I do not like what pitchfork has become or want to support them with pages views (hence why I am copying and pasting the article here for you), but I think this is a really good piece of writing and says a lot about how we as fans interact with music and translate that interaction into discussions about music.
Are the Smiths Funny?
Most bands have one Big Fact: The thing that everyone who’s heard of an act but doesn’t generally listen to them knows about them. Big Facts are shorthand substitutes for thinking about something, which doesn’t make them wrong. They can be a little misleading…
By Tom EwingJuly 31, 2007
When I was 16 the Smiths were the most important thing in my life and so I had one particular conversation many times. Somebody would say of the band, “I hate them, they’re so miserable.” “No they’re not,” I would pipe up, “They’re funny.” Cue eye-rolling, exclamations, explanations, etceteras. But I was right— the Smiths were funny. Not so much for the occasional punchline— “Caligula would have blushed,” “You should hear me play pian-ohh”— but for Morrissey’s theatricality and timing: You could always take him as seriously as you needed to, he never demanded it.
I could say those things until my gladioli wilted, but most of the people I talked to weren’t buying it. The miserableness of the Smiths was what I think of as the Big Fact about the band. Most bands have one: The thing that everyone who’s heard of an act but doesn’t generally listen to them knows about them. The Big Fact about Joy Division is that Ian Curtis killed himself. The Big Fact about Ashlee Simpson is that she lip-synched on TV. The Big Fact about Amy Winehouse is that she likes a drink or two. And so on.
The Big Fact doesn’t actually need to be a fact, it can be an opinion or a judgement— the Big Fact about Radiohead is that they’re innovative, for instance. Big Facts are shorthand substitutes for thinking about something, which doesn’t make them wrong. They can be a little misleading, though. British pop act the Sugababes established a Big Fact early on: Unlike most manufactured pop groups, they write their own songs. Here was a selling point that has helped them to a four-album career almost free of backlash, including awards and a prominent slot at the Glastonbury Festival. In fact, if you look at the sleeves of Sugababes’ often excellent records they have no more or fewer co-writing credits than any other UK pop act, and they work with the same pop songwriters as several others too. Their Big Fact may not be untrue but the credibility advantage it gave them seems a little unfair— the lesson is, establish your Big Fact early and it will be your friend.
Big Facts are generally harmless, unless you’re a fan of an act, in which case they can be a curse, blocking all your efforts to explain and enthuse. The Smiths were miserable, therefore they couldn’t be funny. It was infuriating: Ignoring the liquid joy Johnny Marr’s playing brought to the band was bad enough, but not grasping Morrissey’s humour was a sure sign that your accuser just didn’t get it. The other thing about Big Facts is that they can sometimes create a boundary that ‘real’ fans can define themselves by stepping past.
The problem is, though, that nobody started liking the Smiths because they were funny. Here’s how I used them in my adolescence: I would sit in my bedroom— or better, in the attic— listening to their tapes repeatedly, fitting myself and a variety of “they”s and “you”s into Morrissey’s lyrics. At school, with a friend who I’d initiated, we would actually write out those lyrics and change words around to fit our current agonies. He was braver than me, and left the lyrics to “Girl Afraid” sitting ‘meaningfully’ on a crush’s schooldesk: the crush utterly and correctly ignored them.
I liked the Smiths, in other words, because they moved me. I identified with them strongly— I wanted to identify with them even more, to imagine a version of them where the deep connection I felt with the band was even more explicit. And when I coded bits of them as “funny” what I really meant was “admirable” or “cool”: I wanted my own awkwardness to be as confrontationally beautiful as Morrissey’s. The Smiths weren’t miserable— but their Big Fact had this much truth in it: The band’s appeal was linked, absolutely, to my misery. Their music and attitude offered a way of controlling and containing it, turning it into something I could use.
None of this I could, or would, have articulated. But luckily at the same time as I’d started liking the Smiths, I’d discovered another way to talk about them. The British music press rather liked the band too, and their terms of discussion were much more palatable— the Smiths were great not because they gave structure to a heart’s chaos but because they were original, visionary and independent. These were proper reasons for loving a band— reasons I could borrow and use to convince friends and repel foes. I could lock my emotional identification with the band away inside— I could avoid admitting, and exploring, how they made me feel. I had a Big Fact of my own to use.
Why am I telling you this? The Smiths were twenty years ago, and I don’t even play them much these days. But I hypothesise that I wasn’t, and am not, unusual— I think the emotional pull of pop music is routinely dodged when people talk about it. The other day I looked at an online discussion about the new Interpol album— I’d heard the single, and wanted some understanding of what anyone could get out of a record I found so emotionally inert. I didn’t find any: I found people saying it was good, and people saying it wasn’t, and careful calibrations of where the new record stood in relation to the previous two. It’s not that I thought the commenters didn’t genuinely like Interpol, but none of them tried to explain it, and there was certainly no indication from any of them as to how the album made them feel.
Now Interpol seem like cold fish to me, and so may not be the best choice of example, but I don’t think they’re atypical in the way that their fans— in public at any rate— seem to deliberately ignore whatever empathy or personal connection they might feel to the music. I ran a message board for five years and I saw people who I knew would probably crawl naked across ground glass to get near the bands they loved most go all mumbly and indirect when someone asked them what the songs made them feel.
I don’t want to sound critical— I dodged the issue when I talked about the Smiths and I’ve been dodging it myself ever since. In fact when Daft Punk’s Discovery came out the conversational dance around it was terribly reminiscent of those old Smiths days, with “miserable” swapped for “ironic.” I was never satisfactorily able to explain what the Daft Punk record meant to me, and I was always happier when the conversation turned to tiffing about sincerity and originality. Talking about that other stuff in public is, you know, embarrassing!
Indeed I’ve wondered if exploring an emotional reaction to music— at any rate in ways that might connect to other people— is even desirable. But it’s only rare to find it done well, not unheard of. Hua Hsu’s excellent review of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” for Slate is squarely about the emotional landscape of the record, and judging from the comments on it he’s managed to articulate something a lot of its listeners feel. But that’s an unusual song, one that fairly begs some kind of empathic connection. In general I can’t shake a sense that how we relate to music is an elephant in the critics’ lounge. I don’t think I’m alone in taking ideas I might use to validate my emotional reaction— innovation, craftsmanship, artistic intent— and turning them into a stand-in for the reaction itself, a reassuring Big Fact for the whole of music.