In 'It's a Sin,' the music is its own language

Washington “It’s a Sin,” the extraordinary new miniseries now on HBO Max, is about the devastation of the AIDS crisis, yes, but the show is also about the delights of queer kinship bonds, and the urgency of those connections.

(CNN’s parent company owns HBO Max.)
Created by Russell T. Davies, the series follows a group of mostly gay friends living in London in the early plague years.
One way “It’s a Sin” shines a light on the pressures and politics of the era: through an evocative, synth-saturated soundtrack. The name of the show itself is a nod to the 1987 hit by the British pop duo the Pet Shop Boys.
    Over the course of five episodes, “It’s a Sin” frequently uses music to give language to the emotions of its main characters, many of whom are still growing into their identities and learning how to express the fear and joy that accompany their journeys.
    About 15 minutes into the first episode, viewers are taken to a gay bar. Inside, Ritchie Tozer (played by Olly Alexander) stands against a wall, nervously trying to fit in. He isn’t out to his family on the parochial Isle of Wight, and he’s just moved to London for school. Ritchie says nothing, never puts into words the agita he must be feeling at this moment in his life.
    He doesn’t need to.
    Playing in the background is Soft Cell’s chart-topping 1981 recording of “Tainted Love,” with its propulsive synth. The song voices Ritchie’s emotional wrangling in a manner the young man presumably can’t.
    “Once I ran to you / Now I’ll run from you / This tainted love you’ve given,” Soft Cell vocalist Marc Almond sings on the chorus. “I give you all a boy could give you / Take my tears, and that’s not nearly all / Oh, tainted love.”
    “Tainted Love” doesn’t have explicitly queer roots. But the track’s tropes — maddening confusion, doomed romance, the idea of “cleanliness” — are familiar to queer people.
    Like the song’s narrator, Ritchie wrestles with the notion of tainted love. In particular, he grapples with the messaging he receives from his family that suggests that there’s something not right about same-sex desires.
    There’s the political context to consider, too. The show takes place during the reign of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was squeamish about certain public-health warnings regarding AIDS, protested that children were being taught that they “have an inalienable right to be gay” and enacted the since-repealed Section 28, which prohibited “promoting” homosexuality.
    The brief bar sequence, then, is significant in its keen portrayal of one of Ritchie’s first anxious attempts to challenge the script he’s been handed about how and whom to love.
    But part of the power of “It’s a Sin” is that it focuses on more than just unease. The series also captures the moving sense of community the central characters feel when they’re together — even in a world all too eager to marginalize them.
    One expression of this dynamic: Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 masterpiece “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
    At the end of Episode 4, the occupants of the Pink Palace — the name Ritchie and the gang give to their group home — participate in a die-in to raise awareness about the destructive toll of AIDS. Police officers beat the peaceful protesters bloody. In the back of a paddy wagon, Ritchie reveals to his friends (“all my mates”) that he has AIDS.
    But he also extends a stirring promise. “I’ve got some news for you. I’ve got news for you all,” Ritchie says. “I wanted you to be the first to know: I’m gonna live.”
    The above moment of communion then cuts to the closing credits, and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” begins to play; the song functions as a coda to the episode.
    “They say in Heaven, love comes first / We’ll make Heaven a place on Earth / Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth,” the booming chorus goes.
    Originally about romantic love, the song, here, gives voice to the feeling of camaraderie among the Pink Palace residents, to the small bliss their circle provides. Ritchie is the protagonist — but he’s nothing without his chosen family: Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas), Jill Baxter (Lydia West), Colin Morris-Jones (Callum Scott Howells) and Ash Mukherjee (Nathaniel Curtis).
      The series’ soundtrack is filled with tunes that telegraph a variety of queer sensibilities, from longing (The Flying Pickets’ 1983 cover of “Only You“) to isolation and escape (Bronski Beat’s 1984 gay anthem “Smalltown Boy“).
      Together, the songs help articulate the Pink Palace residents’ complex relationships to the outside world — and to one another.

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