For a self-serious young person, the kind of kid who identifies her isolation as the symptom of a secret genius, pop music frequently serves as both a refuge and a sort of secular religion. Importantly, the Smiths weren’t just sad, but self-consciously, performatively sad. The jangly and confident guitar of Johnny Marr winked at the droning vocals of Morrissey, and the melodrama of the lyrics—especially by their last album, Strangeways, Here We Come—was marked with the playful irony of camp. Their most melancholic songs were frequently also their funniest. It was the perfect music for people who identify as miserable and are, but perhaps relish their misery too much.
Charles Dickens becomes an honorary member of The Smiths in BBC’s Horrible Histories music video. My favorite lyric: “Whilst writing Edwin Drood, a train crash didn’t help my mood.”
It’s a dreaded sunny day, and we need something to read: looks like Morrissey might soon be able to help us, if the rumors of his forthcoming memoir are true.
These days it’s hard to open a paper without some slightly whipped-up controversy about Morrissey being a racist, but back in the mid-1980s his lyrics and persona mapped out a structure of feeling that spoke to my own floundering selfhood. He sang about shame and unlovability: I had bloodied myself as a 12-year-old using a kitchen knife to scrape away what I saw as the tainting brownness of my skin – a browness that made me only half a person, half the Englishman I wanted to be. He sang about loneliness and isolation: I was rarely invited to the homes of schoolfriends, and certainly never invited them to my mine, for fear that they would snigger at the photographs of turbaned relatives that lined its walls. He sang about weakness: the mantra from my parents was that we were vulnerable because of our religion and had to act as meekly as possible so as not to become targets for thugs and bully boys.
Many of my cousins who lived in Southall and Coventry, places with larger Asian communities, sometimes felt the same emotions. Like me they weren’t into bhangra, so they turned instead to reggae or hip hop, barricade music they associated with street toughness and self-respecting masculinity. Perhaps because I was growing up in a whiter corner of England, or perhaps just for aesthetic reasons, I was drawn to music that was less about collective pride than about individual abjection, music that created theatrical extroversion out of bedroom-bound introversion. I instinctively preferred weakness to strength, treble to bass: “How Soon Is Now”, “Barbarism Begins at Home”, “Shakespeare’s Sister” – the wah-wah rockist parts of the Smiths’ discography were always my least favourite.