Written by: Ewa Bialoglowska/Edited by: Lila Ovington
Once upon a time, a band from the North came with a sound so fresh and vigorous it took the nation by storm. The sound was rock, but crucially it was pop, too: concise, punchy, melodic, shiny. The singer was a true original, delivering a blend of sensitivity and strength, defiance and tenderness.’ – Simon Reynolds, Uncut Magazine
Fierce republicanism, queerness, anti-Thatcherism, working-class adolescence, and an almost militant advocacy for vegetarianism. These are only a few of the many components that make The Smiths one of the most iconic and unique bands in British history. Unquestionably, the very same themes are responsible for the timeless appeal of The Smiths’ vocal melodies and ironically crude lyrics that dominated the 1980s by offering a soothing distraction from the misery of life in Thatcherite England.
It may seem curious to look at the legacy of this Manchester band, so closely associated with a left-leaning political agenda, and analyse it in search of nationalist discourses, exclusionary practices of ‘othering’ or even the slightest signs of toxic masculinity. However, for those up to date with the world of popular culture, it will come as no surprise that since the dissolution of The Smiths, Morrissey, the eccentric and troubled front man of the legendary band, has undergone a peculiar political journey. His most recent scandals involve arguing that ‘everybody ultimately prefers their own race,’ proudly presenting a ‘For Britain’ badge on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon or siding with Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein amidst the #MeToo movement.
One would think that Morrissey’s open sympathy towards British nationalist movements and his outright racism simply reflect one man’s story; the political trajectory of a lonely and disillusioned man, growing up in the North of England, attempting to construct his persona around a collection of bizarre worldviews. His infamous claim that the horrific treatment of animals in China degrades the Chinese to a ‘subspecies’ could be cited as just one such example. Certainly, his blatantly racist and nationalist comments are not particularly unique amongst extreme English conservatists. What must be highlighted though is the specific context that shaped Morrissey and the way he subsequently projected his views and beliefs onto The Smiths lyrics; infused with a nostalgic and aestheticised sense of misery.
It is quite tempting – and comforting – to separate the brilliance of The Smiths from the extreme sentiments that Morrissey came to represent during his undistinguished solo career. However, dissociating the master from his masterpiece can lead us to disregard an intriguing correlation. As noted by Owen Hatherley, The Smiths’ music is all about ‘nostalgia, guilt, repression and a scab pulling adolescence’ that directly translates into their tendency to romanticise the hardships of life in the England of the 80s; before perceived hyper-ethnic change and full-blown globalisation, back when Northerners voted Labour against Thatcher’s austerity. Here we approach the core reason for which it is appropriate to look at The Smiths in order to understand certain electoral trends in today’s England.
The 2019 parliamentary elections were a manifestation of a phenomenon that James Kanagasooriam coined as a ‘fading red wall’, whereby the modern-day Conservative Party, and its more right-leaning cousins like UKIP, are able to break through the Labour stronghold of the North, turning the red wall into a Tory blue zone. More precisely, we are witnessing how English people most affected by the cultural and socio-economic dynamics of the 1980s are more drawn towards the right than to New Labour’s ‘foolish utopianism,’ as described by Hatherley, which does not wholeheartedly represent any working-class sentiments and is instead largely focused on projecting a modernising vision of Britain. Taking all of this into account, the nostalgia expressed in The Smiths’ songs can help to identify some of the underlying grievances that are embodied by the English New Right.
The key to untangling such themes, like the notion of fearing a fading Englishness, lies in careful analysis of Morrissey’s creative process. His genius as a lyricist is rooted in his ability to come up with a very deep and personal thought, cover it with a thick layer of irony, and then repackage it with emotion. The intellectual force of his writing can already be felt in some of The Smiths’ earliest songs. ‘Still Ill’ on their debut album, for instance, touched upon the difficult relationship between feeling completely disadvantaged and isolated as a citizen and yet being forced to accept one’s own condition out of the sheer reality of belonging to a national community – ‘England is mine, it owes me a living / But ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye’. This represents a certain paradox where one identifies strongly with England as an ‘us’, whilst simultaneously feeling depressed, betrayed and abandoned by the nation.
This recurring theme often goes hand in hand with feelings of relative economic deprivation, which Eatwell and Goodwin identify as one of the key causes for the rise of national populism in the West. The line ‘What do we get for our trouble and pain? / Just a rented room in Whalley Range’ in ‘Miserable Lie’ is a direct reference to life in bedsits, a once popular type of low-cost shared accommodation. Quite fittingly, bedsit life was also a major theme in the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas that portrayed the working-class family life of the 1960s that Morrissey was obsessed with. For him, history virtually ended in this idealised period and he considered everything that followed to be corrupt modernity.
In this sense, The Smiths clearly romanticised socio-economic hardship and yet the everpresent instability surely fueled their anti-Thatcherite and anti-monarchist sentiments. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the hugely controversial, yet witty, lyrics in ‘The Queen is Dead’: ‘Her very Lowness with her head in a sling / I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing / I say Charles don’t you ever crave / To appear on the front of the Daily Mail / Dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?’. Yet this plainly republican message is far from a deconstruction of any nationalist discourse. Rather, it falls within the anti-elitist sentiments and sense of de-alignment that are quite characteristic of today’s national populists. The rhetoric of a unified, homogenous majority that feels deprived of certain liberties and freedoms by an evil elite is the core discourse at the heart of populism.
Significantly, the national manifestation of populism is usually accompanied by a deep conviction that the elites are in fact representing and prioritising the interests of minority groups, which consequently leads to anti-immigration and xenophobic narratives. Even though The Smiths largely predate the rise of the New Right, it is not a stretch to analyse their lyrics in search for references to the ‘inescapable alien force’, as accentuated by Hatherley, that has presumably changed the landscape of English life; namely, immigration. Focusing specifically on the influence of otherness on culture, The Smiths wrote the song ‘Panic’ which indirectly attacks Black British music: ‘Hang the blessed DJ /Because the music that they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life’. Although the band denied any allegations of racism, Morrissey did not shy away from claiming that he did in fact consider reggae a form of ‘black nationalism’.
Untangling nationalist discourses through The Smiths’ music becomes trickier when we attempt to detect practices of exclusion of other groups typically attacked by the New Right, such as the LGBT+ community. With Morrissey openly transcending gender and sexuality binaries, The Smiths’ music clearly touches on the themes of queer liberation and struggles of defying patriarchal hierarchies. However, their obsessive nostalgia for repression leads one to believe that the only queerness Morrissey is ready to accept is the suffering and self-conflictedness that comes as a result of internalised structural violence. The Smiths’ take on violence is thus somewhat problematic. In songs like ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’ they seem to reconstruct violence in a way that makes it feel almost forgivable. It appears that misery and suffering is so unavoidable and petty that one must accept it as an integral part of English life.
Having highlighted the diverse themes that can be traced throughout The Smiths’ entire discography, we hopefully begin to see how such an iconic band can also represent some of the trends in British cultural nationalism. Stuart Cartland perfectly captured what the rise of English nostalgia identity encapsulates when he defined it as a ‘propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.’ Although this phenomenon of collective national imagining is traditionally associated with pompous Churchillian rhetoric, this article attempted to paint a picture of a very different kind of nostalgia – one for a fading working-class Englishness and a romanticised misery of the transformative 1980s. With reactionary nationalism now on the rise, it might be insightful to delve into The Smiths’ mellow sounds for a glimpse of the dynamics that shaped a whole generation of disillusioned English voters.
Cartland, Stuart. ‘Discourses of Englishness in the contemporary era’. PhD diss., University of Brighton, March 2017.
Doherty, Alex (Host). ‘Morrissey, nationalism, and the aesthetics of English misery’. Politics Theory Other (Podcast), November 2020.
Eatwell, Roger & Matthew Goodwin. National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. Penguin Random House: London, 2018.
Gilbert, Jeremy. ‘Modernity, community, and the contested future: Thoughts on the Labour leadership election’. Open Democracy, September 2010.
Hatherley, Owen. ‘A Study in the Politics and Aesthetics of English Misery’ in eds. Blakeley, G., Future of Socialism: The Pandemic and the Post-Corbyn Era. Verso: London, 2020.
The importance of being Morrissey. Directed by Flintoff, Tina and Kelehar, Ricky. United Kingdom, 2002.
Jonze, Tim. ‘Bigmouth strikes again and again: why Morrissey fans feel so betrayed’. The Guardian, May 2019.
Kanagasooriam, James. ‘How the Labour Party’s “red wall” turned blue’. The Financial Times, 2019.
Reynolds, Simon. ‘The Smiths’. Cut Magazine. No. 120, May 2007.
Roberts, Randal. ‘Morrissey is anti-immigrant and backs a white nationalist political party. Why don’t fans care?’ Los Angeles Times, October 2019.
The Smiths – Under Review: An Independent Critical Analysis. Documentary. United Kingdom, 2006.
Sturges, Fiona. ‘The light has gone out – it’s time we stopped giving Morrissey attention’. The Independent, October 2019.
One reply on “The Smiths, Aestheticised Misery, and the British Nostalgia Identity”
And heaven knows you’re miserable now.