I Hate the Smiths

‘Morrissey never reinvents himself… because "Morrissey" is eternal.’

‘I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.’
~Moz, “How Soon is Now”

1986 was a strange year for music. It gave us Paul Simon’s Graceland, a great album, which in turn gave every high school marching band “My Name is Al.” It gave us Peter Gabriel’s So, a good album, which in turn gave John Cusack’s boombox “In Your Eyes” for the climax of “Say Anything.” They’re both pretty hard to take seriously at this remove.

Sure, in 1986 XTC’s Skylarking came out. I personally think it’s the best album of the 80s. But nobody really agrees with me. Not to mention, the Chameleons UK’s Strange Times, in my opinion the most under-regarded album of the 80s. Again, nobody really agrees with me.

It was a banner year for hip hop that hasn’t aged well. The Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill. Run DMC, Raising Hell. Then there were Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Metallica’s Master of Puppets, two of the best metal albums ever, both of which have aged surprisingly well, both of which still fucking rule.

A slew of bands made good-to-stellar albums that don’t contend with their best work, among them Prince (Parade), Sonic Youth (EVOL), Big Black (Atomizer), Elvis Costello (Blood and Chocolate, King of America), R.E.M. (Life’s Rich Pageant), and Husker Du (Candy Apple Gray). Not to mention Rembrandt Pussyhorse by the Butthole Surfers, and some Talk Talk album, I dunno, I don’t listen to Talk Talk.

So, what’s the point? “Album of the year” is just as arbitrary a demarcation as “album of the month,” but people take it way, way, way more seriously. Let’s bear in mind that I was three years old during the year in question. But, the point is, the de facto best album of 1986 - the most acclaimed album of that year, and the 28th most acclaimed of all time - is The Queen is Dead by the Smiths. And I fucking hate the Smiths.

Actually, that’s overstating the case, something I am wont to do, because I was raised to fucking hate The Smiths.

In high school, my mentor-figure was a hip young English teacher who hated the Smiths. He told me I should hate the Smiths, and love Motorhead, and the Ramones, and Ministry. So I did. I loved Motorhead, and I hated the Smiths, sight-unseen.

Then, in college, I started listening to the Smiths, and I thought they were pretty ok. Nothing earth-shattering. Definitely some lovely little pop songs, some really truly great songs, truth be told, like “This Charming Man,” that kind of pogo-rific motorized power pop that’s great to tap your foot to – that is, in a way, transcendentally great to tap your foot to.

They even have one song, “The Queen is Dead,” that fits into that silly, obtuse personal category: Best Song Ever. When I hear “The Queen is Dead,” I am apt to say, “This Is The Best Song Ever.” It’s a really fucking awesome song.

And, on top of the tunes, Morrissey writes some excellent slogans. In fact, they might be the best slogan-band of all time. Certainly, the best thing about the band is their slogans, which might be why some people say they write such great lyrics. There’s “Shoplifters of the world unite,” “hang the DJ,” “life is very long when you’re lonely, “there is a light that never goes out,” “girlfriend in a coma,” “hand in glove.” Great slogans. Good little band. And it’s pretty obvious that they’ve influenced the music that I listen to as much as anybody, what with their guitar pedals and their vocal trills and their motorik percussion and their angst. Sure, I’m not a big fan of Moz’s singing style. “Operatic” and “crooning” are, to me, two things that have no peanut-butter-and-chocolate business being stuck together in one package. But still, I kind of liked the Smiths.

There is nothing about the Smiths that makes me hate the Smiths, or want to hate the Smiths. Not even that song, “Meat is Murder,” about how meat is murder.

Heifer whines could be human cries
Closer comes the screaming knife
This beautiful creature must die
This beautiful creature must die
A death for no reason
And death for no reason is murder

I don’t even hate Morrissey for setting the template for the entire wave of aggressively sexually ambiguous, pampered, entitled, ultra-groomed reality TV stars (see above). There’s nothing about the Smiths that makes me want to call the Smiths the best band that’s ever been and ever will be, or even a top-shelf band like some of the ones that owe a huge debt to them. The Stone Roses or Radiohead or whatever.

This was, naturally, before I’d come into contact with Smiths fans. Because Smiths fans are out of their motherfucking minds. The only thing that makes me feel strongly about the Smiths is the way that people feel so strongly about the Smiths.

And it’s got very little to do with people just loving the Smiths. That would be fine. Love away. But to read up on the Smiths is to immediately give up trying to read up on the Smiths, because it’s impossible to penetrate through the jungle of fanboy adulation and rancor. They’re the pissiest bunch in the world. You get your hyperbolic superlatives like, “The Smiths were the greatest British band of the '80's, maybe of all-time. Their singer Morrissey combined the wit and style of Oscar Wilde with the good looks and poise of James Dean to become the landmark artist of his era.”

You get Noel Gallagher from Oasis calling Morrissey “without a doubt the most literate man to write music.” And I’m not deriding Moz’s literary bent. I’m just saying, there’s at least a little bit of doubt. Especially from a guy who goes on to say, “they made the most unique music of their generation, probably any generation.” It’s a fucking amazing interview, though: Noel Gallagher on the Smiths.

Hyperbole like that makes me kind of angry, not in and of itself, but because the people who use that kind of hyperbole are the kind of people who call you stupid for disagreeing with them. Smiths fans, more than any other educated segment of the population I have yet encountered, are apt to call you stupid for not liking the Smiths. They do this because they’re tired of being ragged on for being Smiths fans. So they lash out. Which naturally lends to the predilection towards hating the Smiths even more, just to piss them off. It’s a vicious high school caste system cycle.

“This Charming Man” has been covered by Death Cab for Cutie, Stars, and Braid, three of my all-time favorite “I’m feelin’ down” bands. Death Cab changed a few of the words around in their version, and the people on songmeaning.com took umbrage. “Jesus Christ, what those punks did to Mozza's lyrics here is the songwriting equivalent of rape.” OK, look: there is no songwriting equivalent of rape. Rape is the only equivalent of rape. But this is what happens when you get a bunch of people to worship a man who won’t let people look him in the eye.

But the professional Smiths haters, they’re just as bad. The best example of undistilled Smiths-bashing is by the band Pine Sheep – one of the guys from Ween, before he formed Ween – called “I Hate the Smiths.”

All you do is hate life and tell me about it
You're a homosexual, just keep me out of it
All your music sounds the same
I don't even like your art fag name

Cause I hate The Smiths and Steven Morrissey
I hate The Smiths and Steven Morrissey

You're always depressed and you're never glad
Maybe it's something to do with your dad
I like to be happy, I think that it's good
Hey, you're no bud, you're no dude

Cause I hate The Smiths and Steven Morrissey
I hate The Smiths and Steven Morrissey

It’s your typically reactionary-conservative response. It’s easy to rag on the Smiths. All you have to do is play the sex card and claim to be normal. Which is totally bullshit. It’s pretty much what Rush Limbaugh would say about Morrissey on his radio show, if he was on the fat man’s radar. It's also, ahem, sort of hilarious (“Maybe it's something to do with your dad!”). But that's just me talking.

One time, a Writers Workshop poet-dude asked how I could have anything but love for the Smiths, being as I am a “hyperverbal pussy” and “a diva.” It’s an interesting question. How could someone whose life is so fundamentally predicated on failed romance, drama-queenery, depression, repression, misery, hatred of women, hatred of men, anger at men and women who are happy together, fear of failure, fear of success, and pop songs about all these things not care for the Smiths? It doesn’t make sense.

One of the answers is, I think Morrissey is vastly overrated as a poet. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” is sort of the Smiths’ calling card.

It’s widely regarded as their best song, and even as one of the best songs ever written. And I get the sentiment, I’ve felt the way the song’s protagonist feels. Oh my god, I’m so happy, and I’m going to fuck it up, so we might as well die right now. It’s as close as any song could be to one of my favorite songs, but it’s not. For one thing, like many a Smiths song, it sounds a little musically anonymous to me. For another, that chorus, lovely and flighty as it is, it just bothers the hell out of me.

If a double-decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die.

It just seems a little… well… I don’t want to say obvious, because that’s not the problem, and I don’t want to say heavy-handed, because that’s the point. So I’ll invent a new word. It’s just a little obvianded.

Robert Christgau has Moz as right as anybody: “it's the James Taylor effect all over again--hypersensitivity seen as a spiritual achievement rather than an affliction by young would-be idealists who have had it to here with the cold cruel world.”

The other answer is, I think everything the Smiths did, got done better over the next decade by the bands that held the torch for them, basically rendering them irrelevant, sort of like what happened to Carl Perkins after Elvis basically torched him.

But still, I’ve been working on it. I’ve been listening to The Queen is Dead, because it’s supposed to be great, and who am I to say it’s not? Number 216 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, over 100 spots better than the Cure’s Disintegration. Number 6 on Pitchfork’s best albums of the 80s. Number 2 on NME’s list of greatest British albums. Of course, that’s NME, so it doesn’t mean anything to anyone without the capricious mod-microchips they implant in the cortexes of all British babies. It has an average rating of 5 stars, based on 180 reviews, on Amazon.com. Not one person gave it a four. It’s on pretty much every best-of list in existence. And I think it’s a good album. A fine album. But mehhhhhhhhhh. It’s filler for a few great tracks.

Nearly every time I hate an album that everybody else loves, I think about it so much that I end up liking it. So far this has not been the case. “I Know it’s Over” is great, and, as a bonus, for once Moz’s voice doesn’t remind me of a stick of roll-on deodorant or a Fruit Rollup left in the sun for an afternoon. “Cemetery Gates” might be the second best song called “Cemetery Gates,” which would be a fine accomplishment if the better “Cemetery Gates” wasn’t by Pantera. Just kidding. I fucking love Pantera.

Which might explain why I don’t dig the Smiths. (Phil Anselmo both air-guitars and air-punches during the guitar solo in this video. Awesome.)

But come on. “Frankly Mr. Shankly” is “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as rewritten by a total fucking asshole, and really – did we need “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” to be rewritten by a total fucking asshole? I mean, yes, it’s one of Johnny Marr’s catchiest bits. But has ever a song had its foot so badly stomped on by a lyric? I thought Morrissey was supposed to be like some kind of pop poet god. “Frankly, Mr. Shankly, since you asked, you are a flatulent pain in the arse.” I know it’s supposed to be stupid. I know that’s the point. But what a shitty point. Like having a song called “Vicar in a Tutu” about a vicar in a tutu. How gender-bending. Or “Some Girls Are Bigger than Others,” which goes “some girls are bigger than others, some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.” And it goes like that for like three interminable minutes. I’m not one to decry “formalism” in pop music, and I am no great hater of cleverisms, but what exactly the fuck am I supposed to be getting out of this?

I guess nothing. Maybe the lesson to be learned here is moderation. I don’t have to hate the Smiths. I don’t have to love the Smiths. I can just let the Smiths be.

But, just for the sake of argumet... if I had to choose a side... I fucking hate the fucking Smiths.


Joe said...

I'm so in agreement with you that I just added you to my blogroll. Take that, Moz.

(Also: Give me a heads up when you move into town - I'd like to do a meet/greet thing.)

D said...

We're going to get that sumbitch no matter how much blogrolling and silent bitterness it takes.

I will up your heads. I would like that. Though forgive me if I stare at you like some kind of zombie clone for the first, oh, three or four minutes. Come to that, I'll probably mistake you for your brother @ P4k even before the great transmigration to Hopkins. ("is this heaven? no... it's baltimore.")

James said...

I love The Smiths. They're my favourite band. But I don't think you're stupid for not liking them.In fact, I enjoyed your rant. But maybe next time direct your anger at those more deserving of it. The Jonas Brothers, perhaps?

Slobodan Burgher said...

I fucking hate the Clash.

Anonymous said...

The Smiths are my all-time favourite band and while I don't really agree with you on all your your points, I can still see very clearly where you're coming from. The Queen is Dead is an amazingly great album in my opinion and you said that Vicar In a Tutu is just a song about a Vicar In a Tutu. Well it is and it isn't. And by saying that I mean that Vicar In a Tutu is about a indivdiaul male wearing a tutu but it is also the moral that you have to understand. There is a really weird guy that wears very strange clothing and yet he is not afraid of anyone nor what anyone thinks. And Some Girls are Bigger Than Others is mainly about the riff and the humourous side of things I guess. It is kind of like the first time a boy starts noticing that he is turned on by girls but in this case its a man coming out of his shell and noticing. And just for the record, Frankly Mr Shankly is not a rip-off of Ob La Di, Ob La Da nor does it even have any similarities. The true rip-off is Why Don't You Get a Job by The Offspring.

Anonymous said...

Oh and ironically Phil Anselmo of Pantera actually says that Morrissey was an influence on him.

Anonymous said...

"There is a light that never goes out" hardly contains any of The Smiths' most accomplished lyrics (that would, in my not-so-humble opinion, be "The hand that rocks the cradle"). ION, I normally appreciate a good ranting but this just wasn't cohesive enough to really grasp my music noob interest, which makes any further comments from me completely pointless.

nate said...

that pine sheep song always gets me

eddiezr said...

I too have a problem with Morrissey. I like when one of his songs begins, but by mid point I'm severely agitated. I just can't take the F***ing whining, certainly not from people and apparently not in song.

It's actually disturbing to witness someone suffering so badly, and then to have people celebrating his pain so enthusiastically. Because that's what you are doing when you express admiration for him. You're not actually complimenting his creativity as much as you are uniting with a fellow sufferer.
I suppose the short answer to the question of why Morrissey and the Smiths are so popular is that misery loves company. It's so sad for me to realize that so much of this shared pain is so unnecessary.

If they had the amazing medications back then that we do today I'm sure many of Moz's dilemmas would've just evaporated. Not all, of course. He still would have been a talented, intelligent, sensitive artist, but just not swirling in a vortex of his own miasma.

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Anonymous said...

I hate the Smiths. Ween rules.

Anonymous said...

I just starting listening to Morrissey and the Smiths recently. Don't you think that most of Morrissey's anguish is about being afraid of his homosexuality due to Christian upbringing and being guilty about it and feeling he's dirty because of it??Its so clear from the songs I have heard so far that they are about denying his homo-erotic feelings. Thats why he's been celibacy. Now that he's older he's coming to terms with it. I feel sorry for him, of course. He wished he never was born that way obviously - ITS ALL SO CLEAR - Its simple. Case closed. Obviously his music is about alienation and loneliness, also.

Anonymous said...

I just starting listening to Morrissey and the Smiths recently. Don't you think that most of Morrissey's anguish is about being afraid of his homosexuality due to Christian upbringing and being guilty about it and feeling he's dirty because of it??Its so clear from the songs I have heard so far that they are about denying his homo-erotic feelings. Thats why he's been celibacy. Now that he's older he's coming to terms with it. I feel sorry for him, of course. He wished he never was born that way obviously - ITS ALL SO CLEAR - Its simple. Case closed. Obviously his music is about alienation and loneliness, also.

Anonymous said...

-in response to his Christian upbringing and guilt - not only that, but the embarrassment in those days about being seen that way in that social atmosphere where he grew up in the UK with the chaps on his block.

Anonymous said...

If the Smiths or Morrisey himself could cover a Bob Dylan song that would be so F$#@&*$@* cool!!

Anonymous said...

Maybe he would achieve some legitimacy finally by la de da'ing a Dylan song. I can't believe anyone out there thinks he is a great songwriter. Every song is about his problem with liking guys, disguised as he thinks it is. He's not bad, but definitely not one of the best. I guess his charm is his style.

viagra online said...

They are a good band, I don't know what is the problem with their music, I mean, have you ever listened to that song named "how soon is now?": It's great!

Anonymous said...

I googled "why are the smiths so popular" and found this. I love this post, really well written and did a good job of summing up my feelings about the band. Good work.

Tom said...

Personally I like the Smiths... I wouldnt say LOVE as I'm not a massive fan who worships Morrisey.

But, as someone touched on earlier in the comments - aren't there bands much more deserving of such a rant? I mean, there are bands more popular than the Smiths these days without even 1/100th of the talent.

I would rather listen to Smiths albums back to back for the rest of eternity than listen to anything that comes on the radio these days!

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Elliott Broidy said...

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Anonymous said...

The only problem with this article is that you say Ween is "conservative." lol clearly you are not very familiar with Ween. Otherwise, I agree!