This is certainly the call to arms you need to hear while browsing at Hot Topic. Morrissey encourages you to stick it to the man in the quietest, most unobtrusive way possible. Meanwhile, I would not be surprised to find that ‘shoplifting’ is some obscure north of England palare for acts of a homosexual nature. “A listed crime” you say? Well, no doubt, stealing is a crime, and if you were to confess that you’ve got a sticky set of five fingers, that would be a fine double entendre too. You could be stealing some nice boy’s virtue. Yes, indeed, this is some of the most thinly coded gay agitprop to be seen on English television in Our Year of the Lord 1987 (very much not a good year for gay people.) I’m sure that it was, to those that got it, discreetly incendiary. I suspect that Morrissey’s swaying hips are still enough to set gay sadboys’ hearts aflutter with validation. I mean, it works well enough for those of us who are merely sad and romantically discombobulated without the extra burden of needing code words for it. Morrissey’s brand of bedsitter emo – miserabalism – knows no sexual boundaries (because his fans don’t have sex and when they do they hate it, haha) which may be why he’s never publicly committed to having a sexual orientation. When he quipped that genitalia is a cruel joke, his words rang true. But really, it’s the heart that is a cruel joke, and the genitals are just its unruly henchmen.
“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.
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.
Some songs are composed on piano, some on guitar; this one was composed on a secondhand typewriter. That’s because Morrissey is not a musician and doesn’t play any instruments. He could, of course, just go around with a notepad like a normal-person, but in Morrissey’s world, it’s all about the aesthetics. And the image of the poet with his dry toast and his tea and his battered typewriter pretty much defines the aesthetic of The Smiths, and by extension, their fandom. Sad, but proud of it. Devoutly romantic but too socially useless to do anything about it. I too spent my teenage years clicking away on a thrift store typewriter. It’s wildly impractical, but the sound is very satisfying. It’s a great hobby for someone who spends too much time alone and really only sees other people as vague abstractions and doesn’t have any ambitions in life besides appearing poetic. My teenage self was not a Smiths fan. I just lived a Morrissey-approved lifestyle.
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.
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.
The Smiths are one of those groups that take you into their headspace, and you’d better be prepared for it. In Morrissey’s world even innocuous things like going to the beach are heavy with existential malaise. Morrissey has become almost entirely campy now, but he was serious as a tombstone when he first pined his way into the hearts and minds of the alienated and sexually confused. Shockingly enough, not everyone recognizes themselves in the fantasies of the Top 40, and the 80’s were particularly escapist and divorced from reality in that regard. Songs about people whose main priorities are sex and partying may not say anything relevant to you about your life, not when you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get invited to parties and can barely interact with another person for five minutes. If you’re the kind of person who for the life of you can’t understand how other people manage to form and maintain attachments, how they even manage to find, let alone follow, the prescribed path through life, then the Smiths are for you.