Hold On

Writers - Handel/Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2012
Original album - Elysium
Producer - Andrew Dawson, Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

If the immediately preceding Elysium track "Ego Music," with its harsh critique of modern-day pop music confessionalism, marks the epitome-to-date of PSB "negative stridency," then "Hold On" turns the tables and shows the Boys at their most positively strident. Even if you don't consider the lyrics, the music alone—with the big-time assist of a baroque master known for grandiose musical statements on religious themes—represents just about the most anthemic work of their entire career. Yes, even more anthemic than the previous studio album's "All Over the World" (itself also partly based on "classical" music). And, yes, melodically also quite lovely. Stylistically, however, it has proven one of the most divisive tracks in the PSB catalogue; there's no shortage of otherwise dedicated fans who have expressed intense dislike for its unusual Broadway-meets-church-service-meets-symphony-hall ambiance.

Neil and Chris revealed in an interview for Mixmag that this song is built upon a composition by the baroque composer George Frideric Handel that Neil had heard on the radio. The specific Handel composition in question is "Eternal Source of Light Divine," the opening piece from Handel's 1713 work Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne. Neil immediately thought that the first eight bars would make a terrific basis for a pop song, so he downloaded the sheet music and sent it to Chris. Chris, however, ended up taking no fewer than 64 bars of chords from Handel and then composing a totally new melody on top of them. He also borrowed a trumpet obbligato from the Handel original and worked it into "Hold On" as a recurring fanfare-like synth motif. Neil subsequently added his lyrics.

Speaking of those lyrics, there's nothing else in the entire PSB catalogue quite like them. They clearly offer a statement of encouragement, but to whom they're directed is, conversely, unclear. In fact, I'm very much of three minds about them. So now please allow me to share my three minds with you.

The first is quite succinct, and probably the least analytical of the bunch. Let's call it—

My Nice and Simple Analysis

"Hold On" is the Pet Shop Boys' statement against suicide. Perhaps it's addressed to the human race in general, urging us to avoid the self-destruction that has loomed over us since the advent of the atomic age. Or maybe it's far more personal and individual in scope: in effect, Neil's and Chris's own contribution to the famed "It Gets Better" campaign, or something like it, in which young people (particularly of the LGBT community) are encouraged to "hold on" since life will almost certainly get better for them as they grow and mature. No matter how bad things may seem, life will go on with or without them. But it will be better if they are a part of that future. If not, then the world will essentially end—at least for them.

And there you have it. As I said, very simple. But then there's my second mind: more deeply analytical, far more verbose, and in many ways downright cynical. We'll call this one—

My Not-So-Nice and Not-At-All-Simple Analysis

After initially urging listeners to "hold on" because "there's got to be a future," Neil offers remarkably apocalyptic images of a universe that seems hell-bent on self-destruction:

The sun will melt away
The sky so dark decay
And summer, spring, and autumn, winter
Melt into a single moment

Heady stuff, even if it does beg the question that if the sun were indeed to melt away, what is there to hold on to? But I foolishly quibble in the face of artistic license. The point is that, even when faced with the very worst the world can throw at you—and it's hard to think of anything much worse than the sun melting away—it's vital to find something to hold on to. Holding on, in and of itself, is important. And why is that?

There's got to be a future
Or the world will end today

It's hard to know what to make of lines like that. They sound awfully good, but when you actually sit back and think about them, they just seem so—obvious. Facile, even.

But are the Pet Shop Boys really being so obvious?

Take a moment to think back to a couple of lines from that immediately preceding song, "Ego Music." The Boys had criticized contemporary artists for "vacuous slogans" and "innocuous sentiment." And that seems precisely what "Hold On" largely consists of!

Could "Hold On" be some kind of joke? The cynical sonofabitch in me says, "Yes, that must be it!" Or is it just the dedicated PSB fan in me saying that? The more objective obsever in me, however—less the aficionado, and much less cynical as well—says, "No, Neil and Chris are being completely honest and forthright. It may not be much to my liking, but perhaps that's my problem."

Getting back to the song itself, support singers—first a group of female vocalists, then males—chime in for several thoroughly uplifting lines before Neil joins back in to offer some new imagery, now anything but apocalyptic, but instead observances of mundane, everyday things: falling rain, planes taking off, flying birds, barking dogs, shopping malls, busy traffic, lovers in bed, "money comes and money goes." In other words, life goes on. And with a final rendering of the chorus—one last series of exhortations to hold on since there has to be a future lest the world end—the song comes to its conclusion.

Am I trying to read too much into it? Am I not reading enough? Is it just a genuinely uplifting, if somewhat strident anthem of general encouragement? Is there anything more to it than what it appears to be at face value? Is it vacuous, innocuous sentiment? Is it a parody of vacuous, innocuous sentiment? I'm so confused.

To borrow a line from one of Paul Simon's lesser-known songs, maybe I think too much.

But, remember, that's my second mind. I still have my third and final mind to share—which, to be completely honest, came to me in the voice of my husband George. I wish I'd thought of it myself. So I call it—

My Favorite Analysis

The narrator is speaking to someone he loves very much, but who is very ill, perhaps dying. He can't imagine life without him. (For the sake of grammatical simplicity, I'll assume—since both Neil and I are gay—that we're talking about a gay couple. But it could just as easily be any configuration of two people who love each other: husband and wife, parent and child, and so on.) So he encourages him, with every fiber of his being, to hold on. "There's got to be a future"—for the two of us, he's saying—"or the world will end today"—for the narrator, at least.

If this person whom he loves so much dies, then for him the sun will seem to melt away and the sky decay in darkness. Life will no longer be worth living. So he pleads with him to cling tenaciously to life. "Look around, look around," he asks, pointing out all the ways in which mundane life goes on. He begs him to remain a part of it. It's only in their future together, he insists, that his world will continue.

So now you know my three minds about this song. But, then again, there's the Pet Shop Boys' own take on it, which I suppose we really ought to consider.

The Pet Shop Boys' Own Analysis

Neil and Chris offered the following about "Hold On" in an interview with Russ Coffey of theartsdesk.

Neil: “Hold On” is a kind of anthem for the recession.… It must be the most optimistic song we’ve ever written. But everybody feels the pinch, including us.…"

Chris: "It's all the internet’s fault by the way.… Magazines are collapsing, newspapers, the porn industry has gone all because of the internet. It's been a disaster."

So there you have it. It's up to you to decide which analysis you prefer. I just hope that you're not as cynical as my own "second mind."

Incidentally, Chris has a tremendous fondness for this song, into which he put a great deal of work. He acknowledges that it's not popular among fans, but then he adds, "They're wrong."



Officially released

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