I’m with the band: The Smiths
Welcome to “I’m with the band”. In this column, I’m going to teach you how to become a fan of all the iconic bands you’ve always heard of but might not really know. I’m going to introduce you to some deep songs that will elevate your status from “surface fan” to “true fan” and tell you why, in my humble opinion, these bands are worth knowing. Hopefully by the end of this series you will understand why you should become a fan of it too.
“Do you…do you like the Smiths?” asks Tom Hansen in the movie “(500) Days of Summer”.
When I thought of the Smiths, I always thought of the infamous elevator scene in “(500) Days of Summer” — you know, the one that sends the message that a woman’s taste in music is the only thing you need to know to fall in love with her. But ever since Steven Patrick Morrissey attempted to substantiate a racist claim he made by stating that “everyone prefers their own race,” the subversive infamy of the Smiths has mingled with my earlier associations.
The disparity between the many ways I see the Smiths fascinates me and ultimately leads to the question: is it possible to separate an artist from his art?
Most people know the Smiths as the ultimate pioneers of independent music. Without the help of any major record labels, the Smiths formed in 1982 with singer/lyricist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. Early on, Morrissey expressed his belief that pop music was a dying industry and that he was “a prophet of the fourth sex” who planned to “save rock ‘n’ roll”. With vehement lyrics that blur the line between music and poetry, the Smiths quickly found themselves a dedicated underground fan base of misunderstood, alienated and enamored listeners. In their short existence, the Smiths became one of Britain’s most influential bands before finally breaking up in 1987.
Having sold several million records, the Smiths are far from being underground today. Over the years, the group has become the emblem of our modern notion of indie hipster culture. This association grew posthumously – because the only thing more hipster than liking an underground indie band is mourning an underground indie band that was popular before your time.
In pop culture, the Smiths’ hipster qualities have led their music to feature in a series of indie-romance films that portray female characters that fit the manic-pixie-dream-girl (MPDG) trope.
Let’s take a look at the Smiths in “(500) Days of Summer.” Our protagonist, Tom, and his infatuation object, Summer, stand together in an elevator as “There’s a Light That Never Goes Out” plays loudly through Tom’s headphones. “The Smiths? I love the Smiths,” Summer remarks in a dreamy whisper as she points to her headphones. Never mind that this song is their most popular by a landslide – Summer’s basic awareness of the existence of the group is enough for our newly enamored Tom to slowly remove his headphones and meet his gaze while stuttering, “You…you like the Smiths?”
And just like that, “the cool hipster girl who loves the Smiths” is now considered the love of Tom’s life. It’s far from the only time pop culture has chosen to use the Smiths as a sound association for the whimsical MPDG, with their music also being recorded in films like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Closer.” .
If an MPDG is an enigmatic woman who appears on screen to help the male protagonist get to know himself before he flies off into non-existence, then it’s safe to say that Hollywood views the Smiths as the ultimate maniac pixie dream band. After all, the Smiths were an elusive, poetic band who came onto the scene to help save pop music and left too soon for us to fully understand who they were as musicians. It’s a perfect couple, a dreamy indie band with these dreamy indie girls, right?
Well not really. This line of thinking is far from the truth. Although pop culture wants “hipster” to be the defining term for the Smiths, the phrase “problematic” is a much more honest portrayal of the group.
Morrissey has never redacted or apologized for any of his profanity comments, indicating that he is not trying to portray himself as anything close to political correctness. The disparity between pop culture’s perception of the Smiths versus their reality has nothing to do with delusional deception but rather a collective desire to value how we want to see the Smiths over reality. Many fans openly acknowledge this error, with some band reviews for the Smiths beginning with warnings that ask the reader to ignore Morrissey’s insensitive remarks.
Since the group split in 1987, frontman Morrissey has done all but disappear. Over the years, he has made an endless amount of politically and racially insensitive commentary, voicing his support for a far-right anti-Islam British political party and making violent statements regarding veganism, as seen in his performance of 2009 at Coachella.
When we allow ourselves to make personal connections to the music, it’s often easier to separate the artists from what we listen to. We all do this to some degree, even if it’s a subconscious decision; most of our favorite songs rely much more on our individualized memories than on the biographical backstory of the artist.
But when it comes to political and racial insensitivities, how truly can we separate the artist from our personal connection to the art? For the Smiths, is the “cool hipster” image more accurate than what they represent culturally? Or do the words and actions of the artist themselves always reveal an indisputable truth about what lies behind the music?
For me, the pleasure of listening to music has always been a combination of my own experiences and my cultivated relationship with the artist themselves. So, yes: “When is it now?” has been on my running playlist since 2016 and remains featured today. But, more often than not, I find my finger hesitantly on the “jump” button whenever I hear the opening guitar riff.
My choices : “This charming man” “half a person,” “Please, please, please let me get what I want,” “Sleeping.”
Editor’s note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, reflections and criticisms.