The Smiths painted perhaps the most nuanced portrait of misery in all of popular music by paving a middle-way between two opposing schools of thought on misery. The first school of thought denies it; listeners are encouraged to reclaim their sense of contentment with their lives. Artists like Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson often write lyrics that embody this school of thought. Take, for instance, a song like Perry’s “Firework,” which first describes misery by asking: “Do you ever feel already buried/deep Six feet under screams/But no one seems to hear a thing?”, only to persuade her listeners to overcome it and:
Ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the fourth of July.
The second school of thought embraces misery; listeners are invited to accompany the artist as they wallow in it. Radiohead’s “Creep” is a perfect example. This anthem of alienation’s chorus reads “But I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo./What the hell am I doing here?/ I don't belong here.” In just three lines, it describes the artist’s feelings of alienation and immediately validates them.
The issue is that songs like “Firework” marginalize misery; they belittle it by, regarding it as nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome. And songs like “Creep” hyperbolize misery out of proportion as if it were a permanent, inescapable emotional state. Neither truly confronts misery and accepts it for what it is, an inexorable, inherent symptom of existence. Therefore neither is able to provide any constructive insight or wisdom regarding it. Instead, they act as musical pain relievers that temporarily dull the pain of sorrow, rather than offering us a new perspective on it and challenging us to rethink it.
This is what the Smiths were uniquely qualified to do given their lyricist’s familiarity with sorrow. Morrissey’s lyrics were not written by an emboldened survivor who’d managed to crawl out of the abyss of sorrow, nor were they written by a self-pitying crooner sitting discontentedly at the abyss’ deepest depth. Rather, they were written by a lyricist who’d spent enough time in the trenches of day-to-day life to know better than to subscribe to such facile conceptions of sorrow.
To convey his own unique perspective, Morrissey created a constant tension between the content of his lyrics and his delivery of them, that can be found in just about every Smiths song. In an article for The Guardian, author Tim Lott remarked on this dichotomy, saying, "Sung words have rarely been so dependent on their singing for meaning.” Unlike the words of a lyricist like Bob Dylan, Morrissey’s lyrics weren’t meant to be read; they were meant to be sung. More specifically, they were meant to be sung only by Morrissey, one of the few singers who could wring heart-wrenching pathos from a lyric as silly as “I dreamt about you last night/ And I fell out of bed twice.”
The Smiths' canon is rife with instances of Morrissey laughing at his desk but sobbing at his microphone. This was never more evident and precisely distilled than in the song “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”
When you listen to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” you’re first gripped by the vulnerable, earnest emotion on display in the vocals. You don’t doubt for a second that the singer is grappling with true human pain. But, as you begin listening to the lyrics more intently, you realize the episodes he’s recounting are harmless and actually quite trivial.
Two lovers entwined pass me by
And heaven knows I'm miserable now
I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I'm miserable now
If Morrissey’s singing wasn’t so convincing, and his lyrics weren’t so evidently self-aware, we would shrug off songs like “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as silly trifles. But Moz is keenly aware of what he’s doing; he’s recreating the experience of confronting sorrow. From a distance, sorrow appears weighty and severe. But, when we analyze the finer details, the emotion appears rather inordinate and even humorous.
Andrei Rublev provided me with the answer; no one can truly absolve you of your sins. The only antidote for guilt is accepting responsibility for your actions and coming to terms with them, through whatever means necessary. Of course, disowning one’s passion and taking a vow of silence is a rather extreme form of reparation, but it’s certainly an honorable one.
Walking by a pair of lovers and getting a job would elicit joy in another individual, but these episodes wound the speaker nonetheless. Herein lies the humor. Morrissey is slyly revealing the preposterousness of these disproportionate responses. However, when Morrissey sings these snide and forthright lyrics, he imbues them with an earnestness and a vulnerability that renders them devoid of any sardonicism. He is, at once, acknowledging the absurdity of misery and accepting its validity.
“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” doesn’t leave you feeling inspired, like “Firework,” and it doesn’t console you like “Creep.” It also doesn’t leave you thinking, “I’ve felt these exact feelings before.” Simply put, The Smiths don’t evoke feelings you’ve felt before; they instead challenge you to feel something new. They encourage you to reflect on and revisit your past tribulations with eyes that are predisposed to recognize the absurdity of your own misery.
And when you find it, and perhaps even summon the courage to laugh at it, you’ll find that it’s suddenly possible to accept sadness for what it is--an emotion, like any other, that’s intrinsic to the human experience. That’s what the Smiths taught me.
Boyhood etched the idea that maturation is possible at any given time or place into my mind, and it’s stuck with me ever since. The big milestones always seemed like the moments I had to pay attention to, and the everyday episodes were simply the insignificant events that transpired in between. It took a brilliant film like Boyhood to show me that those milestones rarely carry any kind of weight. The act of growing up can happen anywhere and at anytime. This has inspired me to pay attention to everything because any experience can incite change.
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