Monday, October 19, 2009

The Rebirth And Contemporary Significance Of The Smiths

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“Of all the ways in which music changed over the course of the twentieth century, the most fundamental was the shift from being something played to something they consumed,” music historian Elijah Wald writes in the opening to his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll. This idea of music evolving from a leisurely pastime into a set of guidelines of how to deal with human existence propelled the careers of an uncountable number of artists and musicians who made their livings presenting themselves as the personal messiahs to the everyday person. This person looks for answers to questions he cannot understand, and finds solace in lyrics that assures him that he is not alone in what he is experiencing. Whether it is the voice of hope that Leonard Cohen provided during the Cold War, the message of peace that Simon and Garfunkel spread, or the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel that The Smiths offered, music can have a profound impact on its listeners – an impact that can influence their entire being.

But why does music that perpetuates this type of hope and acceptance have such a universal influence? It is because even in the greatest state of loneliness, one can listen to a meaningful record that shows them that somebody out there understands how they feel.

Although they were only a band from 1982 until 1987, The Smiths managed to record in a half a decade’s material that conveys a message of understanding adolescence that even today, twenty-two years after the band’s demise, still inspires and guides the band’s fans. But why, all of a sudden, have The Smiths emerged from the vault of ‘80s treasures and slowly crept their way back into mainstream pop culture? With more pressing desires (and larger contracts) than ever for the band to reunite, more and more appearances on contemporary film soundtracks, and more musicians citing Morrissey and Co. as their biggest influences and musical heroes, The Smiths are gradually morphing from a subversive underground movement into icons and musical therapists for a brand new generation.

Contemporary culture is embracing the world of independent art more than ever before. The number of independent films gaining box office recognition and dominating over Hollywood blockbusters at the Academy Awards, for instance, has skyrocketed in the past decade. Audiences are beginning to appreciate the intelligence and beautiful artistry of films such as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Garden State, and Little Miss Sunshine in ways that mainstream culture previously had not. Quotes from these films have made their way into the everyday American’s lingos, and memorabilia (such as the “hamburger phone” made famous in Juno) have become recognized materialized manifestations of today’s pop culture. When indie heroes Death Cab For Cutie penned the title track to the new Twilight movie, it was clear that the division between the underground and the mainstream is a much thinner, blurrier line than it has been in the past. In other words, the unknown has become the most recognized, the underground is the popular, the small is large, and the underappreciated is the most appreciated. Our subculture of hipsters and tortured artists has suddenly risen to the forefront of the mainstream media, creating a world where independent art is cherished by more than a select few—in fact, it’s embraced by the masses.

On top of unmasking the underground movement, contemporary music has also backtracked to the 1980s for inspiration. Many of today’s biggest pop artists, ranging from Lady GaGa to Britney Spears, are reverting back to the 1980s to create their modern sounds. This homage to the past is not only present in club music, but also heavily in indie rock. Therefore, it only makes sense that The Smiths are making their way back onto the mainstream radar. They opened up the gates to teenage freedom, giving their listeners a chance to rebel against the mainstream and feel however they pleased. As author and musician Joe Pernice writes in his novella Meat Is Murder (based on The Smiths’ album of the same name), The Smiths’ music “was so raw, so vivid and so melodic that you could cling to it like a lifeboat in a storm.”

Even though their sound was not particularly original or innovative (although it was undeniably breathtaking), it was The Smiths’ lyrics that have captivated their fans since 1982. They gave hope to those who had none. Those who listened to their music felt inspired and understood in a world of misunderstanding. Their music gave chances to those who couldn’t find chances elsewhere. Whether you were the most popular kid or biggest outcast in school, The Smiths had a way of making you relate to them. They took the basic principles of rock and roll, and turned them inside out and made it their own by using their music as aural diaries – places where they could divulge their inner most thoughts, feelings, and views about the world.

“If you compare The Smiths with previous Great White Hopes of preceding eras, it’s clear that the rebellion of the Stones, Who, Pistols, Jam, was based in some kind of activism or at least action, an optimism about the potential of collective or individual agency. But The Smiths’ rebellion was always more like resistance through withdrawal, through subsiding into enervation … The Smiths, hooked on the glamour of the misfit, could only occupy an impossible position, attempt to create a rock music where aggression was replaced by vulnerability, hedonism by asceticism,” author Simon Reynolds writes in his book of essays on underground music, Blissed Out. “Why were The Smiths ‘important’? Because of their misery. Never forget it,” he adds. “And The Smiths were important because of their extremism, their unbalanced view of the world, their partiality … Morrissey is ‘half a person,’ his very being constituted around lack, maladjustment – this is the vantage point from which he launches his impossible demands on life, his denial of the reality principle. Satisfaction and adjustment could never enter The Smiths’ picture, for this would breach their identity,” Reynolds concludes.

The brilliance behind Morrissey’s lyrics is that they can apply to anyone at any time. While, yes, much of what he wrote was inspired in response to what he believed was England’s desire to become more “American-ized,” the anguish he feels in terms of change and unwanted transitions apply to any generation. An example of one particular group of people that connected to Morrissey’s lyrics was the homosexual community. Morrissey’s own sexuality has been speculated about since the start of his career, largely due to the fact that his lyrics were often interpreted as being veiled with references to homosexuality and the homosexual identities of many of his biggest idols, including Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Klaus Nomi and The New York Dolls.

The Smiths’ song “How Soon Is Now” became an anthem of the 1980s gay rights movement, as it signified that love is a universal human need. “How can you say I go about things the wrong way? I am human and I need to be loved just like everybody else does,” he passionately sings on (ironically) one of the most upbeat records The Smiths ever put out. This example perfectly demonstrates the passion and acceptance in Morrissey’s lyrics that caused so many to find solace in his words. “The Smiths dealt with gay themes in a realistic and thought-provoking manner. A review in Rolling Stone Yearbook 1984 described their first album as follows: ‘Lead singer Morrissey’s memories of heterosexual rejection and subsequent homosexual isolation were bracing in their candor, and Johnny Marr’s delicately chiming guitar provided a surprisingly warm, and sympathetic setting,’” note scholars Michelle Wolf and Alfred Kielwasser in their textbook Gay People, Sex, and The Media.

The need for the type of voice of hope that The Smiths provided is as strong now as it was in the 1980s. While countless musicians have cited the band as their greatest influence, few have managed to live up to their inspirational and timeless status, and even fewer have secured themselves a place in the rock and roll hall of fame under the same umbrella of being able to capture and understand adolescence and misery.

In 2009, Morrissey had his most successful year as a solo artist since his debut in 1988. His newest studio album, “Year Of Refusal,” produced his highest U.S. chart debut on the Billboard 200, he is currently finishing a sold out stadium world tour, and he has re-released upgraded and re-mastered versions of two of his best albums from the 90s. Furthermore, he will be releasing an 18-track collection of B-sides entitled “Swords,” which chronicles his entire career as a solo artist, on November 3rd. “Morrissey's god-like status has relatively little to do with those sporadic moments in history when the release of a new album or globe-trotting tour spawn an avalanche of commercially-driven media attention. The fuss Morrissey has been generating lately is little more than a peak in the hype cycle that spins around any pop singer, model or movie star lucky enough to have a career that lasts longer than one chart-topping album or blockbuster film. Rather, it is his obsession and affiliation with the margins of culture and society — all that is unpopular, ugly and damned — that fuels this uncommonly extreme devotion of his fans,” writes music critic Chloe Veltman.

Perhaps this overwhelming demand for Morrissey is simply a result of his being the closest thing to a contemporary Smiths album or tour. For years, rumors have been circulating about a possible Smiths reunion, none of which have yet to see the light of day. When Morrissey was offered five million dollars to reunite for a single performance with the band at the 2005 Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, he turned it down by explaining that money was not a factor. It was later reported in 2007 that Morrissey had turned down a forty-million pound contract to reunite with Johnny Marr and tour under The Smiths name for a world tour in 2008-2009. This insistence on the return of the band, however, did not go unnoticed by its members. Although unwilling to reunite, the band did issue a hand-picked greatest hits album entitled “The Sound Of The Smiths” in late 2008, and re-issued digitally re-mastered and restored versions of all of their albums on vinyl in September of 2009.

The Smith’s influence on contemporary music is undeniable. L.A. Times music critic Scott Timberg wrote in April 2009 that Morrissey “patented the template for modern indie rock.” That belief is shared by Philadelphia Weekly music critic Steven Wells, who in December of 2007 wrote an article that stated Morrissey was “the man who more or less invented indie,” and was an artist “who more than anybody else personifies indie culture.” Morrissey has sat firmly on the throne of the indie kingdom since the early 1980s, but it is only now when we as a culture are beginning to embrace the underground art movement that he is being recognized by a new generation of musicians and fans alike as the voice of not just a generation, but a century. He is to us what John Lennon was to the baby boom generation, and in fact is the only candidate who rivals his brilliance as both a songwriter and a musician. While we may never see The Smiths together live in concert or hear another album from them ever again, their messages of acceptance, peace, rebellion, and dealing with misery will forever serve as the inspirational hymns for fans all over the world and continue to influence future generations of musicians. You can’t have a much better legacy than that.

Works Cited

  • Kielwasser, Alfred and Wolf, Michelle. Gay People, Sex, And The Media. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Pernice, Joe. Meat Is Murder. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2007.
  • Reynolds, Simon. Blissed Out. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990.
  • Timberg, Scott. "Coachella: Morrissey and the Smiths’ influence is apparent". LA Times. 13 April 2009.
  • Veltman, Chloe. “The Passion Of The Morrissey.” The Believer. August 2004: Online Exclusive.
  • Wald, Elijah. How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll: An Alternative History Of American Popular Music. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.
  • Wells, Steven. “Big Mouth Strikes Again.” Philadelphia Weekly. 12 December 2007.