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The importance of being miserable: Morrissey’s moping as pop subversion

January 16, 2013

Credit: Morrissey's Official Facebook page

Thirty years ago, the world’s most pronounced post-Presley pompadour came into prominence on the posterior of a scandalously erotic single.  Within a day of being released, “Hand In Glove” went platinum, because everybody can appreciate a lovely ass regardless of what gender it is on, and Morrissey lived happily ever after.

Or the single reached number 27 on the UK pop chart, and the Moz-ster lived on in popular song to tease, torment and tantalize up to the present day. I can’t quite remember.

Regardless, few bands beyond the Smiths have ever managed to make a debut-single-cum-mission-statement that so clearly delineated all future arguments, pro and con, surrounding the group.

These arguments have always seemed to focus around Morrissey’s qualities as a singer and lyricist.  Some listeners were immediately annoyed by what they saw as a doom-laden worldview and castigated Morrissey either for bringing his misery to their attention or for being an inauthentic representative of mental illness.  Since I’ve never spoken with Morrissey’s therapist– and taking into consideration that I believe “authenticity” to be a form of conspicuous cultural consumption parading as some sort of philosophy of the mind– the latter argument is wholly inaccessible to me, but the idea that Morrissey is annoying because he is a prominent symbol of sadness has a great deal of weight behind it.  In fact, that is the exact reason many of the Smiths’ fans were drawn to the band in the first place, and why Morrissey is such an effective political pop icon.

In the grand tradition of punk, Morrissey operates as a living sign of refusal.  He says no to marriage, no to sex, no to physical abuse masquerading as education or parenting, no to meat, and no to the idea that he must be happy or strong while living the life he’s apparently chosen.

However, unlike most punk music, Morrissey’s lyrics embrace a passive voice, identifying both with critiquing observers and victims– a lyrical maneuver  that breaks directly with the masculinist assertions of absolutist self-determination that is the cornerstone of so much political popular song.  Morrissey’s passive lyrical style grants him the space to conflate his persona, his person and his characters, making his songs like a game of Operation, where the listener’s steady ear must take into account inflection and phrasing along with the words themselves to clear past whatever parts of a song the ribs are, to find Cavity Sam’s (errr: Morrissey’s) heart and win $200. Bzzzt!

It is in this purposeful obfuscation of Morrissey’s ‘voice’ with his characters’ voices that he builds a relationship with his audience that permits him to sing songs that address heroin addicts, sex workers, people ostracized from society for their physical disabilities all the while making their systemic suffering relatable to those who do not suffer in the same systemic fashion.

Consider again “Hand In Glove” as a fan in 1983 might have consumed it.  First, the consumer would have probably had a thought on the single’s sleeve which portrayed a man’s nude buttocks in a country where homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment a mere 16 years prior.

Secondly, after a scintillating guitar bit, the consumer would probably take note of the opening lines, “Hand in glove/the sun shines out of our behinds,” pushing them to recall the most recent behind they’d seen– which was probably on the cover of the very single they were listening to unless they were that impossible Smiths fan that actually had sex in 1983.

Over the remainder of the song, Morrissey points toward a passionate and secretive love affair that ends in separation.  It takes no tremendous leap in logic, considering the context clues, to assume this song is addressed to a male lover, and that it is a song about the oppressive effects of homophobia.  However, if you were to listen to “Hand In Glove” separate from the trappings of its sleeve, the lyrics would sound like a particularly tormented tale about lost love, an interpretation possible in no small part by Morrissey’s use of not a single gendered pronoun during the entire tune.

Possibly Morrissey’s most effective lyric in blurring the space between his persona, his person, and the experience of a character for a political purpose is  “How Soon Is Now?”  Often considered the Smiths’ magnum opus, the song is a swamp of guitars mired in depression.  The narrator — in this case as close to Morrissey himself as one is likely to get — attempts to reach out to the world by looking for romance at a club and is forced to defend themselves by declaring “You shut your mouth/How can you say/ I go about things the wrong way?/ I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does.”

Released only a month after Rolling Stone erroneously claimed Morrissey identified as a gay man, “How Soon Is Now?” functions both as a bulwark against a siege of personal criticism and as a testament against oppression.  Crucially, Morrissey refused to be identified as anything other than a lonely, hindered human being.  Morrissey’s ability to dovetail his radical refusal to assimilate with his more general experience of pain in the world was, and remains, his most powerful tool in moving his lyrics between a personal and political space.  If only more lyricists could torment us half as well.

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