Pet Shop Boys

🏷 English synth pop duo

Ending the week with top-shelf synth pop. Ecléctico is good for your ears and algorithms, one tune at a time.

"Rent" by Pet Shop Boys

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Wayne Studer: Undoubtedly one of the most controversial songs ever written by the Boys, yet also one of their most frequently covered. Commonly viewed as a narrative by a "rent boy" (British slang for a male prostitute), Neil has directly denied this interpretation, stating that he wrote the lyrics from a female viewpoint. (Indeed, Liza Minnelli later covered this song on her Results album.) Then again, in his essay "Queen Theory: Notes on the Pet Shop Boys" (published in the 2002 critical anthology Rock Over the Edge), British scholar and critic Ian Balfour claims that an early, unreleased version contained such pointed allusions to Elton John's alleged and refuted dealings with rent boys that our heroes felt the need to rewrite the lyrics to avoid legal difficulties. Neil and Chris, however, told Chris Heath (as related in his book Pet Shop Boys, Literally) that they had changed some lyrics specifically to prevent people from thinking the song was about Elton since, in fact, it wasn't. That being said, in an April 2007 interview on the British TV program Hardtalk Extra, Neil conceded that he and Chris quite enjoyed being "provocative" with the title, which, as he put it, "obviously came from the phrase 'rent boy.'" So the ambiguity was consciously "built in" from the very start.

Whatever the case, the lyrics focus on the narrator's mixed feelings about being "kept" by the person with whom s/he is in love. Alternatingly mercenary and tender, the song invites the listener to share these mixed feelings, blurring the moral lines between sexual and financial arrangements. Released as the third single from Actually and a major hit in Britain and elsewhere, "Rent" wasn't even offered as a single in the U.S., probably because the Boys and/or their record company realized how misunderstood it would be.

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