gather some more answers about suburban nature, as the song “Suburbia” addresses these common assumptions and misconceptions about living in suburbia most specifically in the 1980s.
The Pet Shop Boys, who began their career in the early 1980s, are an English electronic dance (or pop) music duo. Neil Tennant is the main vocalist for the band, who occasionally plays the keyboard and guitar, while Chris Lowe plays the keyboard and occasionally does back-up vocals for the band. The Pet Shop Boys were a highly successful band recording number one songs such as “West End Girls”, “It’s a Sin”, “Heart” and “Always on my Mind” and have sold over 100 million records worldwide. Many have claimed that The Pet Shop Boys are one of the most successful pop music duos in history, and this accreditation can be validated by the recent award they received at the 2009 BRIT Awards, for Outstanding Contribution to Music.
The song “Suburbia” was first released on the album Please in March of 1986 and then rerecorded and released as a single in September of 1986. The words for “Suburbia” where inspired from the melodramatic punk movie that The Pet Shop Boys had watched also titled Suburbia. The film, produced in 1983, was written and directed by Penelope Spheeris. It depicted a group of rebellious punk youths living in violence and squalor in an abandoned suburb of Los Angeles.
In an interview talking about the newly re-mastered single, Tennant said, “I thought it was a great idea to write a song about suburbia and how it's really violent and decaying and a mess.”
Lowe wrote the music for the song, while Tennant wrote the lyrics. The song is highly electro-pop, with an upbeat tune inspired by Madonna’s “Into The Groove.” However, this upbeat pop bassline was complimented by sharply contrasting words such as:
“Break the window by the town hall
Listen, the siren screams
There in the distance, like a roll call
Of all the suburban dreams”
“I only wanted something else to do but hang around”
The bassline is also juxtaposed with sounds of suburban violence, including rioting noises, breaking glass, sirens and barking dogs. Tennant says, “The dogs in the song come totally from the packs of dogs in the film,” and in fact much of the images in the music video for the song were derived from scenes in the movie Suburbia.
In the interview Tennant continued, “It’s a hard lyric, soft tune. That was our idea-to write disco music with un-disco lyrics.”
It’s odd that a song inspired by a punk movie could so effectively translate into such a pop genre tune. It is interesting to think that a song can be about a group of people (punk rioters), who would absolutely hate the song if they ever heard it. I think that’s what makes it such an interesting song, because it asks people to look beyond outward appearances or in this case beyond the bassline tune. It so very clearly represents suburbia and how often times its appearance doesn’t match what goes on in the inside of the cookie cutter homes.
Tennant describes this idea, stating, “It's quite a theme in English art, literature and music, like in Graham Greene or Paul Theroux - that the suburbs are really nasty, that behind lace curtains everyone is an alcoholic or a spanker or a mass murderer.”
And as I have learned after observing Regis Way, this couldn’t be more than true. Often times the suburbs are plagued with scandal, for instance Mrs. Jones infidelity or the alcoholism of The Car Parked Outside.
In this case, the song represents a generation of youth, who although lived in suburbia were bored and desired to rebel and do something more than just ‘hang around’ as the lyric of the song so accurately states.
Tennant also explains that the song was also in part inspired by his recent dealings with the riots in 1981 and 1985 in England, in which the boredom of suburban teens in this area caused a tension between the English youth and authority, provoking violence in previously ritzy areas.
He says, “This was the era of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton. I remember some friends of mine having to drive through the riots in Brixton to visit me in Chelsea, and being scared. Brixton was a prosperous Victorian suburb, and eighty years later it had become this decaying inner city. And there was a feeling that the riots had been started by the police hassling these kids hanging around a bus stop.”
All in all, I have come to discover that the suburbia The Pet Shop Boys describe in their song is one that deeply contrasts from the suburbia I have experienced in Los Angeles. Moreover, I still can’t seem to find an exact meaning or definition that I can apply to the term suburbia.
After critiquing the Pet Shop Boys song “Suburbia” it seems that suburbia is all the things I questioned above. It is a place for stepford wives, corporate husbands, blue-collar workers and pregnant teens. It is a place that houses scandal and provides safety. But even more so it is a place where riots can occur, where boredom ensues, where presidents are born, and where drug addicts live.
Suburbia is all encompassing. It is forever changing and always different based on country, county, state, and/or city.
In the end, what I’m sure of is this: Regis Way is nothing like my suburban home in Arizona, a private community guarded by a gate that houses big homes with little to no front yard, it isn’t anything like Brixton, where riots arise and police roam the streets, and it does not resemble my childhood suburban home in Chicago, where the hilly grass stretches for miles, everyone’s backyard connects, and you never have to lock your door at night. No, Regis Way is not like any of these places.
Regis Way is unique in its own respect.
It is simply the place I call home.
interview source: http://www.petshopboys.net/index.shtml