While prostitutes are a fairly common occurrence in pop songs, there are very, very few examples of songs that are actually sung from a sex worker’s point of view. “House of the Rising Sun” is one, in the renditions of the song performed by Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba and Dolly Parton (though not in the Animals version, which flips the narrator’s gender.) There’s also the equally bleak “53rd & 3rd” by the Ramones. But a song where the sex worker and his client are actually pretty okay with one another? That’s basically unheard of.
“Rent” was released in the UK as the lead single from Actually , though in the US it was only put out as a B-side to “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” It’s become one of the duo’s most beloved songs, and it’s one of the few that gets covered with any frequency. It’s been done by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, by a Serbian punk band whose singer can’t pronounce the word “currency,” and by Herb from Kiki and Herb.
Of course, none of those versions hold a candle to the melodramatic strings in the PSB-sanctioned (and produced) cover by Liza Minnelli.
After the duo’s success with Dusty Springfield, the Pet Shop Boys were soon highly in-demand writers, producers, and career resuscitators. After scoring a UK hit for English film actress Patsy Kensit, Tennant and Lowe turned their attention to Liza (that’s with a Z), writing three songs for her 1989 comeback album Results.
The results of Results are, frankly, not so good. (If you’re into campy visuals and mauve-painted soundstages, though, I REALLY suggest you watch the video for the Tennant/Lowe composition “Don’t Drop Bombs,” a terrible mess of a song that wasn’t actually a hit anywhere.)
The one bright spot is Minnelli’s over-the-top reading of “Rent,” a #9 UK hit for Tennant and Lowe two years previously. It’s all emotion and histrionics and fabulousness, the sort of thing that makes it really clear how two decades later she’d be performing at the ostentatious gay wedding in Sex and the City 2.
Minnelli was familiar with the role of a prostitute, of course. As recently as 1987, she starred opposite Burt Reynolds in the critically panned action comedy Rent-A-Cop. (“He has a new career… And his first client is a rent-a-girl!”] She won a Razzie award for that movie.