The Rebirth And Contemporary Significance Of The Smiths

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“Of all the ways in which music changed over the course of the twentieth century, the most fundamental was the shift from being something played to something they consumed,” music historian Elijah Wald writes in the opening to his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll. This idea of music evolving from a leisurely pastime into a set of guidelines of how to deal with human existence propelled the careers of an uncountable number of artists and musicians who made their livings presenting themselves as the personal messiahs to the everyday person. This person looks for answers to questions he cannot understand, and finds solace in lyrics that assures him that he is not alone in what he is experiencing. Whether it is the voice of hope that Leonard Cohen provided during the Cold War, the message of peace that Simon and Garfunkel spread, or the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel that The Smiths offered, music can have a profound impact on its listeners – an impact that can influence their entire being.

But why does music that perpetuates this type of hope and acceptance have such a universal influence? It is because even in the greatest state of loneliness, one can listen to a meaningful record that shows them that somebody out there understands how they feel.

Although they were only a band from 1982 until 1987, The Smiths managed to record in a half a decade’s material that conveys a message of understanding adolescence that even today, twenty-two years after the band’s demise, still inspires and guides the band’s fans. But why, all of a sudden, have The Smiths emerged from the vault of ‘80s treasures and slowly crept their way back into mainstream pop culture? With more pressing desires (and larger contracts) than ever for the band to reunite, more and more appearances on contemporary film soundtracks, and more musicians citing Morrissey and Co. as their biggest influences and musical heroes, The Smiths are gradually morphing from a subversive underground movement into icons and musical therapists for a brand new generation.

Contemporary culture is embracing the world of independent art more than ever before. The number of independent films gaining box office recognition and dominating over Hollywood blockbusters at the Academy Awards, for instance, has skyrocketed in the past decade. Audiences are beginning to appreciate the intelligence and beautiful artistry of films such as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Garden State, and Little Miss Sunshine in ways that mainstream culture previously had not. Quotes from these films have made their way into the everyday American’s lingos, and memorabilia (such as the “hamburger phone” made famous in Juno) have become recognized materialized manifestations of today’s pop culture. When indie heroes Death Cab For Cutie penned the title track to the new Twilight movie, it was clear that the division between the underground and the mainstream is a much thinner, blurrier line than it has been in the past. In other words, the unknown has become the most recognized, the underground is the popular, the small is large, and the underappreciated is the most appreciated. Our subculture of hipsters and tortured artists has suddenly risen to the forefront of the mainstream media, creating a world where independent art is cherished by more than a select few—in fact, it’s embraced by the masses.

On top of unmasking the underground movement, contemporary music has also backtracked to the 1980s for inspiration. Many of today’s biggest pop artists, ranging from Lady GaGa to Britney Spears, are reverting back to the 1980s to create their modern sounds. This homage to the past is not only present in club music, but also heavily in indie rock. Therefore, it only makes sense that The Smiths are making their way back onto the mainstream radar. They opened up the gates to teenage freedom, giving their listeners a chance to rebel against the mainstream and feel however they pleased. As author and musician Joe Pernice writes in his novella Meat Is Murder (based on The Smiths’ album of the same name), The Smiths’ music “was so raw, so vivid and so melodic that you could cling to it like a lifeboat in a storm.”

Even though their sound was not particularly original or innovative (although it was undeniably breathtaking), it was The Smiths’ lyrics that have captivated their fans since 1982. They gave hope to those who had none. Those who listened to their music felt inspired and understood in a world of misunderstanding. Their music gave chances to those who couldn’t find chances elsewhere. Whether you were the most popular kid or biggest outcast in school, The Smiths had a way of making you relate to them. They took the basic principles of rock and roll, and turned them inside out and made it their own by using their music as aural diaries – places where they could divulge their inner most thoughts, feelings, and views about the world.

“If you compare The Smiths with previous Great White Hopes of preceding eras, it’s clear that the rebellion of the Stones, Who, Pistols, Jam, was based in some kind of activism or at least action, an optimism about the potential of collective or individual agency. But The Smiths’ rebellion was always more like resistance through withdrawal, through subsiding into enervation … The Smiths, hooked on the glamour of the misfit, could only occupy an impossible position, attempt to create a rock music where aggression was replaced by vulnerability, hedonism by asceticism,” author Simon Reynolds writes in his book of essays on underground music, Blissed Out. “Why were The Smiths ‘important’? Because of their misery. Never forget it,” he adds. “And The Smiths were important because of their extremism, their unbalanced view of the world, their partiality … Morrissey is ‘half a person,’ his very being constituted around lack, maladjustment – this is the vantage point from which he launches his impossible demands on life, his denial of the reality principle. Satisfaction and adjustment could never enter The Smiths’ picture, for this would breach their identity,” Reynolds concludes.

The brilliance behind Morrissey’s lyrics is that they can apply to anyone at any time. While, yes, much of what he wrote was inspired in response to what he believed was England’s desire to become more “American-ized,” the anguish he feels in terms of change and unwanted transitions apply to any generation. An example of one particular group of people that connected to Morrissey’s lyrics was the homosexual community. Morrissey’s own sexuality has been speculated about since the start of his career, largely due to the fact that his lyrics were often interpreted as being veiled with references to homosexuality and the homosexual identities of many of his biggest idols, including Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Klaus Nomi and The New York Dolls.

The Smiths’ song “How Soon Is Now” became an anthem of the 1980s gay rights movement, as it signified that love is a universal human need. “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,” he passionately sings on (ironically) one of the most upbeat records The Smiths ever put out. This example perfectly demonstrates the passion and acceptance in Morrissey’s lyrics that caused so many to find solace in his words. “The Smiths dealt with gay themes in a realistic and thought-provoking manner. A review in Rolling Stone Yearbook 1984 described their first album as follows: ‘Lead singer Morrissey’s memories of heterosexual rejection and subsequent homosexual isolation were bracing in their candor, and Johnny Marr’s delicately chiming guitar provided a surprisingly warm, and sympathetic setting,’” note scholars Michelle Wolf and Alfred Kielwasser in their textbook Gay People, Sex, and The Media.

The need for the type of voice of hope that The Smiths provided is as strong now as it was in the 1980s. While countless musicians have cited the band as their greatest influence, few have managed to live up to their inspirational and timeless status, and even fewer have secured themselves a place in the rock and roll hall of fame under the same umbrella of being able to capture and understand adolescence and misery.

In 2009, Morrissey had his most successful year as a solo artist since his debut in 1988. His newest studio album, “Year Of Refusal,” produced his highest U.S. chart debut on the Billboard 200, he is currently finishing a sold out stadium world tour, and he has re-released upgraded and re-mastered versions of two of his best albums from the 90s. Furthermore, he will be releasing an 18-track collection of B-sides entitled “Swords,” which chronicles his entire career as a solo artist, on November 3rd. “Morrissey’s god-like status has relatively little to do with those sporadic moments in history when the release of a new album or globe-trotting tour spawn an avalanche of commercially-driven media attention. The fuss Morrissey has been generating lately is little more than a peak in the hype cycle that spins around any pop singer, model or movie star lucky enough to have a career that lasts longer than one chart-topping album or blockbuster film. Rather, it is his obsession and affiliation with the margins of culture and society — all that is unpopular, ugly and damned — that fuels this uncommonly extreme devotion of his fans,” writes music critic Chloe Veltman.

Perhaps this overwhelming demand for Morrissey is simply a result of his being the closest thing to a contemporary Smiths album or tour. For years, rumors have been circulating about a possible Smiths reunion, none of which have yet to see the light of day. When Morrissey was offered five million dollars to reunite for a single performance with the band at the 2005 Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, he turned it down by explaining that money was not a factor. It was later reported in 2007 that Morrissey had turned down a forty-million pound contract to reunite with Johnny Marr and tour under The Smiths name for a world tour in 2008-2009. This insistence on the return of the band, however, did not go unnoticed by its members. Although unwilling to reunite, the band did issue a hand-picked greatest hits album entitled “The Sound Of The Smiths” in late 2008, and re-issued digitally re-mastered and restored versions of all of their albums on vinyl in September of 2009.

The Smith’s influence on contemporary music is undeniable. L.A. Times music critic Scott Timberg wrote in April 2009 that Morrissey “patented the template for modern indie rock.” That belief is shared by Philadelphia Weekly music critic Steven Wells, who in December of 2007 wrote an article that stated Morrissey was “the man who more or less invented indie,” and was an artist “who more than anybody else personifies indie culture.” Morrissey has sat firmly on the throne of the indie kingdom since the early 1980s, but it is only now when we as a culture are beginning to embrace the underground art movement that he is being recognized by a new generation of musicians and fans alike as the voice of not just a generation, but a century. He is to us what John Lennon was to the baby boom generation, and in fact is the only candidate who rivals his brilliance as both a songwriter and a musician. While we may never see The Smiths together live in concert or hear another album from them ever again, their messages of acceptance, peace, rebellion, and dealing with misery will forever serve as the inspirational hymns for fans all over the world and continue to influence future generations of musicians. You can’t have a much better legacy than that.

Works Cited

  • Kielwasser, Alfred and Wolf, Michelle. Gay People, Sex, And The Media. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Pernice, Joe. Meat Is Murder. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2007.
  • Reynolds, Simon. Blissed Out. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990.
  • Timberg, Scott. “Coachella: Morrissey and the Smiths’ influence is apparent”. LA Times. 13 April 2009.
  • Veltman, Chloe. “The Passion Of The Morrissey.” The Believer. August 2004: Online Exclusive.
  • Wald, Elijah. How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll: An Alternative History Of American Popular Music. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.
  • Wells, Steven. “Big Mouth Strikes Again.” Philadelphia Weekly. 12 December 2007.


"Funny Games" Film Review

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Horror movies. You either love them or you hate them. The purpose of a horror film is to ignite some sort of fear in its audience. In the past decade, horror films have taken a sharp turn from the psychologically challenging and mind bending genre it used to be (exhibit A: “The Shining”) and have morphed into a display case for obscure and creatively vulgar ways of showcasing massacred human carnage (exhibit B: the ever expanding, ever annoying “Saw” franchise). Whether you’re rooting for Drew Barrymore to run away from being carved like a jack o’ lantern in the beginning of “Scream” or you’re sitting as far away from your TV as possible while watching “The Ring” in case Samara walks out to get you, we can all agree that the starting point of a horror film is that we, as an audience, like to be scared.

But what does that say about us? Doesn’t fear have a negative connotation to it? As a horror movie buff myself, I’ve often been asked why I like to feel scared, when in the real world, that’s a feeling most people try to avoid. I get a deep concerned look with condescending eyes drilling holes through my skull while being asked what kind of sick things I’m personally into if I enjoy these films, along with a side dish of snide comments about how perhaps I should be seeking counseling. Because, yes, clearly since I enjoy “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I too have fantasies about butchering oversexed teenagers and using their skin for my own personal face masks.

What I find the most terrifying in a film, however, is realism. Something like being trapped in a house full of rabid zombies doesn’t really make me scared because I don’t believe that I’ll ever be in that situation. It’s when movies depict real people in a seemingly ordinary setting facing some sort of life-or-death conflict that my blood starts to pulse. Recently, a group of my friends and I decided to rent the 2007 film “Funny Games,” written and directed by German filmmaker Michael Haneke. What ensued was a group of ten people quietly gathered around a television set, none of us uttering a word or even moving a muscle, unless it was to put a hand over our open, stunned, gaping mouths.

Warning: this article will contain major plot spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further. You’ve been warned. “Funny Games” tells the story of husband and wife Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) and their son Georgie (Devon Farver) as they go on a vacation to their country house, only to be taken hostage in their own home by two psychotic young men named Peter and Paul (played equally chillingly by Michael Pitt and Brady Cobert). After breaking George’s leg with a golf club, they make a bet with the family that they won’t survive the night and that the whole family will be dead by 9:30 the following morning.

The movie is a brilliant commentary on both film making and its audience. What I love most about it is that it causes its audience to forget what they know and toss all expectations about film out the window. As movie watchers, we are used to certain conventions coming into play and specific “conflict before resolution” formulas so that by the time we leave the movie theater, our sense of morality is restored and we can go on with our day without feeling profoundly disturbed. We’re used to perfectly packaged stories that adhere to a specific moral code and keep up our faith in a world where good triumphs over evil. With this film, Haneke takes these rules and expected comfort levels and turns them inside out.

When we watch movies, we don’t expect the fourth wall to be broken. We watch movies knowing that we as the audience are not directly involved in the conversations the characters are having, nor do our feelings about the film impact the end result. In “Funny Games,” one of the home invaders turns to the audience and begins to speak to them, questioning what we are thinking: “I bet you’re on their side, right?” he asks in a moment that not only terrifies viewers, but makes us feel like we are inside of Peter and Paul’s sick and twisted psychological torture chamber, being played just like Ann and George are. This further scares the audience by raising the question: what’s fact and what’s fiction? If we’re somehow involved in this film, does it make it more real? Are we then, by default, more susceptible to this type of terror?

Another way this movie breaks conventions is by not giving any real motive for the antagonist’s actions. While in most films that involve murderers there is a drawn out purpose behind their evil ways, “Funny Games” doesn’t give any specified reason for why Peter and Paul do what they do. The world is full of evil and often there is no crazy twist at the end of a murder case that explains the exact reason that caused someone to lash out the way they did. In the real world, evil exists and sometimes the point is not the attack against a single person but rather the need to make evil happen. Peter and Paul perform the same stunts on three families in this film. (there’s a strong indication that they attacked two other families). Why were these families chosen? They were there and Peter and Paul had the power to attack them. That’s all. Some audience members find that frustrating and a cop-out, but I find that chilling to the bone due to its unfortunate accuracy.

In films like these, there’s always the “survivor girl” (a term I learned from the campy and deliciously hysterical horror-comedy “Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon”), or at least one main character who survives to tell the tale. While innocent people are killed off throughout the film, one expects there to be at least one person left over. This gives the audience a sense of hope that they’ll be able to report the gruesome events that happened to them and make sure that the bad guy is caught … again, restoring our moral values and making us feel better about the film. In “Funny Games,” however, there are no survivors. Peter and Paul were right: nobody in the family does survive. Georgie, the little boy, is shot in the head. While we do not see this happening, we hear the gun being shot and the both tear evoking and horrified reaction that Ann and George have about their dead son. Now if brutally killing innocent children doesn’t go against the mold of the typical Hollywood blockbuster, then I don’t know what does.

Furthermore, Ann’s death happens so nonchalantly that, if you blink, you may miss it. While tied up with rope and duct tape around her mouth, Peter and Paul take her out on a boat in broad daylight. All of a sudden, they realize it’s 9:30 and she’s still alive, so they simply push her off the boat, letting her sink to her grave. Up until this point, I expected her to survive and get revenge – to be given one last chance to fight back or at least even curse her captors out. Instead, there was no dramatic hero music playing in the background and zero chances for her to break free. In real life, there is no moment like this. There is no miraculous plot twist that saves your life. Often times those that are captured like Ann don’t live to tell the story, despite what previous films have taught us.

The film’s thesis, it seems, was how we as an audience are numb to violence. While this is a horribly disturbing movie, most of the violence actually happens off screen. In the scene where Georgie is shot, we see Paul making himself a sandwich in the kitchen and all we hear is Peter pulling the trigger and the shot going off in the other room. I found myself frustrated to be watching this seemingly mundane task of spreading peanut butter on bread when I felt like I should be watching the little boy save himself and turn the gun around on the bad guy in the last second. Haneke deliberately lets these traumatic events happen outside of the audience’s range of vision because he wants them to have the reaction I did. Like Paul making the sandwich, we as an audience are hungry – we’re hungry for violence. We’re so used to seeing violence that when we know it’s going on, even though it may be sick and disgusting, we expect and sometimes want to see it. He teases this notion by showing us what happens before and after violence occurs, but never the violence actually happening. By the time Ann is about to be killed off, we’re so numb to what’s happened to her that we’re already anxious about the boat heading over to the next family that will be terrorized, making us care less about Ann and more about the people who are about to be targeted next. Our lack of devoted sympathy to Ann proves Heneke’s point that we are too consumed by violence to even really be effected by it anymore.

In movies, we also expect that once events have occurred, there is no going back and erasing them to start over. That’s why everyone I was with gasped in confusion and horror when, after Ann shoots Paul, the film looks like it’s being rewound to right before she picks up the gun, and instead Paul survives and points the gun at Ann. Why not rewind and do a second take on something that’s already happened? As a film maker, Haneke had every right to do so. It’s again challenging the conventions we expect versus the reality of what would most likely happen in a situation like this. It would be unrealistic to give Ann the chance to be the heroine all of a sudden, as Peter and Paul’s tactics are too carefully and skillfully devised to employ that kind of gambit. Therefore, the audience is temporarily satisfied by having their expectations filled, but Haneke quickly strips them of that and instead serves them a heavy dose of what would really happen rather than what would happen in Hollywood.

While “Funny Games” is not a film for the weak of heart, it is also certainly not a film for those who don’t like to be mentally challenged. It starts out as a seemingly typical thriller, but then all of a sudden presents its audience with horrifying issues: they range from what it must feel like to be completely incapable of helping your family in a time of despair to dealing with the aftermath of a psycopath’s bloody spree whose sole purpose was the sheer pleasure of the power thrill that it produced. If you can walk away from all that with your sense of a moral order intact, you’re doing a lot better than I did.