Saturday, November 12, 2011

J’en ai marre

The Smiths, you see, were my band. I was born in 1968, and following the rule that the music that comes into your life during your 15th year is the music that will never leave you, the Smiths have been sitting on my skinny shoulders ever since. They didn’t offer a cure for my teenage ailments – the insecurity, the frustration, the acne – nor were they crass enough to tell me not to worry about them. Instead, they crafted an aesthetic in which all of them, the worry included, were nurtured, even celebrated. Life was indeed a Beckettian mess, but it might be survived, and you might even get to read a few decent books along the way. My flawed, misshapen humanity was as worthy of respect as that of the smooth-skinned, white-toothed hunks who could catch a rugby ball without bursting into tears.

And then the zits and the insecurity faded (although neither really went away) but the Smiths were still my band. I never became a devotee of Morrissey’s or Marr’s solo output, but the material they made between 1983 and 1987 remained, an anchor in bad times, even raising a goofy smile when it caught me unawares.

And then this happened:

Now, I know that in the download age, musicians and composers have to make a living. It’s not as if the Smiths are the first band to have farmed out their back catalogue to the advertisers; the Beatles have flogged running shoes, the Rolling Stones have hawked computers, and I suspect their financial needs are less than those of Morrissey and Marr. And I don’t really mind that it’s a crappy cover version; the song has suffered far worse. It’s not even that it’s John Lewis, a shop that I’ve happily used in the past, although I do wish they’d stop sending me promotional e-mails every few minutes just because I bought a washing machine from them a few years ago.

No. It’s Christmas that’s the problem. The modern, retail-driven Christmas is a festival that might as well have been designed simply to contradict everything the Smiths ever (claimed to?) stand for. It’s about optimism, sentimentality, consumption, warmth, family, hand-knitted comedy jumpers and chocolate liqueurs. It’s about a world in which the anguished yearning expressed in ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ can be satisfied with a new pair of football boots or a games console. One can only assume that the person who decided to use the song in this context simply failed to understand it and – far more galling – its composers elected not to disabuse him. I wonder if there might have been a shortlist of other possible songs, if M&M had suffered an attack of scruples; perhaps ‘I Want More’ by Can, or ‘Having It All’ from the Absolute Beginners soundtrack.

It’s as if Morrissey had wandered into my teenaged bedroom, with its postcards of him and Oscar Wilde and Louise Brooks, and offered to do something about my acne, and then proceeded to deposit a huge, steaming, vegeburgery shit all over my face. And then Johnny Marr appeared at his shoulder, volunteering to clear up the mess with a big, fluffy John Lewis towel, which only made things worse. And then I realised they were both wearing Santa hats. And hand-knitted comedy jumpers.


Annie said...

I'm nervous to play that clip, as I hadn't seen it. I feel the same way about the Smiths.

But they do have previous form... must confess, I quite liked the Pepe ad though.

Anonymous said...

I simultaneously understand completely and completely fail to understand the fuss about this. The Smiths, like every recording artiste are/were part of a commercial industry. Their songs, even those full of "anguished yearning" were/are mediated events sold to consumers in just the same way washing machines are. The trick is that they made/make you emotionally attached to them in a way that washing machines probably don't (and one would rather hope they didn't really). And actually, my emotional attachment to those songs has faded to such a large degree over time that frankly I could scarcely care less. By contrast, the people and moments those songs remind me of are as dear, clear, murky and miserable as they ever were. And frankly that matters a hell of a lot more than anything else.

Rol said...

I couldn't even watch it all the way through, about 10 seconds was all I could stand.

Do Morrissey & Marr still own the publishing rights to the Smiths material though? As I understand it, they lost them some years ago (to EMI?) and as such wouldn't have any control over how the song was used (particularly a cover version). That said, I've spent a good portion of my life defending Morrissey against all kinds of hypocrisy, so anything's possible.

Charles Edward Frith said...

Nice writing Tim. My first girlfriend was a Louise Brooks fan. Bob haircut and vintage shoes from the turn of the century.

Christmas is meaningless for me thought I'm always up for a chat on theology if anybody wants to celebrate it that way. Nobody ever does.

Tim F said...

The jeans ad looks a bit dated, Annie, but it's vaguely in tune with the song - the shy flirtation between the boy and girl kind of fits. You know nothing will really come of it.

Alistair: as I said, it's not the fact that a Smiths tune is in a commercial that upsets me, or that they have earned money from their music. It's the misappropriation of the song to fit a message that is not just irrelevant, it's implacably opposed to what the song means/meant. It's akin to those idiots who ask for 'I Will Always Love You' to be played at their weddings; as if the Army used Edwin Starr's 'War' in a recruiting ad. It's the grotesque stupidity than rankles far more than the commercialism. Why didn't they use 'Suffer Little Children', because there's a child in it who's, like, suffering. OK, so it's about the Moors Murders, but why should they let that stop them? Unless someone from John Lewis wants to claim they were aiming for an ironic, Tarantino-esque juxtaposition between music and image? Yeah, right.

I don't know if they had the right to veto the use of the song, Rol, but John Lewis has said that Morrissey has seen the ad, and he's happy with it.

I'm fine if people want to celebrate Christmas by going to church and saying thank you for ickle Jesus, Charles. It's the implied moral obligation to buy mincemeat and tinsel and whatever is this year's version of the Cabbage Patch Dolls that gets me down.

Martin said...

The person who chose to use this track, never failed to understand it. They simply reinterpreted it to give a projected return of around £26,000,000 for John Lewis. It gives a whole new meaning to 'record sales'.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of people who choose Every Breath You Take for weddings or romantic moments - stalking, excellent.
Couldn't bring myself to watch the clip.