Cut to 1979, when the Village People appropriated the phrase to write the song "Go West." In the context of this gay disco outfit, the call to go west was not about political domination at all—it was a thinly disguised call to the country's gay men to go west to San Francisco in search of a homosexual utopia by the beach, making the song something of a naughty inside joke. Only a decade into the gay rights movement, some people imagined California as a sort of dream nation for gay people. It was home to the nation's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 (and then murdered by a fellow Supervisor in 1978). Thousands of gay people, especially men, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area during that period in search of an open and accepting community, and the city remains the nation's acknowledged epicenter of LGBT history and culture.
Okay, so that covers Manifest Destiny and gay liberation. But didn't we say something about the Soviet Union? And, also, isn't this about the Pet Shop Boys version from the 1990s, not the Village People's 1970s antics? Yes, and yes.
For a little background, the Pet Shop Boys were one of the biggest British pop groups of the 1980s, scoring their first hit in 1984 with "West End Girls" and becoming a touchstone of dance club music by the late 1980s. The pair, composed of singer Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe, maintained a low profile on the topic of sexuality but an increasingly high profile as pop stars and fashionistas, sporting avant-garde tailored styles and making flashy live appearances. They are also famous for their clever, sardonic lyrics and occasionally biting mockery (in recent years, they've done a song about a male fan spending the night with a rapper modeled after Eminem and a song about the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair called "I'm With Stupid.") By the early 1990s, the ironic little duo had sold millions of records and was famous worldwide.
In 1992, Derek Jarman, a British film director who was diagnosed with HIV and became an outspoken activist for HIV/AIDS victims, asked the Pet Shop Boys to play an AIDS charity event. Tennant and Lowe were seeking a cover song to do at the show, and Chris Lowe picked out the little-known 1979 Village People single "Go West."
"He played it to me and I said, 'this is ghastly,'" says Neil Tennant. "I thought it was ghastly beyond belief. Awful. Anyway, Chris just carried on regardless…Then Chris enticed me into it by pointing out that it was the same chord change as Pachelbel's Canon. And that indeed worked." Thus, despite the lead singer's contempt for the Village People (Tennant also professes a dislike for country music and all of rock n' roll), they went ahead with the cover.
"I thought it would be a good song to play at a Derek Jarman event – a song about an idealistic gay utopia," says Lowe. "I knew that the way Neil would sing it would make it sound hopeless—you've got these inspiring lyrics but it sounds like it is never going to be achieved. And that fitted what had happened. When the Village People sung about a gay utopia it seemed for real, but looking back in hindsight it wasn't the utopia they all thought it would be."
Lowe is referring, of course, to the devastation that the HIV/AIDS crisis wreaked on the huge gay community in San Francisco. By the 1980s, what had seemed to some like a utopian age of free love and possibility had fallen apart with the arrival of a disease that was first called the "gay cancer" by ignorant and fearful news media. People fell sick by the thousands, and the response by the government and health organizations was tragically slow. Although gay men were not the only victims of AIDS, they were initially the hardest hit in the United States. Homophobia contributed to the delayed response by both media and government officials. When Jarman (who himself died of AIDS in 1993) invited the pair to play a charity, the crisis was at a scary point. There was no sign of an effective treatment or cure, and the deaths were only growing in number. The sunny utopia the Village People had once sung of was literally full of sick and dying people; hospital beds in San Francisco were full of dying patients and there seemed to be no end in sight.
As a result of these conditions, the chorus of men singing out "go west" in the Pet Shop Boys' cover is heavy with irony, and it's not a cheerful irony. Nonetheless, after performing the cover for a couple of live shows, they felt they might have a hit song and decided to go ahead and record a single. "Go West" was a huge hit, and MTV agreed to sponsor a music video.
Now, the moment you've been waiting for: the part about the Soviet Union. Take a look at the absolutely bizarre "Go West" music video to get yourself into the swing of things. The computer-generated video features images of the Statue of Liberty and a star-studded New York City skyline. Men in yellow uniforms ride surfboards through the sky, and men in white uniforms with pink triangles on them march in unison up a floating staircase. Red Soviet stars randomly fly through the air, and once or twice there is random footage of Moscow and a few Soviet foot soldiers. There are red skies, blue skies, and lots of computer-generated clones of Tennant and Lowe in blue and yellow space costumes. The whole thing is clearly the product of a producer who was very excited about all the cool new stuff you could do with computers. Other than that, though, the video is hard to make sense of as a whole.
We're not claiming we can explain the whole confounding matter, but one thing is clear: the Pet Shop Boys were playing around with the historical moment. After all, it was 1993. The Soviet Union, the communist superpower and longstanding enemy of the United States, had finally fallen apart into several struggling nation-states in 1991, marking the official end of the Cold War. The idea of the superiority of "the West" (the U.S. and Western Europe) over the totalitarian, backwards "East" was a key mentality used to wage the Cold War, which was largely a war of ideas (rather than weapons—that's why they called it "cold"). America promoted itself as a free country with an open media and the latest and greatest ideas, and bashed the Soviet Union as a totalitarian nightmare where everything good was outlawed.
One of the things that were most certainly outlawed was, of course, MTV. With the disintegration of Soviet Union, the borders opened up to all kinds of U.S.-based corporations, and MTV Russia was inevitable. The Pet Shop Boys already had plans to travel to Moscow to help MTV kick off its Russian presence, and they decided on a whim to film parts of the "Go West" music video in the real East.
"It was just a coincidence," says Tennant, "and we thought, 'Where do you go when you're East? You go West', so we did some filming in Red Square, pointing. But according to this artist we know in Russia, people thought that we had done a song that was based on the Soviet national anthem, and these Hungarian fans wrote to us and said, 'I hear this song and I am frightened,' because they thought it was suggesting that the Russians should invade Eastern Europe again, because they would go West. Maybe that's why the Russians like it."
Tennant might be out on a limb, but his statement hints at an important part of what makes the Pet Shop Boys who they are: the ideas behind the song and the video are playful and open-ended. "Go West" is not a song about Russia invading Hungary any more than it's a song about Western superiority or even a song about AIDS. And it's okay with the Pet Shop Boys if people see it as any, or all, of those things.
We're guessing this might explain why these awkward pop icons were so delighted when several European sports teams adopted the tune to "Go West" as an impromptu anthem at sports matches throughout the 1990s (and into the 2000s, too). (A British food company also changed the lyrics to "Go East" to advertise their various curry products.)
Neil Tennant never commented on the curry situation, but he is proud as a peacock of the sporty adaptations of the song: "Who would have thought that an obscure Village People song covered by the Pet Shop Boys would become the song of football? It's fantastic. I think it's our greatest achievement."