Sheila Take a Bow

“Come out and find the one that you love and who loves you…”

On a gloomy day, it takes the Smiths to raise my spirits. There’s something uplifting in being a miserable misfit and yet bopping along anyway. There’s something about Morrissey’s weird confidence that he’s incurable. And he is incurable. In the beginning it seemed like a posture, because how seriously can you take a pretty boy who insists he’s antisocial and sad? Every young person thinks they’re antisocial and unlovable and permanently locked out of the normal-people party, and then they grow up and realize their juvenile angst was just that, juvenile. Not Morrissey though. He grew up and stayed the same miserable antisocial fuck he’s always been, just somehow truly incapable of whatever it is that makes you a functional adult. Whatever doors regular people walk through on their regular-person pathway of life, those doors are closed to Morrissey, and by extension, the people who relate to him. Being good looking and brilliant and acclaimed at what you do isn’t enough. You relate to Morrissey because you never grew out of that nagging feeling that there’s just some secret skill that you’re missing, some stroke of luck that hasn’t struck. Or maybe you just like animals more than people and enjoy feeling sorry for yourself a lot.

Shakespeare’s Sister

You’ll never take the 80’s emo kid out of me. Doesn’t matter that I’m chronologically a 90’s kid, a Smiths fan is something I decided to become circa 2009, and Morrissey can be as unpleasant an old bat as he wants. The Smiths are still the most authentic music of the decade. Because let’s face it, if you or I were any 80’s rock star, we wouldn’t be any of the cool people selling Pepsi on MTV. We’d be Morrissey, flailing about sadly in an ill-fitting cardigan. The songs that saved your life are the songs that saved your life. They’re the songs that speak to your misery, your dysfunction, your self-aggrandizement and your self-sabotage. We’re all losers who both hate and cling to our shitty personalities, our weird coping mechanisms, and identities as ill-fitting as our cardigans.

A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours

I love Morrissey’s references to boys with pretty white necks. It’s both sexy and self-consciously glib. And he has got quite a pretty white neck himself, which isn’t meant to be lost on anyone. The winking and nodding to pretty boys’ bodies – coming from a pretty boy who claimed that his pain is too grand for mere labels of sexual orientation – was naughty and subversive, and as telling as you wanted it to be. Morrissey will probably never ‘come out’ the way some people are still rooting for him to do, nor should he; the business of pinning down personal identity is dreadfully dreary when you don’t particularly care for any of the options. That does allow the singer to remain pliable and easy to project onto, hence the rabid devotion he still commands. The fact that he’s kind of a crappy person doesn’t matter very much to fans who’ve identified with the music for whatever reason. The singer may be a challenge to admire, but the songs remain impossible not to latch onto. We will probably forever be debating just how knowingly Morrissey’s music addresses depression-case gay boys, or romantic-pretender depression-case straight ones, or sad-sack wallflower girls. But there’s one thing that everybody in the fandom relates to: people who’ve learned about the world in cemeteries and libraries experience love differently, with sweaty palms and shaky knees, and being pretty is frankly no reprieve from it.

The Right Stuff

Insert ‘mind blown’ reaction gif here. This here, this song right here, is the straw that broke up The Smiths. Apparently – and somehow I did not know it until just now – this is a rewrite of song by The Smiths. Not a proper Morrissey/Marr Smiths song that you would have heard of, but an instrumental B-side that Bryan Ferry handpicked as a potential hit, wrote some lyrics for, and then hired Johnny Marr to play session on. (Marr also played on the tour, and is prominently seen in the video.) Marr’s original composition, Money Changes Everything, does in fact sound exactly like a mid-eighties Bryan Ferry song without the vocal. Ferry has a bit of genius touch with picking unexpected things that suit his style, and Johnny Marr’s playing is perfectly suited for a Bryan Ferry album. Now that I think about it, having Marr on board might be part of why Bete Noire was so damn good. Ferry was right about the hit potential too; this was Bete Noire’s biggest single. Not-in-any-way-coincidentally, this was also right about the time that Marr left his day job for a less-illustrious but also probably way less stressful career as a journeyman session player. Obviously, Morrissey was in paroxysms of jealousy that Bryan Ferry would requisition one of the few Smiths songs that he’d had nothing to do with. He doesn’t directly say as much in his autobiography, but it’s heavily implied; he broke up the band because he felt ‘cheated-on’ by his songwriting partner for appearing in a Bryan Ferry video.

Rent

How much are you obligated to love someone if they pay your rent? There is a famous short story – later adapted into a film – by Tama Janowitz titled Slaves of New York. It was initially published in, you guessed it, The New Yorker. The title is obviously, um, shall we say, not great, but in some ways it’s apropos and and becoming more so. New York City is hellishly expensive to live in, and people do degrading things to survive there. The point Janowitz was making in her story is that ambitious creative types are so in love with the idea of being New Yorkers that they compromise their integrity and wellbeing by staying yoked to lame partners just for the real estate. Yes, there’s plenty of people who stay in loveless marriages because the apartment. That’s sad, but it’s also…hello, hashtag first world problems! People – mostly the female kind – all over the world literally fucking end up dying because they don’t have the means to leave abusive partners, which is not the same as hanging on to a sexless marriage because rent-controlled Manhattan real estate yada yada. But the New York literary and creative scene is its own beast, one that exists in a paradoxical bubble. On one hand, New York City is so vibrant and diverse it’s almost like the capital of the world or something. On the other hand, the scenesters there can be shockingly ignorant and isolated (see, Lena “I don’t know any black people” Dunham.) Having maintenance-sex with somebody who doesn’t excite you like they used to because you share a lease is not actually equivalent to the institution of slavery, Tama Janowitz, and I’m likely not the first person to have pointed that out, but I think the point remains worth making. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with music, so you’re probably wondering. Yes, I’m drunk and I didn’t sleep very much last night. But also, this is exactly what this Pet Shop Boys song is about. The things we do for rent money, and that weird grey zone between sincere love between consenting adults and the kind of love animals have for you because you feed them. So, although my liberal-white-feminist-SJW self draws the line at slavery equivalence, the age-old phenomenon of being kept is a real social issue. A lot of people, mostly young and in some way disadvantaged, compromise their integrity and wellbeing by allowing themselves to be kept. Whether you’re married to someone who’s on salary while you’re on hourly, or just straight up cashing checks from a sugar-daddy, you’re being kept, and it’s a power imbalance and consent-wise a slippery slope.

The Promise

Who remembers this song? You may have slow danced to it at your prom, if you were still in high school in the late 80’s, or you may have seen the dance floor grind to a halt when someone requested it at 80’s Nite. Either way, it’s kind of the nadir of 80’s one hit wonders. When In Rome were barely a band back when they were a band, and now the most interesting thing about them is that all three former members are embroiled in lawsuits and counter- lawsuits over who has legal ownership of their name. Because if you had a hit record for a few weeks in 1987, you need every recourse to continue making money from it decades later. In short, it’s a terrible song from a terrible band and you’d never imagine that it could be anything but a terrible footnote in the history of terrible music. Enter Sturgill Simpson. Who is this man with a golden voice who takes a nugget of pure dreck and finds the heartfelt ballad inside? Simpson named his breakout album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and that itself is a good introduction to the artist. The idea is that the country music is neither dead nor hostage to flag-waving imbeciles; in the hands of a master, it’s alive and as relevant as anything else out there and it can support whatever ideas you want it to, be it the joy of psychedelic drugs or the joy of mining good songs out of bad production.