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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

You know the song from that Allstate commercial? It's "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)"...

...and you probably aren't hearing it correctly, because a celebration of capitalism it most definitely is not.


It's amazing how advertisements can revive decades-old songs for a new audience.


This past winter, Allstate debuted their "Duet" ad spot for Super Bowl LV. ,The advertisement is centered around a driver and his... hood ornament (why?) duetting on the Pet Shop Boys' 1986 song "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)."


Being featured both 1) on such a big stage, and 2) in a commercial centered around the music led to a massive surge in the track's popularity. Three and a half decades after its release, "Opportunities" hit the top of Billboard's Dance/Electronic Digital Song Sales chart. Amid all of that, it seems that the song has largely lost its meaning. Its use in a car insurance commercial seems to provide a gesture that the song is meant to be taken literally. However, it isn't quite that simple; truly understanding the song requires a look into the Pet Shop Boys' native Britain at the time of the track's release.

The United Kingdom in the mid-80s could be defined by one word: Thatcher. "Opportunities," first recorded in 1984 and re-recorded the next year, is product of the middle of the Iron Lady's iron grip on British politics, with her tenure as Prime Minister running from May 1979 to November 1990. In that time, Thatcher and her ministry uprooted and redefined the nation's economy. While authority was consolidated within the government, deregulation and privatization led the way for a host of reforms. The power of labor unions was decreased; reduced government spending was targeted at marginalized the welfare state; and tax cuts and free markets ushered in a new wave of what journalist Hugo Young aptly labeled "materialistic individualism." Young continued on this thread, noting that "[e]verything was justified as long as it made money."


With a perspective on Thatcherism in mind, "Opportunities" can be understood as a cynical take on (financial) success in a day and age where only one's bottom line matters, and a send-up — a ridiculing parody — of the culture which enables such practices. The song opening with a chorus rather than a verse allows it to get straight to the point, as singer Neil Tennant immediately makes his elevator pitch to his business partner: "I've got the brains, you've got the looks / Let's make lots of money." Sure, let's get rich quick! Who cares about an idea? Who cares about how well we work together? Of course we'll come upon the windfall, because the system enables us to!


The verses introduce a fair amount of humor through contrast and simply unexpected lines. While Tennant addresses his narrator's impressive credentials in the second verse ("You can tell I'm educated / I studied at the Sorbonne / Doctored in mathematics / I could have been a don"), he first sings of how... his car won't start? In one of the funniest verses of the era, Tennant opens with a brash, but understandable statement: "I've had enough of scheming / And messing around with jerks." Alright, I get it — everyone's been short-changed, screwed over before. I feel your pain. So what's your pitch? How do you follow that up?


"My car is parked outside / I'm afraid it doesn't work."


...What?


Even in a cultural parody like "Opportunities," that pair of lines never fails to break me. It seems so out of place in the business pitch-type verses, which otherwise center around characteristics that at least don't sound damaging. If anything, I hear those lines as being delivered by a swindler, a con artist, whose get-rich-quick scheme is to exploit both people's sympathy and the extra cash they should theoretically be carrying around in a Thatcherist economy. In reality, the picture is a lot darker and grittier: anti-union measures and two recessions under Thatcher led to record-high unemployment of nearly 12 percent. In that context, the line seems like a desperate plea for attention and sympathy... but in a cold and cash-strapped world, it's likely to fall on deaf ears.


Nonetheless, the protagonist pushes on with his pleas, which to my Berkeley ears sound like something a business club member would say while tabling and passing out flyers on Sproul Plaza. Sure, his CV in the second verse sounds impressive, but are we inclined to believe it in the context of the earlier lines? Also, what the heck does he mean when he's saying he's "looking for a partner / Regardless of expense" in the third? Is he going to hold up his end of the bargain? Would we even stand a chance at making a slight profit? Between the vague optimism of earlier lines, the problematics I previously mentioned, and the constraints on growth in the Thatcher era, I wouldn't be so confident. The bridge only further adds to the narrator's questionable veracity in this parody. If "there's a lot of opportunities / If you know where to take them," then where are they? In quickly moving on to "if there aren't, you can make them," it once again sounds like he's putting the onus on us, his potential partner, rather than doing his part. Sounds like a swindle and a quick way to get a little cash to me.


All the while, the Pet Shop Boys' electronic beat marches on. Something about it feels pulsating, yet also cold. Perhaps it's the fact that it all sounds very synthetic; even the propulsive synth bass, with lots of high end, is clearly from a keyboard. Maybe it's how it all so cleanly aligns to a grid, and in that way sounds somewhat removed from human expression. It's probably a combination of both, plus the fact that Neil Tennant's signature vocal style is rather expressionless. I also wonder if Tennant's delivery further affects how I hear his pitchman.


With the above reading and understanding in mind, it's now just funny to me how the Pet Shop Boys' critique of materialism was misinterpreted and co-opted into an advertisement on America's grandest and biggest stage. The 30-second spot cost Allstate about $5.6 million, which is just a mind-boggling figure to me, especially once you hear "Opportunities" for what it is. The difference is that, despite America's own declining economy and rising inflation, Allstate does seem to be raking in the profits from it... and the Pet Shop Boys might be too, thanks to a new generation being exposed to them. "Opportunities" might be a send-up, but it would be so appropriate (and funny) given the tune's character for it to somehow actually help the artists and the licensers of the track "make lots of money."

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