(March 23, 2021). If you watch an hour-long stretch of television these days, you’re likely to see the new Allstate Insurance commercial at least five times…you know the one where that cool-AF car driver and his vehicle’s metal hood ornament do a “duet” singalong to the Pet Shop Boys’ classic “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” while cruising down a desert highway.
The ad is so popular that it recently propelled “Opportunities” to the top of the Billboard Dance/Electronic Digital Songs chart, marking the first time the 35-year-old tune saw No. 1 ink in the trade magazine.
Coincidentally, another one of PSB’s top-10 hits – the 1987 single “It’s a Sin” – has made a resurgence as the titular inspiration for a new British television drama. The critically acclaimed show It’s a Sin was created and written by Russell T. Davies and focuses on the lives of gay men dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s.
The show has had such an immediate societal impact that it’s actually caused an upsurge in HIV testing worldwide. But, not surprisingly, it has also resulted in an increase in popularity of PSB’s “It’s a Sin,” which – like “Opportunities” – has made a return to the Billboard charts and reached the top ten on the Dance/Electronic Digital Songs list in February 2021.
Not bad for a pair of 30-something-year-old top-10 tunes that are clearly resonating with a whole new generation of fans, many of whom weren’t even around when the songs first hit during the mid-to-late 1980s.
But with all the attention the Pet Shop Boys are getting these days, this blogger contends that – even with those two songs’ resurgence – neither “Opportunities” nor “It’s a Sin” can hold a candle to the tune that followed “Sin” onto the charts in late 1987, a now-iconic collaboration that returned a British soul-singing legend to the charts in a big way and had millions of people droning on in robot-like fashion: “what have I, what have I, what have I…” throughout the winter and early spring of 1988.
Of course, I’m talking about the sublime “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” featuring the late Dusty Springfield. Released as the second single from the band’s album Actually in late 1987, “What Have I Done to Deserve This” – the solemnly upbeat tune about being trapped in a bad relationship and trying to get through it – was like the yin to the yang of its predecessor, “It’s a Sin,” an over-the-top production with about as much melodrama as a Greek tragedy.
“Deserve” went on to reach No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 – stuck there for two weeks behind two different No. 1s: Exposé’s “Season’s Change” and George Michael’s “Father Figure,” each with their own takes on unhealthy relationships – in February 1988. That fate made “Deserve” the Boys’ second-biggest hit (after 1986’s “West End Girls”).
More importantly, it marked a return to the charts for Springfield, the soulful chanteuse who hadn’t charted in America in more than 17 years before then. “Deserve” instantly became Dusty’s highest charting U.S. hit in a career that included such classics as “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (No. 6), “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” (No. 4), and “Son of a Preacher Man” (No. 10).
The perfect juxtaposition of classic ‘60s soul and ‘80s techno-pop
While Dusty Springfield is considered one of the premier British soul vocalists of the 1960s and early ‘70s, no one has ever accused the Pet Shop Boys’ lead singer Neil Tennant of being a classic vocalist of any era. His monotone, almost robotic delivery nonetheless perfectly suits all of PSB’s hits, which by design only require that Tennant sufficiently carry the melody but not go into any vocal acrobatics or theatrics.
So when Dusty Springfield got the phone call from songwriter Allee Willis (more on her in a moment) that Neil wanted Dusty to join him in a duet on “What Have I Done To Deserve This?,” it was only natural that the legendary singer’s reported response was in the form of another, more perplexed question: “What could they possibly want with me?” (perhaps that could have been a title for a followup duet).
Once convinced, Dusty went into the studio and gave the song her all, reportedly doing 20 vocal takes to perfect the delivery to her liking before finally settling on the right one. What resulted was the most unlikely pairing between synth-pop’s rising ‘80s superstars and one of the most respected voices of a previous generation.
We can make a deal: Creating the perfect bop
The song’s structure was seemingly simple but complex, melodic yet peculiar. It was composed in three main sections, each by the three credited songwriters – Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe and the late Allee Willis. Tennant wrote his rap in the pre-chorus, Lowe wrote the verses, and Willis wrote Dusty’s solo chorus.
Lowe was likely the mastermind behind the music, which consisted of his famous keyboard riff – an alternating three-note repetition on the verses – both preceded and followed by the distinctive melody that introduced the song and accompanied Tennant’s rapping on the pre-choruses. All of this was accompanied by a playful synth-bass, again courtesy of Lowe.
The entire song was supported by a unique drum pattern in which the bass drum notes were rarely duplicated throughout the song. Instead of a simple hit of the bass on the beat’s 1 and 3 counts, the Boys used an array of different combinations that changed as the song builds and gave it added texture (and made for some vain – but pretty darn good – attempts by yours truly to duplicate them over the years).
As for the singing, Neil and Dusty shared vocals on all the verses, with each one singing melody on alternating lines and combining voices on the refrain “how am I gonna get through?” So perfect was the combo of their voices that they were, at times, indistinguishable, with Dusty’s husky delivery nearly matching Tennant’s more dry approach.
It was mainly during the choruses that their unique talents and individual roles came more into focus. Tennant went into his trademark deadpan rap and monotone line-repetition on the pre-chorus, beginning with “I bought you drinks, I brought you flowers, I read you books…,” and segueing into “what have I, what have I, what have I…”
That’s when Dusty stepped in to bring the perfect duet to life, answering Tennant with the much more melodic rendering of her lines: “Since you went away, I’ve been hanging around. I’ve been wondering why I’m feeling down. You went away, it should make me feel better, but I don’t know, oh…”
When the two recombined voices for the chorus’s closing refrain “how I’m gonna get through,” it was all they could do to complement Tennant’s subtle yet foundational “what have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?” which kept repeating in the background like a pesky (and subliminal) little annoyance. By the way, the three words “what have I” are uttered nearly 80 times throughout the entire 4:21 length of the song, leaving no doubt which of the two most repeated phrases (the other being “how I’m gonna get through”) were the song’s title.
A perfect woman’s touch – from two women
The song’s duet vocals were the result of Neil Tennant’s extreme fandom of Dusty Springfield, who at that point in her career had fallen on some hard times (and bad relationships). But part of the song’s origins lies in the pen of another woman, the highly successful songwriter Allee Willis, writer of such huge Earth, Wind & Fire million-sellers as “Boogie Wonderland” and the timeless “September,” both top-10 hits in 1979.
The story goes that it was Tennant’s recollection of the “A. Willis” songwriting credit on those EWF records during her visit with PSB in London in 1985 that sparked their collaboration. They had just hit big in England with “West End Girls” and she was there, not as a songwriter, but as a painter. She had just started painting that year and was commissioned to paint Tennant and Lowe’s portrait for some fan club stationary. When she mentioned to Tennant that she had written some songs in the past, it clicked with him that she was the “A. Willis” he had seen on those EWF records, and the rest – as they say – was history.
Willis told Songfacts that her portion of “Deserve” was about “Someone who’s in this relationship that they know they shouldn’t be in. It’s this dysfunctional relationship, and they don’t have the strength to get out. And ‘what have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?’ – there’s a real sense that they shouldn’t be there, but they’re basically a slave to this obsessive love. It’s one of the few songs of mine that is about that but doesn’t turn itself around and go, ‘I’m leaving here, screw you, go make someone else miserable.’ Usually I don’t just leave it at ‘what have I done to deserve this,’ but it felt right for the group, so that’s what it was.”
Others have speculated that the song’s lyrics – particularly the verses with lines like “I only wanted a job” and “I’ve always worked for a living” – were more about 1980s materialism than a love gone awry, but Willis’s account seems to squelch that theory.
In addition to the EWF songs and “What Have I Done To Deserve This?,” Willis also wrote Maxine Nightengale’s “Lead Me On,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” and later penned the Rembrandt’s “I’ll Be There For You,” the 1994 theme from the smash hit TV series Friends.
An LGBTQ triumph – before “LGBTQ” was a thing
The combining of the talents of Neil Tennant, Dusty Springfield and Allee Willis proved to be an early LGBTQ victory before we even knew it. In fact, even the term LGBTQ didn’t come into vogue until after “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” was a hit (the acronym is said to have been coined that same year). Prior to that, we used more myopic, less inclusive terms like “gay and lesbian” to describe people with same-sex preferences.
We didn’t know it at the time, but lines like “you always wanted me to be something I wasn’t” and “now I can do what I want to…forever” may have been foretelling of the revelations of Tennant’s sexuality (he came out as gay in 1994, six years after “Deserve” was a hit).
Dusty Springfield, on the other hand, did little to hide her affection for women, often stating in interviews that she was attracted to both men and women – but mostly women. She’d been known for her previous relationships with women and later entered into a civil union with a woman named Tedda in 1983. That relationship ended badly with Tedda being imprisoned for assaulting Springfield with a frying pan during an argument, which left the singer requiring facial surgery (for wounds from which she was said to have never fully recovered).
Allee Willis, the talented songwriter and artist whose words Springfield brought to life, was in a 27-year relationship with animator and film/music video producer Prudence Fenton – from 1992 until Willis’ death in December 2019.
The pairing of Tennant’s vocals with Springfield’s would be cause for celebration in a later era, but being outwardly gay in show business during the 1980s wasn’t encouraged – even as traditional gender norms were being challenged right before our eyes by artists like Boy George, Annie Lennox, Grace Jones and even legendary disco singer Sylvester before them.
It’s hard to believe, but even back then – as recently as the late 1980s – it was better, from a career perspective, to be the subject of speculation than to come out as gay and remove all doubt. That is why, in retrospect, I believe songs like “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” carry more social importance than their simple melodies and lyrics convey.
Think about it: the song was the result of the merging of three super individual talents from within the LGBTQ community. The song itself was about the struggles of being stuck in a relationship in which someone was being asked to be something he wasn’t (or they weren’t). And the titular question, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” could easily be assigned to the plight of anyone who has been ostracized (or worse) – or who has internal struggles – because of their sexuality or gender identity, even today.
The fact that it was held out of No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by the perhaps even more tragic “Father Figure,” a song written and sung by the late George Michael who himself hadn’t yet come out as gay, only adds to the irony in this story.
No replacement for Dusty
Sadly, the last time I saw the Pet Shop Boys in concert (in 2016), the duo opted to leave “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” off their setlist. (For what it’s worth, “Opportunities” was also omitted, strangely enough.)
If, in a post-pandemic world, the Boys see fit to tour again, I hope they give their newly expanding fan base what we want, even without Dusty here to complete the song’s original vision.
We’d “go to hell and back every night” to hear the unlikely merger of legendary British soul and ‘80’s techno-pop, the structurally unconventional yet highly infectious, LGBTQ triumph that is “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
Even if it means getting a stand-in to do Dusty’s parts.
Otherwise, how are we going to get through?
Ps. This article was an excuse to write about one of my all-time favorite songs after discovering through various Internet searches that there just weren’t enough articles about “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” The premise – the recent popularity of the Boys’ other hits – was a way to crack open the door, which I admittedly blew wide open.
Feel free to comment below or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted about your favorite Pet Shop Boys tunes.
In the meantime, you might enjoy this cover of the song for comparison to the original.
The original music video:
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
You can also register for free to receive notifications of future articles by visiting the home page (see top for menu).