Songs That Saved Your Life

Don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life.

“Turn off that sad death music.” I was in my room on a Saturday morning listening to The Smiths’ album The Queen Is Dead. My sister, finally fed up after hearing this album for the fourth time that day, stormed into the room and lifted the needle from the spinning record. 
The Smiths were a Manchester based rock band in the 80s. Viewed as one of the most important bands to cross the music scene, they enjoyed mild success, more so in the U.K. than in the U.S. A very political band, The Smiths wrote about anti-royalism, vegetarianism, and further social injustices; famously asexual lead singer Morrissey wrote gender-neutral songs and frequently implied homosexual relationships, which sent the press into a frenzy. However, after only four albums in five years, the group disbanded. What makes The Smiths such an amazing band is hard to say; is it the black humor laced into the lyrics? The always intricate guitar? The ever driving bass lines? The Smiths have so many strong suits, yet what makes them a superbly talented band in my eyes it is their ability to illicit multifaceted emotions with even the simplest of songs.
People are quick to classify The Smiths as depressing, whiny; boring. For them I only have two words: “Rubber Ring”. Morrissey (vocalist, lyricist) writes with impeccable wit; the song is from the point of view of a song. A study of the passing passions of a teenager, the song within the song calls out to its listener: “When you’re dancing and laughing and finally living, hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.” People are right – The Smiths can be depressing. But Morrissey takes that sadness and uses it to move you. He doesn’t leave you feeling simply sad – “Rubber Ring” leaves the listener with a nostalgic longing for the songs of their past. That’s The Smiths’ strong suit: moving you to complicated, specific feelings. They know exactly how to connect to you and expose the deepest of emotions.
Johnny Marr (composer, lead guitar) expertly mismatches music to lyrics. A prime example of this is the classic “Girlfriend In A Coma”. One of the first Smiths’ songs I listened to, and a must-listen for any new fan, “Girlfriend In A Coma”, as the title implies, has pretty upsetting lyrics. “There were times when I could have murdered her – but you know, I would hate anything to happen to her.” This girl even dies at the end of the song – “Let me whisper my last goodbyes…” The lyrics are simple, and quite morbid. What takes this song to a more complicated level is the cheerful musical accompaniment.  The song begins with a bouncy bass line, and an airy, light guitar riff repeats. Violins come in at the chorus, adding a more dramatic side to the song, but they disappear as quickly as they appear, returning the song back to its jovial tune. The contrasting lyrics and melody leave us with far deeper questions than “Why is this song so morbid?” What is the listener supposed to feel? Should we empathize with the narrator? Or are we supposed to feel some sort of joy in the comatose of this poor girl? How does the narrator feel – would he really “hate anything to happen to her”? Did he put her in this coma? As catchy as the song is, I still am moved to a place of deep remorse when Morrissey softly sings, “My, my, my, my, my, my baby – goodbye.” Something about those words pulls at me so deeply I feel as though maybe I am the narrator. Perhaps it’s the pleading way Morrissey sings, or the delicate guitar in the background. Once again, The Smiths manage to access such complicated feelings with such simple composition.
Maybe what appeals to me in those complicated feelings is the vivid sense of being alive that comes with them. I hurt, I laugh, I feel. One thing I’ve faced as a teenager is the fear that I’m not doing life right. I often feel I’m missing out on experiences and that I’m not doing enough to my teen years memorable. I feel like a robot moving through my daily schedule with no risk or excitement in my life. But when I listen to The Smiths, I can live vicariously through their songs. I feel what they feel; and even though that feeling is sometimes (often) one of pain, it reminds me that I am alive and I can experience intense emotion. Other people might not want to feel as deeply as I want to – and that’s normal. Perhaps that’s why The Smiths aren’t everyone’s cup of tea; you have to want to access those emotions.

No matter what happens, at the end of the day, I know there’s always someone who is feeling the same things I am: Morrissey. It sounds cheesy, I know! “Morrissey is the only person who gets me, I’m so misunderstood!” Cue eye-rolling. But in all honesty, the reason teens all over the world love The Smiths is that Morrissey speaks the truth: life can really suck. He gets what it feels like to feel unloved, not good enough, or an outcast. The challenge for everyone is to find some sort of joy even when things aren’t going well. Morrissey found his in music and expressing himself to the world.  I’ve found mine in knowing that other people are experiencing the same things as me, and being able to discover that through music I love listening to. So maybe I love The Smiths because I’m an angsty teen. But at the end of the day, what draws me to them is the deep connection I can make with the music and 25 year-old Morrissey’s beautiful face.

Text + Visuals: Penny Mack
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