Bronski’s Beat’s Smalltown Boy, the powerful 1984 hit so memorably sung by Jimmy Somerville (see below), has made a return to our screens in recent days as the soundtrack to the Boots Christmas commercial.
I was just four when the song was first released but such was the hit-like quality that it managed to penetrate my young mind (aided by my parents owning the Greatest Hits album on vinyl). Songs – like Alan Bennett’s Hector said of poetry – can secrete themselves in your mind, providing a lyrical antidote to moments of high-emotion and/or crisis in our lives. The words of Smalltown Boy were to come back to me as I hit my teens and wrestled with my own sexuality. As a Lancashire boy from a small mill town, I was – like countless others – that small-town boy. It was hard not to think of the lyrics as I stood at Accrington railway station, laden with bags, heading back to Uni from a Christmas vacation and feeling the enthusiasm for being back in a city that I could be me. The need to escape family baggage and small-town prejudices. Not just a preference to desire but a powerful need to escape as if one was tripped in a burning building. That necessity to escape – understood by those who went through such an experience is beautifully captured by Jimmy Somerville. That was the late 1990s but for scores of others through the 1980s and 1990s, the song held remarkable emotional power. It reflected a life experience which writers – notably Weeks, and McCormack – have suggested in recent years
has become transformed to an overwhelmingly positive one for young gay kids coming to terms with their sexuality today. The song is therefore an historical artefact, but it remains a potent one.
Smalltown Boy appeared on the album ‘The Age of Consent’ – designed to highlight the unequal age of consent (then 21 for ‘homosexual’ males verses 16 for ‘heterosexuals’) and single itself featured a pink triangle on the record sleeve. It would therefore be pretty difficult for Boots to have found a more politically ‘gay’ song and particularly one from a moment when ‘gay’ was an identity which was still very much a sexual identity rather than merely a cultural one.
We have in the Boots advert a teenager as the protagonist (a later reference would place his age at between 14 and 16). He wears a hoodie as if to further state his ‘outsider’ status. He speaks in what I can best describe as a soft northern slightly camp voice, yet his sexuality is apparently straight (I am not convinced that ‘bi’ has yet permeated the minds of commerce bosses) for one of the people he busts a gift for on his run through the snow is ‘the fittest girl in year ten’. We can now have adult homosexuals in television adverts but homosexual teenagers is still it seems a step too far. Even camp ones who run along to the sound of Bronski Beat. Come on Boots, you’ve still got times for a tweaked advert in which he leaves a gift for ‘the fittest boy in year 10’.
The advert is designed to be a heartwarming Christmas commercial comfort blanket. Here we have a teacher-respecting (and studious) teen, who works, supports the NHS, lives in a two-parent (different-sex) family and is straight. Boots – unlike the teen in the advert – are apparently not full of surprises.