I have adventures. Physical, metaphysical, ethereal. Some might call them an odyssey. I call them my Twenties. I am glad you are here.

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    Saturday
    May182013

    Don't Tell Us How to Feel: Morrissey, Emotional Honesty, and Legitimizing Pain

              Two kinds of posters plastered the walls of every public school I attended: the neon signs that encouraged us to carry on, that assured us we were okay, worthy of love just the way we were, (the accompanying picture of a dog, cat, or Randomly Outdated Movie Star proved it somehow) and the Black Sadness Posters that urged us to seek help if we ever felt sad, angry, or any less fulfilled than those neon messages assured us that we ought to be.  The antidrug and anti-sex posters were of course draped in the unforgiving bleakness of the Black Sadness.  In health class (when we weren't being exposed to photographs of penises and vaginas that possessed every type and stage of sexually transmitted infection imaginable), we were taught that feelings of sadness, anger, depression, and anxiety were to be dealt with through therapy or drugs so that people could become happy and productive and learn to love themselves anew. Sadness, rage, and anxiety (clinical or otherwise) were not valid in themselves.  They were meant to serve only as precursors to the good emotions, necessary tests to achieve preferable mental states.

              I wish I could say that my encounters with this binary conception of emotional range were simply scars of a well-intentioned, horribly flawed pedagogy but I have found it to be the operative principle in the social, political, religious, and economic triumphalism that still permeates the contemporary commodified culture.  Any sort of distress, difference, or dissonance that conflicts with the drive towards willfully forged exceptionalism is to be ignored and suppressed or medically treated and removed.  I understand that some degree of confronting these feelings and properly contextualizing them might involve some measure of medication and therapy, yet the severity of the corrective measures illustrates a deeper systemic fear of what might happen if anxiety, sadness, depression, and rage became crystallized into a paralyzing nihilism.  I readily accept that exploration of the more morbidly self-aware manifestations of the emotional spectrum could easily be enshrined into a fetish that unleashes a contagious misanthropic wave of destruction.  However, the opposite practice, the current systemic marginalization of agony is a betrayal of the full capacity of the human emotional range.

              The persistent difficulty in discussing the need for a more inclusive psychological paradigm is that the infinite contours of the subjective psychological experience stand in intrinsic opposition to the actualization of such a paradigm.  The complexity of the psychological experience gives rise to societal restraints. Art exists which resonates with those feelings that might otherwise go unexpressed and creates an environment for that expression, in spite of those restraints.  I have found this emotional resonance to be present in Morrissey's music and this is one of the principle reasons that his work has remained so continuously meaningful to me.  Much has been written about the biographical details of Morrissey's life and the mythology surrounding it, but my focus here is to examine his vocal arrangements, lyrics, and performance style.  In doing so, I am not seeking to diminish his songwriting partners' instrumental contributions, they are simply beyond the scope of my study and skill to analyze.  Morrissey's body of work with The Smiths contains some of the most direct explorations of anguish, sadness, loneliness and painfully self-aware powerlessness.

     

               

              There are several songs by The Smiths which richly explore self-aware suffering and captivating sadness; the best and most direct, for my purposes, is "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore", embedded above.  I encourage you to listen to it before reading on.  The lyrics are unwaveringly direct as an indictment against the attitudes and people who treat the overwhelming depression that results in a desire for self-annihilation as something to be mocked, scorned, or laughed at.  The explicit suggestion of the lyrics is that eventually everyone will experience moments of self-destructive desire, so we ought not to treat the occasion of witnessing someone else's struggle as a joke.  Eventually the joke ceases to be funny because it strikes a chord with us.  Notice that there is no reason given for the onset of this thinking, no single, treatable, or "curable" stressor, which can be avoided simply through enlightened self-awareness.  Consequently every suicidal inclination ought to be accepted as valid, regardless of genesis or the social status of the sufferer.  The song does not offer any sort of solution to this universal experience, perhaps implying that an empathetic awareness is necessary and proper due its eventual manifestation in every life.  Before the bridge of the song, there is a bit of an open question as to whether the narrator actually ends up committing suicide.  "Driving the point home" could imply the final physical act of self-destruction or the speaker could be reflecting on driving the metaphorical point of his/her awareness of the universal suicidal impulse home.  The recurrent echo of, "I've seen this happen in other people's lives/ And now it's happening in mine" could again either refer to the final thoughts of the speaker as he/she kills him/herself or simply the feelings of suicide that he/she has not experienced prior to the events of the song.  To Morrissey's credit, he is able to explore much more commonplace and routine encounters with suffering that do not approach the depths of sadness contained in "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore".

     

         

              Consider for example "Miserable Lie", an exploration of the limits of a romantic and explicitly physical relationship.  The narrative of the song is fairly straightforward: the protagonist decides to break off an encounter with his/her love interest, having been sufficiently embarassed by his/her lover's attempt at a kiss and the lover's reaction to the protagonist's body.  Still, the narrator follows her "into the depths of the criminal world," though he/she is put off by her physical forwardness.  The protagonist wonders why he/she feels such pain and anguish, proclaims love to be a "Miserable Lie" and desperately calls out for advice.  There is no need for a deep textual analysis of the lyrics, because they are so straightfoward, but it is worth noting how Morrissey accomplishes conveying the emotion through the mechanics of his singing.  Morrissey sings the lines of the opening verse softly and elegiacally, utilizing the wispy timbre of his mid and lower register and gently lingers on the longer vowels at the end of each musical phrase. The result is palpable, cascading sorrow.  Quickly thereafter, Morrissey adopts a more urgent and deliberate cadence that reflects the growing anxiety facing the protagonist. The protagonist identifies him/herself in contradiction to the kind of human being that his/her former lover is, hence the exaltation, "Please stay with your own kind."  This line captures the quintessential experience of the outsider, feeling as though one is different in some substantial yet invisible way.  The social anxiety of outsiders, that occurs because they are not allowed to vocalize their feelings of alienation or the very fact that they are outsiders, fosters a self-perpetuating disconcertion.  The pain in the song is absolutely forthright, but there is also a sense in which the entire scenario might strike an outside observer as humorous: it's the cliche of the shy introvert at a party becoming embarrassed by his/her social ineptness and then this ineptness becoming comedic fodder for everyone around that person.  In this way, "Miserable Lie" demonstrates the way in which debilitating social anxiety becomes regulated by the societal controls which render its expression humorous.  Consequently, a person like the speaker internalizes the ridicule as shame and becomes convinced that the very notion of love is a falsehood.

     

              It would be a dramatically unjust oversimplification of Morrissey's work to limit his treatment of painful human emotions to his straightforward and deadly serious works.  Consider, for instance, the humorous self-awareness of "Nobody Loves Us".  The opening lines of the song paint a picture of a similarly isolated group of protagonists, but the angle of exploration is different.  These protagonists are young and explicitly male this time, "waiting for the next great wound" to be incurred on them by the outside world.  And yet, as they grow the stubble on their faces, they eagerly await the chance to stuff their faces with cake while bemoaning the sense that "nobody loves [them]."  Then the group demands to be called home and made tea so that they can please themselves because no one else loves them.  It is possible to interpret these emotions with straight-faced sincerity and feel the alienation and confusion of growing up in a world that is incomprehensible to a young mind, but there is a sense that the narrator, and in this case Morrissey himself, is cheekily aware that such profound feelings of loneliness and despair are often coupled with a blind selfishness.  In other words, these boys are either lonely rebel outcasts seeking to make a name for themselves or cake-eating self-obsessed wankers.  Either of these interpretations are plausible and in some sense correct, especially given the lush vocal rendering of the lyrics, which adds a somber sincerity.  However, interpreting these lyrics rigidly in either direction misses the larger point suggested by the work: that happiness and sorrow are coextensive, concurrent emotions.  This does not mean that every instance of sorrow or happiness can be deconstructed and replaced with the constitutive elements of its opposite, but that many can be.  In short, both of these elements have equal power and validity and should not be valued to the exclusion of the other.  Even if these boys are privileged, self-obsessed wankers, they are human beings capable of experiencing true sorrowhowever privileged that sorrow might be.  The basis of this sorrow can be critiqued because these children have indulgent parents, but any critique of these characters' social privilege should not invalidate their capacity to participate in existential anguish. 

              Morrissey's investigation of suffering is kept vital because he dares to provocatively explore characters whose emotional experiences challenge which kinds of inner turmoil are acceptable to express.  On these occasions, Morrissey uses his considerable lyrical prowess to investigate such unsettling topics as murder ("Suffer Little Children", "Jack the Ripper"), romantic love between an adult and a minor ("Reel Around the Fountain," “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"), and romanticized ethnocentric nationalism ("Bengali In Platforms", "We'll Let You Know").  Pop songs that address such volatile and often unspoken psycho-emotional situations and the traumas that accompany them understandably elicit equally explosive reactions.  Sometimes, the length of the song and the ambiguity of the emotions expressed therein make it difficult to establish a clear protagonist or point of view.  Still, I think it is important to keep in mind that Morrissey's illumination of the breadth of the emotional spectrum necessitates that he engage emotions; especially in those circumstances that could confound and trouble his listeners.  Whether the listener identified with or is repulsed by the scenarios presented in these songs, Morrissey has at least inspired active engagement with situations, characters, and emotions that might otherwise remain suppressed, oppressed, or ignored.  

     

              

              For precisely this reason, I am grateful that Morrissey has included characters who have disabilities in his work and has expanded his existential lexicon to include the particular emotional and psychological experiences of those characters.  By doing so, he has injected into the landscape of music some of the loneliness, alienation, and self-revulsion with which I grapple as a result of my lived experience dealing with cerebral palsy.  "November Spawned a Monster" finds Morrissey at his most inciting: he excavates some of the most deeply hidden and pervasive feelings of bodily hatred that many individuals who have disabilities experience, while also laying bare the social attitudes that cultivate and reinforce the internalization of those feelings.  The song's immediate characterization of its female subject as a monstrous child who is twisted and ugly could seem, at first glance, to be a direct retread of the common representation of disability as monstrous and undesirable.  However, the second verse of the song, which includes the dialogue of the female subject, provides some much needed context for the opening lines.  The "people discussing me" are primarily responsible for the construction of this character's poor self-image and obviously of the larger social attitudes which demand she be classified as a monster.  Revealingly, the character places blame on Jesus for making her disabled.  This brings to mind the larger theological context (a common application of the Christian Gospels) in which disability is seen either as a mark of demonic possession or as something to be cured through the intervention of the divine.  Adding divine authority to social attitudes only emboldens them and can hinder the construction of a positive self-image that operates in contradiction to this social paradigm.  

              At this juncture, it is essential to mention that the experience of a thoroughly captivating sense of self-revulsion, however rooted in social construction, is true to the essence of the human struggle.  The brunt of Morrissey's confrontation with social attitudes continues as he asks slyly, "And if the lights were out/ could you even bear/ to kiss her full on the mouth?/ Or anywhere?"  The rejection contained in these lines is not the result of his protagonist's undesirability, but rather the lack of other individuals in society to identify her as someone worthy of erotic or romantic desire.  Daring his listeners to include someone like the subject is an enduringly bold step in the existing paradigm, which contextualizes disabilities as negative.  That a song written 22 years ago remains so critical and relevant demonstrates an alarming lack of progress, but thankfully, Morrissey doesn't stop there.  The next target he addresses is the equally pervasive culture of pitying kindness which exists as the complement to revulsion.  Whether an individual who has a disability is reviled or pitied, he/she is not invited to experience full membership in humankindwith all of the complicated emotions and struggles that accompany that membership.

              The closing of the song demands examination because it could reasonably be interpreted as framing disability as something to be cured.  The speaker presents a hypothetically ideal scenario in which the protagonist is walking around, free from her wheelchair and wearing clothes of her own choosing.  I think it is possible to appreciate this message, not as a cure wish-fulfillment exclusively, but as a wish for independencehowever that comes about.  Furthermore, while the fervent desire for a cure in the song might pose some underlying questions about the assumptions of the quality of life a person with a disability can fully actualize, many people who have disabilities nonetheless feel this desire.  If it is indeed this character's desire to be cured of her disability, it is inappropriate to dismiss that desire as exclusively a form of self-hatred, especially given that Morrissey explained the socially constructed nature of the anguish she feels.

     

             

              My analysis of "November Spawned A Monster" would be lacking if I did not address how the song fits into Morrissey's preestablished milieu of theatricality and the subtle but important lyrical changes he often makes when performing this song live.  In his earliest days with The Smiths, Morrissey could often be seen wearing a hearing aid, though he is not Deaf.  While wearing the hearing aid might legitimately strike some Deaf individuals as an act of appropriation of Deaf Culture, I think it is possible to interpret this as an inclusive gesture of solidarity with Deaf people and more broadly, individuals with disabilities.  

    Photo by Paul RiderDuring performances of "November Spawned A Monster", such as the one below, Morrissey changes one of the most potentially troubling lines of the song from, "A symbol of where mad, mad lovers / must pause and draw the line." to "I am a symbol..." This change is significant insofar as he goes beyond the original context of empathy with individuals who have disabilities and the particular challenges we face to reaffirming his sense of community with us.  Additionally, when performing this on stage, Morrissey often makes self-referential gestures to his own body when singing about the "poor twisted child", the "ugly monster".  Occasionally he will even teasingly ask his audience if they would dare kiss him on the mouth.  One could argue that these gestures and lyrical changes constitute a wholesale revision of the song.  I prefer to think of them as meaningful gestures of fellowship.  

     

              "At Amber" continues the exploration of fellowship and deals with a friendship between a character who has a disability and a character who does not.  The able-bodied character is detailed as quite privileged and yet troubled by the state of his accommodations at the Sands Hotel and has called his friend to complain.  The friend, who has some type of disability and who is identified as an "invalid", takes egregious offense to what he/she sees as the narrator's trivial concerns.  I think the use of the word "invalid", which might justly strike some individuals as offensive, is employed to characterize the narrator as haughty and self-indulgent as opposed to passing a value judgement on the character who has a disability (who, importantly, is referred to as the narrator's friend).  However, each of them extend the fallacy which privileges able-bodied existence over life with a disability.  The "invalid" friend's wish desiring the narrator's functioning body underscores the misguided notion that an able body is necessary for a complete and fulfilling life.  Conversely, the narrator romanticizes the extent to which he believes his friend does not need to make decisions or have responsibility, which is a false construction of life with a disability.  The redemptive aspect of this song is precisely that the narrator realizes, "in our different ways/ we are the same" which could be interpreted as Morrissey's astute observation that every person is subject to jealousy and to complaining about his/her life circumstances, regardless of how privileged he/she might be.  As is typical to his presentation of such things, Morrissey does not make a judgement on either of his characters.  Simply by virtue of his exploration of the parallels in their lives, he lets his listeners draw their own conclusions.  While this song does not emphasize the dramatic manifestations of suffering and pain that I have previously discussed, it nonetheless reveals those things which can cause strife among friends and the extent to which those same things can help friends rediscover a commonality.  This might make the toil of existence easier to bear though it would not eliminate the struggle entirely.

              Morrissey, as an artist and performer, instigates conversations about the manifestations of human suffering and pain and the conditions that facilitate their existence.  He does not provide simple or overly didactic solutions to these situations and for the most part, in his art, he avoids prescribing an absolute point of view that doesn't leave room for critical engagement.  Remember that an artist and storyteller like Morrissey can create characters who extol virtues and express feelings that are not necessarily reflective of his own.  It could reasonably be argued that in the process of authentically expressing the emotions that give rise to negative perspectives, Morrissey might actually encourage the growth of these feelings in listeners who possess the psychological and emotional state of mind he explores (and often satirically deconstructs) in his work.  An artist is under no obligation to finish the conversation which he/she starts or contributes to nor is an artist responsible for safeguarding his/her work from misinterpretation or misapplication.  Every person has a responsibility to critically evaluate those elements of culture that he/she holds most dear, to defend their merit, and to be receptive to meaningful counterpoints.  Being a Morrissey fan is a tricky thing; the dynamic nature of his exploration of the full range of human emotions and of particularly reactionary social and political issues within that spectrum, is often obscured in favor of a lopsided focus on the morbid sadness prevalent in his work.  Further, since every Morrissey fan or critic constructs a unique context in which Morrissey's songs can be interpreted, the active process of interpretation is permanently ongoing.

              Perhaps most importantly, it is necessary to keep in mind that one can be critical of certain aspects of an artist's work (in Morrissey's case, his political statements and extension of personhood to animals are particularly divisive issues, even among otherwise ardent fans) while still appreciating some measure of what is inevitably imperfectly expressed.  It is possible to try to synthesize all of the aspects of Morrissey's public persona into one synthetic and often contradictory whole, but any attempt I would undertake to do so would detract from the simple fact that I think his music alone is sufficient.  His music, both as I have experienced it live and listened to it on recordings, reminds me that it is ok to be angry, sad, and disgusted by myself and the world around me.  At the same time, there is that always self-aware humor to remind me that much of what I experience as suffering and pain is actually a result of social constructions that I have internalized, contributed to, and thereby legitimized.  Although I didn't discover Morrissey's music while I was grappling with an educational system that didn't understand me (and still doesn't), the honesty and inclusiveness of his treatment of isolating self-awareness represents a much better way to confront those feelings than any system which seeks to magically belittle, mock, scorn, medicate, or defeat them.  

              Morrissey's music captures the essential incongruity of life, those weird moments during which we are thoroughly aware of the devastating and sometimes comically absurd nature of our encounters with others in the world around us.  Listening to Morrissey creatively affirm this reality, I am aware that nothing can completely obliterate the lingering effects of the pain I have suffered in the past, fully soften the impact of my current struggles, or make me impervious to future agony—and that’s ok.

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      Perhaps these are usual for all of us to find out these signs in the school. But they are there for showing the peace and affection. The neon sign is the important one for showing the truth worthy and love towards the kid’s of all ages.

    Reader Comments (1)

    Please, don't mention the hugely overrated Morrissey

    September 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNot a Morrissey Fan

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