Depending on your perspective, growing up in a small town is either the best or the worst place to develop a musical identity. For some, the isolation, cultural
myopia and four radio stations all dedicated to Christian hymns can really be stultifying. For others, the intellectually bereft prison of the small town can cause the adventurous sort to make a concerted effort to seek out the very things that will cause their parents the most grief. This mentality was best illustrated in the seminal 1980s film, Footloose, where somehow a small town was able to outlaw dancing, despite that sort of statute being clearly unconstitutional. One plucky youth chooses to buck this borderline fascist law and teach all the kiddies how to “party.”
I was not the dashing, Kevin Bacon type growing up. I was more like one of the unnamed extras who milled about in the background while more important characters were deciding their fate. I didn’t really have a huge interest in music as a kid. I couldn’t figure out why I would spend an inordinate amount of time trying to research obscure punk bands, when Star Trek: The Next Generation was on. TV was an adequate escape from the drudgery of sleepy little Merced, California and more importantly, it was readily available. I didn’t have to try, and even at an early age, I was doing my best to avoid an unseemly amount of effort in all facets of my life.
I recall being really amused by Dave Matthews Band for some reason, possibly because I couldn’t make out exactly what Dave Matthews was saying in his songs. Also, Hootie and the Blowfish were right up my alley because, even though I could actually understand what Darius Rucker was saying, I didn’t know what any of it meant. Even now, I often parse through Hootie lyrics attempting to derive any sort of deeper meaning. So far, I have been unsuccessful in deciphering the following:
You and me, we come from different worlds
You like to laugh at me when I look at other girls
Sometimes you’re crazy then you wonder why
I’m such a baby ’cause the Dolphins make me cry
But there’s nothing I can do
I’ve been looking for a girl like you
You look at me, you got nothing left to say
I’m gonna pout at you until I get my way
I won’t dance, you won’t sing
I just wanna love you but you wanna wear my ring
But there’s nothing I can do
I only wanna be with you
Hootie found a way to use the word “pout” in the context of an adult’s behavior. Of course, I am assuming that the narrator of “Only Wanna Be With You” is an adult male. All through high school, the only defining characteristic of my musical taste was that I would like anything where the singer’s voice was strange or the lyrics were incomprehensible nonsense. More to the point, I liked music that made me feel superior to the people who made it. I didn’t want to laugh with the artist, because if I did, I would have just listened to Weird Al Yankovic or 30 Seconds to Mars. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: Jared Leto is absolutely trolling us.] On the contrary, I wanted to laugh AT the artist. Nothing is more important to an antsy, disaffected small town youth than unwarranted superiority.
When I finally left Merced and went to college in San Francisco, I was no longer capable of such galling snobbery. I was forced to actually find something to like. No one wants to hang out with some dumb 18-year-old who thinks everything sucks, and it only becomes harder to impress people with your vitriol the older you get. I tried a variety of personal affectations in order to arrive at a palatable image. Pretending to be someone new is pretty common in college, so I committed fully to assuming the posture of a hippie, a punk, an intellectual, a raver and a dedicated student. Nothing worked the way I wanted it to. None of these personas felt natural. I was putting far too much emotional and physical energy into being positive about a lifestyle choice, when that’s all supposed to happen organically. Sometimes, not trying is better than trying.
Instead of doing the tedious work of developing a personality, I let The Smiths do it for me. I had heard The Smiths in high school, but they didn’t appeal to me at the time. All I’d heard of them was “How Soon is Now?” The song was catchy enough, but I didn’t relate to someone being so glum about “needing to be loved.” I mean, I need to be loved, “just like everybody else does,” but I didn’t see the point in telling everyone. They should have been able to figure it out on their own. In college, I did want everyone to know how sad I was, plus when I finally heard my second Smiths song, I also wanted my pain to be justified and totally unique.
“What Difference Does it Make?” was my second introduction to The Smiths, and more specifically, to the self-interested worldview of one Steven Patrick Morrissey. It was around 2005 when I started going to the weekly dance night, Popscene, in San Francisco. This was around the time of the explosion of post-punk revivalist bands. This was when Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party ruled the “underground” music world. It was before the maturation of the music blog into a fully-functioning ecosystem of sponsored festivals, aggregation and Spotify recommendations. Finding music was still a torturous process in many ways. Popscene was a great way to discover what was new without having to read anything. Also, it was a great way to have sex and do drugs because it was dark and 18-and-over. I could try to find avenues to incorporate new elements to my burgeoning style, and also experiment with various substances without actually being grown up enough to use any of them effectively.
It was in this environment that I heard “What Difference Does it Make?” for the first time. Instead of being a plea for love that may never go answered like “How Soon is Now?” this particular song saw Morrissey giving up and being totally flippant about the object of his desire. Also, Johnny Marr’s guitar riff was just really fucking cool and instantly got my attention. They were showing a video on all the TV screens in the club, an appropriately minimalist affair where Morrissey flails around like a seizure victim while the rest of the band suavely goes about their business playing their various instruments. Morrissey also had a bouquet of flowers coming out of his ass for reasons I could not quite fathom at my tender age. Perhaps it was a cunning comment on the state of modern romance. Maybe he just forgot they were there.
Lyrically, the song is about a person who has tried very hard to make his loved one happy, but is incapable of placating them. This instantly appealed to my narcissism and latent martyr complex. Morrissey is a great singer with a penchant for a clever turn of phrase, but he’s also a totally whiner. I could really empathize with a person who thinks the whole world is out to get him. From “Bigmouth Strikes Again” to “You Have Killed Me,” Morrissey’s career output is littered with laments, complaints, gripes and appeals for sympathy. Apparently, a multi-millionaire pop star has a ton of reasons to feel put upon and abused. Really, people just don’t understand Morrissey, and if they’d just let him say whatever weird, offensive or self-absorbed nonsense that he wanted, everything would just be a-ok.
I want this power for myself, which is why The Smiths touched me so deeply. I have always desired to have my inward focus rewarded by fame, money and adulation. I love Morrissey, but not as much as Morrissey loves himself. My desire to feel superior to others in high school flowered into a more palatable need to adore myself. I turned a negative into a slightly creepy positive. I’d love to be able to tell Morrissey how much he touched me with his music, but he’d probably scream at me to get off his property and then mutter something vaguely racist. So, in lieu of an in-person show of gratitude, this essay will have to do.
Thanks for being such a righteous asshole, Morrissey. Hopefully, one day, I can grow up to be just like you.