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I’m With The Band: the Smiths

April 11, 2022, 8:06 p.m.

Welcome to “I’m With The Band.” In this column, I’ll teach you how to become a fan of all the iconic bands that you have always heard of but may not truly know yourself. I’ll introduce you to some deep-cut songs that’ll elevate your status from “surface-level fan” to “real fan” and explain why, in my humble opinion, these bands are worth getting to know. Hopefully by the end of this series, you’ll see why you should become a fan of them, too.

“You … you like the Smiths?” asks Tom Hansen in the movie “(500) Days of Summer.”

When I used to think of the Smiths, I always thought of the infamous elevator scene in “(500) Days of Summer” — you know, the one that sends the message that a woman’s taste in music is the only thing you need to know to fall in love with her. But ever since Steven Patrick Morrissey attempted to justify a racist claim he made by stating that “everybody prefers their own race,” subversive infamy of the Smiths has mixed into my prior associations.

The disparity between the many ways I see the Smiths fascinates me, and ultimately leads to the question: is it possible to separate an artist from their art?

Most people know the Smiths as the ultimate pioneers of indie music. Without the help of any major record label, the Smiths formed in 1982 with lead singer/lyricist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. From the beginning, Morrissey was vocal in his belief that pop music was a dying industry, and that he was “a prophet of the fourth gender” who planned to “save rock ‘n’ roll.” With vehement lyrics that blurred the line between music and poetry, the Smiths quickly found themselves a dedicated underground fanbase consisting of the misunderstood, alienated and lovelorn listeners alike. In their short-lived existence, the Smiths became one of Britain’s most influential bands before ultimately breaking up in 1987.

Having sold many millions of records, the Smiths are far from underground today. Over the years, the band has grown to emblemize our modern notion of indie hipster culture. This association has grown posthumously — because the only thing more hipster than loving an independent underground band is mourning an independent underground band that was popular before your time.

In pop culture, the hipster-like qualities of the Smiths led to their music being featured in an array of indie-romance movies that depict female characters who fit the manic-pixie-dream-girl (MPDG) trope.

Let’s take a look at the Smiths in “(500) Days of Summer.” Our protagonist, Tom, and his object of infatuation, Summer, stand in an elevator together as “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” plays loudly out of Tom’s headphones. “The Smiths? I love the Smiths,” Summer remarks in a dreamy whisper while pointing to his headphones. Never mind the fact that this song is their most popular by a landslide — Summer’s basic awareness of the band’s existence is enough for our newly lovestruck Tom to slowly remove his headphones and meet her gaze while stuttering, “You … you like the Smiths?” 

And just like that, “cool hipster girl who likes the Smiths” is now deemed the love of Tom’s life. This is far from the only time that pop culture has chosen to use the Smiths as a sonic association for the whimsical MPDG, with their music also being soundtracked in films like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Closer.”

If a MPDG is an enigmatic woman who comes on the screen to help the male protagonist learn about himself before fluttering off into nonexistence, then it’s safe to say that Hollywood sees the Smiths as the ultimate manic pixie dream band. After all, the Smiths were an elusive, poetic group that came on the scene to help save pop music and were gone all too soon for us to fully understand who they were as musicians. It’s a perfect pairing, an indie dreamlike band with these indie dreamlike girls, right?

Well, not really. This line of thinking is far from the truth. Although pop culture wants “hipster” to be the defining term for the Smiths, the phrase “problematic” is a much more honest representation of the group.

Morrissey has never redacted nor apologized for any of his blasphemous comments, indicating he isn’t trying to present himself as anything close to politically correct. The disparity between pop culture’s perception of the Smiths compared to their actuality has nothing to do with illusive deceit but rather a collective desire to value how we want to see the Smiths over reality. Many fans openly acknowledge this fallacy, with certain band reviews for the Smiths beginning with disclaimers that ask the reader to ignore Morrissey’s insensitive remarks.

Since the band’s breakup in 1987, frontman Morrissey has done anything but disappear. Over the years, he has made an endless amount of politically and racially insensitive comments, voicing his support for a far-right anti-Islam British political party and making violent claims regarding veganism, as seen in his 2009 Coachella performance.

When we allow ourselves to make personal connections with music, it is often easier to separate the artists from what we listen to. We all do it to a certain degree, even if it is a subconscious decision; most of our favorite songs rely much more on our individualized memories rather than the biographical backstory of the artist.

But when it comes to political and racial insensitivities, how much can we truly separate the artist from our personal connection to the art? For the Smiths, is the “cool hipster” image more accurate than what they culturally represent? Or do the words and actions of the artist themselves always reveal an indisputable truth of what lies behind the music?

For me, the enjoyment of listening to music has always been a combination of my own experiences and my cultivated relationship with the artist themselves. So, yes: “How Soon Is Now?” has been on my running playlist since 2016 and remains featured today. But, more often than not, I do find my finger hesitating over the “skip” button whenever I hear the opening guitar riff.

My picks: “This Charming Man,” “Half a Person,” “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” “Asleep.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Chloe Anne Walsh ’25 is from Chicago, IL, studying English and Film & Media Studies. She is a columnist for Arts and Life. Talk to her about 70s counterculture, MCU films or frozen raspberries at arts 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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