Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published June 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

If you take it at face value, the whole Synthpop Duo thing (Erasure, Communards, Soft Cell, et al.) appears to be just another rock 'n' roll sub-sub-microgenre among umpty-hundreds. It might seem a particularly florid one -- and sometimes an exceedingly badly-dressed one -- but since most of its products sound pretty much like dance-pop tunes, it's easy to assume that its strand is woven as tightly into the larger rock tradition as that of any other kind of modern pop music. Japan, for example, seems like just as much of a rock band (in absolute terms) as, say, the Cure or Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Pet Shop Boys seem like just as much a rock-disco outfit as Prince and the Revolution, or the Bee Gees.

But that's not the case. In fact, genealogically speaking, there are only two other rock-based forms that are even related to the Synthpop Duo strain: That of the Gay Balladeer (Marc Almond, Jimmy Somerville, maybe Joel Grey, sometimes Morrissey, etc.), and that of the Mob of Singing Flamers (the Village People, perhaps the English Beat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood ...). One common factor among them is, of course, the bad clothes -- but it's the other obvious one that concerns us at present.

You see, the Synthpop Duo (again, let's be thinking Erasure) is really, structurally speaking, an outgrowth of cabaret music. It's a pre-rock form that appears in the most up-to-date trappings while remaining fundamentally untouched by the changing styles around it. With Erasure or any other really good example of the genre (i.e.: not Tears For Fears), just like with pure, boas-and-eyeliner cabaret, any sort of hoop-de-doo is fair game as long as there are some style points to be garnered from it. Musical considerations are -- to drop a grad-schoolism into the sentence -- epiphenomenal. It's in the aesthetic underneath that the real meat of the music can be found.

We're talking showmanship here. Theater-brat stuff. If it's true that Erasure's Andy Bell is one of the most emotionally absent frontmen in pop music history, it's also true that his delivery is so well nuanced that no one ever need notice that he's counting his royalties even as the tape rolls. Through its sheer, perfect transparency, his craft allows us a view into his soul that would only be ruined were he to muddy it up with mere emotion, mere "feeling." His is a realm of pure, unalloyed attention-basking -- of limelight-hogging for its own sake. He's a star, and so good at it that he refuses to show off or rub it in our faces. If the radio standards "A Little Respect" and "Chains Of Love" marked Erasure's songwriting peak, "Rain" and "Worlds On Fire" could mark their stylistic peak: Hooky, sugar-coated and almost totally affectless, they're irresistibly great Erasure songs -- without really being great songs at all.

Praise (or blame) Vince Clarke for that. As the synth half of the
duo, he's become so proficient at writing grand little pop hooks
over the years that he could probably toss off half an album
before elevenses, and the rest -- including B-sides -- by the time
the lunch check settles onto the table. "Cowboy" doesn't contain
anything to suggest that he's been stretching his abilities in any
way, but that, again, is part of Erasure's charm. They make every
song seem like an offhand gesture even while continuing, against
the trend, to do things the hard way: Without overdosing on
samples, or on loping, anonymous drum 'n' bass stylings. And the
customary horrible groaner at the end, "Magic Moments," could
be -- to drop a grade-schoolism into the sentence -- their gayest

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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