Call for Papers — A Cloud in a Box: History, Politics, and the Pet Shop Boys

“Politicians are a bit pathetic. There’s no two ways about that.” 

— Neil Tennant

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN the Pet Shop Boys and the political has always been one of contention. In their four decades (and counting) of pop music, the duo—Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe—have amassed a large discography, not to mention film scores, movie productions, and their own stage shows. In the process, they have often thrown a critical light on what they see as the great hypocrisies of music and stardom. ‘I don’t really like the idea of people projecting themselves as being important humanitarian figures, which is the tendency for rock personalities nowadays’, Tennant once told journalists, in reference to Bono and U2—a reference further explored in the song How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously? on the 1990 album Behaviour. In an interview with Reuters, Tennant elaborated: ‘I don’t want to talk about it. We are musicians, not politicians.’

That being said, there is no doubt that the Pet Shop Boys have shaped their music, their careers, and their very presence through politics, the presentation of memory, and history. Tennant’s background in political history aside, the oeuvre of the group is littered with allusions to historical figures, events, and circumstances, from King Zog of Albania and T.E. Lawrence to Che Guevara, from the October Revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its consequences, from the Special Relationship to Brexit and the ubiquitously stricter migration controls that have become de jure in the Global West in the last two decades. In 2005, the Pet Shop Boys also recorded a modern score for the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein classic film Battleship Potemkin—a choice not without its own historical and political implications. Thus, in spite of his claim to be a musician, not a politician, Tennant could also, rightly but incompletely, claim that ‘[o]f course I’m very interested in politics […] and I’ve always been interested in British political history, Gladstone and all that.’

Coupled with this, the output of the group extends well beyond mentions, and deep into what might be considered political commentary of both the past and present. In songs such as My October Symphony (1990) and London (2002), Tennant and Lowe meditate on the meaning for both the imagined identity and the material wellbeing of people from behind the Iron Curtain, being thrust into a post-Cold War world. Dreamland (2019) acts both as a love song to Tennant’s adopted hometown of Berlin and a lament as to the Weltfremdheit of his native Britain in the aftermath of Brexit. Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) (1986), as well as Shopping and Rent (1987) and The Theatre (1993), stand as criticism of the relentless march of capitalism, consumerism, and privatisation. Beyond these, a number of songs (beginning with It Couldn’t Happen Here in 1987, and continuing with Being Boring in 1990 and Dreaming of the Queen in 1993) directly engage with the HIV/AIDS crisis. These messages within the body of work are complemented by the very existence of the two men, as out and recognisable gay musicians. Queer themes throughout the Pet Shop Boys’ discography are both explicit and, by their nature, political positions and statements, as are Tennant’s more recent public positions concerning, among other issues, state-sanctioned homophobia and queer repression by the Putin regime in Russia. 

This call for papers requests chapter proposals for an edited collection, which will focus on the relationship between the Pet Shop Boys—as performers, musicians, film score composers and film-makers, and personalities—and politics, broadly defined. The topics to be covered include, but are not limited to:

  • Tennant and Lowe’s relationship with activism; 
  • The role of Soviet/post-Soviet imagery and motifs within the Pet Shop Boys’ work; 
  • Criticisms of capitalism/nationalism/ideologies;
  • Continuities and tensions between the presentations of the work and the performers; 
  • Visual elements, fashion, techno-futurism, science (fiction), and the Pet Shop Boys;
  • Religion;
  • Critical comparative analyses of specific songs with reference to a theme (i.e. It Couldn’t Happen Here/Being Boring/Dreaming of the Queen viz. AIDS; I’m With Stupid and Give Stupidity a Chance as criticism of American politics);
  • Optimism and pessimism in the presentation of politics; 
  • Visual art outputs (i.e. films, musicals);
  • Critical engagement with race; 
  • Queer politics and history; 
  • Identity politics and the representation of sex, gender, and/or sexuality; 
  • Performance tours and their political implications; 
  • Relationships with other performers (e.g. David Bowie, Elton John);
  • History as a cultural device within the Pet Shop Boys’ discography. 

Each proposal should include the following information:

  • A proposed title;
  • An abstract of between 200-300 words, summarising the focus of your proposed chapter and, where possible, the conclusions it will draw; and
  • Your name, academic affiliation (where applicable) and an email address where you may be contacted.

Once these have been assessed and selected, and the authors informed and given the opportunity to accept or decline, the editor(s) will approach academic publishers to determine where the collection will be published. It is initially the intention to approach Bloomsbury Academic. It is also anticipated that final versions of accepted chapters will be collated at the approximate end of 2021 to be submitted to the publisher in Summer 2022, though this is a rough guide and is subject to change. All selected authors will receive a style guide to follow for their chapter, and should plan for an approximate length of 6,000 words.

Abstracts are due by 23.59 CEST on Friday, 19 February 2021, and can be emailed directly to Dr. Bodie A. Ashton at 

Back from the brink…

So it has been a very (very, very) long time since I’ve updated my site, which should most definitely change as of now. There is plenty to talk about and…honestly, lots of time, but let’s pretend there isn’t in fact all that much.

What’s been going on? First of all, I have a book out! It’s an edited collection, which I coedited along with Amy Bonsall and Jonathan Hay, called Talking Bodies, vol. II: Bodily Languages, Selfhood and Transgressions (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). An interdisciplinary volume, it encompasses law, medicine, literature, theatre, and more, in order to address and engage with the broad theme of ‘the body’. What are we? Are we a body, or do we inhabit a body? In either case, is the body the self or only a vessel? What meaning do we ascribe our bodies, and what meanings are inscribed upon them in the readings of others? Does this matter? (The short answer is yes. The long answer…is to be found in the book, which is available now from Palgrave Macmillan.)

A few of months ago, before covid-19 wrapped us up in tremendous uncertainties, I also turned my attention to the Australian bushfire crisis. Specifically, I wrote an explainer on Twitter as to the disaster unfolding in my country of origin, and what the federal government was and wasn’t doing about it. Surprising everyone (especially me!), this thread went vital, being retweeted by literally hundreds of thousands of people, including the author Neil Gaiman, the American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and (be still my beating, Star Trek-loving heart!) Brent Spiner (i.e. Commander Data). This led to a few other opportunities to engage in the public sphere with what the catastrophe tells us about statecraft and the responsibilities of government. I was interviewed on BBC Radio 5live; I wrote an opinion piece in The Independent; my work was translated into German and French. Above all, what I think this experience demonstrates is that expertise does have a role to play in public discourse (whatever the discussion of ‘people are sick of experts’ might suggest!) I am no expert on bushfires but, as a historian, I do have a skillset that involves thinking critically, taking disparate sources, synthesising them, and communicating them effectively. In these times more than ever, it is vital that we do not shut ourselves away in the ‘ivory towers’.

Which leads me to covid-19. I have to admit, I was taken by surprise by this. At a certain point I was one of the people who was convinced it’d all blow over, and that it was probably not much more than a particularly bad flu. Time proved me very wrong, and the ever-present fear of this pandemic, coupled with the protective measures in place, have left us all off-balance and fearful, not only for the present, but for the future. I’m still teaching but, like most of my colleagues, that teaching has moved online, presenting us further challenges in unprecedented conditions. Here, I simply want to make the point that our students must come first and that, whatever our circumstances, we should adapt as much as possible to what they need. Unfortunately, the pandemic shows us that, for many branches of academia, online learning is not a substitute for in-person classes, but there are still ways and means to present our work effectively and to encourage student engagement.

But I must admit: I cannot wait for face-to-face teaching again. Or conferences. Or coffee-shop chats with colleagues and friends. Or just coffee shops, really.

Stay safe and healthy everyone. Be well.

Say it with Pride

A little over a week ago, 34 UK-based academics signed an open letter, printed in the Sunday Times, in which they argued (among other things) that respecting the identities of trans and gender-diverse students and colleagues, including their pronouns and names, constituted an intolerable restriction on “free speech” and “academic freedom.”

This is not the sort of claim that can be left standing, for two reasons. Firstly, this constitutes nothing short of an attack on trans and gender-diverse people’s rights to be included, and to be able to live and work in a safe and welcoming environment in higher education. Secondly, the authors of this letter seem to have taken it upon themselves to speak for what they assume is a ‘silent majority’ of academics, wanting to be critical of transgender identities but too afraid to speak up. This is nonsense.

In response, I had the honour of working on an open letter in response, which turned into a manifesto of inclusiveness for LGBTQIA+ colleagues across all levels of academia. Our manifesto was then picked up by The Independent. We opened it up to be signed by higher education professionals from all over the world and at any level, as long as they have or had been employed in a capacity by a university. This is because higher education is about much more than one or two professors, and these issues are global. Human rights are universal.

At the time that The Independent printed it, our letter had been signed more than 4,000 times. At the time that I am writing this entry, it has been signed by 6,587 people. To put this in perspective: for every one person who argued that trans rights impinge on their freedom of speech, 194 of their peers disagree.

The Independent very generously gave space to the first 1,000 signatories. But it didn’t stop there. It also commissioned us to write a piece on why this is important. I am proud to share the byline on this article. There is one major point that I want to stress, to quote from the article itself:

Trans, gender-diverse, and other queer people are not problems to be theorised and hypothesised. They are living, breathing human beings. And if we are to defend academic freedom, then it is their freedom – to live and work and research and teach and learn safely in our universities, without fear of being marginalised or denied – that must be respected, treasured, and protected.

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to work on this campaign, and I would like to express my deepest thanks to my dear colleagues Dr. Caroline Dodds Pennock, Dr. Andy Kesson, Dr. Matthew M. Mesley,  Dr. Sara Barker, Dr. Amy Fuller, and Dr. Matt Lodder, not to mention more than 6,500 more spread around the globe, for taking this stand. It is incumbent on all of us to make academia and the university the safe place that, for far too many of our colleagues, it is at present not. Diversity is our strength. Academia is open, and existence is non-negotiable.

New: Frederick the Great and Prussian Masculinity

Once upon a time, I began work on Frederick the Great. I wasn’t quite sure where it would lead me, but Frederick has always fascinated me. Christopher Clark has previously noted that the first three kings in/of Prussia — Frederick I, Frederick William I, and Frederick II (the Great) — offer us a curious historical puzzle: if we look at their reigns as parts of an overarching political programme, then they were astonishingly coherent, but personally they despised and rejected one another’s positions. The Hohenzollerns (certainly at the beginning of Prussia’s ascendency to kingdom) were dysfunctionally functional, in other words.

Of all of them, Frederick II has been a puzzle, owing largely to the fact that he was a clear deviation from the pattern initiated by his father. He was sensitive, poetic, musical, and not at all miserly. If we take Frederick William as the exemplar of Prussian masculinity, then Frederick would appear to have been the antithesis — and, in an era when masculinity was perceived to be the highest virtue, this would appear to be a black mark against Frederick’s name. Yet not all is as it seems, and historians and public commentators alike have consistently read their own contextual anxieties of gender relations into the past. The result is that we tend to misrepresent Frederick as being somehow “unmasculine”, which then begs any number of questions.

So I started work on that a while ago. I presented my work at conferences and it was always received well. Finding a place to publish it, however, took longer. But today I can happily declare that I have the honour to have contributed to the relaunch of the Australian National University Historical Journal. The first issue of the relaunched journal is available free to read online. So, please: go and read about Frederick. And stay for the other outstanding scholarship offered by my friends and colleagues.