It might be dishonest, or maybe just incomplete, to write about the Smiths in anything other than the first person. Music fans who care about the band all have stories of how they discovered them, and most have the same story—the one of adolescent alienation and hapless longing—that Smiths’ songs already contain. My version goes like this: sixteen, clumsy, and shy (actually, I may have been closer to thirteen), and above all deeply and decadently sad, I took a trip to the shopping mall that was a half-hour drive away from my small and small-minded hometown. I walked out with a CD copy of Louder Than Bombs in my backpack, and listened to it for the first time through headphones in the back of my mother’s car while she drove me home. That night I lay in awe on my bedroom floor and replayed the album’s twenty-four songs again, and then again.
Like I said, this story is typical: for a self-serious young person, the kind of kid who identifies her isolation as the symptom of a secret genius, pop music frequently serves as both a refuge and a sort of secular religion. Importantly, the Smiths weren’t just sad, but self-consciously, performatively sad. The jangly and confident guitar of Johnny Marr winked at the droning vocals of Morrissey, and the melodrama of the lyrics—especially by their last album, Strangeways, Here We Come—was marked with the playful irony of camp. Their most melancholic songs were frequently also their funniest. It was the perfect music for people who identify as miserable and are, but perhaps relish their misery too much.
When I first heard Louder than Bombs I was already a self-conscious kid, prone to examining my own angst through the lens of developmental psychology and John Hughes movies, and I liked the Smiths because they did this, too, more eloquently and more deftly than I was ever able to on my own. The Smiths rolled out lines like shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to over a pop arrangement that practically skipped with delight, and sang heaven knows I’m miserable now with Morrissey’s broad smile audible through my boombox speakers. One of the first adult lessons I ever learned was one that the Smiths’ music taught me: if you have emotions that you don’t feel equipped for, one of the easiest ways to cope is to analyze yourself like a character in a novel, to perform your feelings with pointed self-consciousness, and to pretend that they belong to someone else. The Smiths provided me with an outlet to turn my teenage self-hatred into a sophisticated self-parody—Why ponder life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat? It was hard to really feel the pain of recognizing my own foolishness when I was singing along to a song that described that pain with both acerbic mockery and possessive affection.
The strategy was a decent and even heartening one during the greyest years of high school, and for much of my teens the Smiths’ music served as my conclusive evidence that I was not really alone in the world; or that if I was, it was only because, like Morrissey, I was so much smarter than everyone else. The Smiths, I thought, could be a talisman of the kind of adult I intended to become, intelligent and wounded.
Part of the appeal of the Smiths was that they were quick to demonstrate themselves as well-read. It was not merely that their lyrics contained literary references, although there were plenty of those—Morrissey’s lyrics from the Smiths’ work and his solo career contain references to Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, George Eliot, Jack Kerouac, Coleridge, Noel Coward, Herman Melville, Kurt Vonnegut, and his much beloved Oscar Wilde, among others. But it was also that the Smiths conveyed an attitude of education: the sarcastic disdain in Morrissey’s voice evinced the condescending elitism of someone who went to prep school, even though he didn’t. There may have been more to life than books, but for someone of his sophistication—of our sophistication, I felt—there wasn’t much more. Morrissey leveled an implicit charge of inadequacy at his world, and the gist of it was that those around him were insufficiently cultured, and hence insufficiently civil. Education, and particularly a sensitizing literary education, was the source of his superiority.
This wasn’t the kind of education I was getting. The drab suburb I grew up in was close enough to New York that many of my classmates’ parents commuted there every day, but without a car or any money of my own, the city might as well have been on the moon. Instead I shrugged through my adolescence in a public school that I understood as an island of brutality. The liberal arts college to which I eventually escaped would turn out to be a theater of competing vanities and class antagonisms, but back then it gleamed in my imagination like a golden promise. I believed that among people who liked books I would find others who were committed to the political and ethical ideals that were then forming cloudily in my brain; others who chose love over money, and wanted to make the world less unfair. In the Smiths’ music, Morrissey stares down his nose at the unread and unkind people who torment him with the self-assurance of someone who belongs to an elite, enlightened club. At the time, this is what I expected the literary community would be.
It was around the time that I bought my first Smiths record that a sympathetic relative gave me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s deft, deviant, and weird story collection, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. I read it three or four times within the space of a few months, folding the paperback cover over until it finally fell off. The writers I most identified with were those who, like Plath and Morrissey, seemed to have been graceless or uncomfortable in life, who had been unable to get themselves hard or fast enough into the world. It was during these years that I first read Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Proust, and though I understood exactly none of what I encountered, it felt obvious that their brilliance was the cause of their loneliness, their martyrdom.
These books were opaque to me then: they had an impenetrable core, something essential and secret that I was frightened by, or at any rate unable to grasp. To a teenager, they felt far away. But it was also a problem that, unlike Morrissey, these writers showed me few of their cards. A pop song could perform in two and a half minutes a precise parody of my own lovelorn weariness, but the sentiments of these writers were broader and deeper than mine, and sometimes difficult to understand, let alone relate to. I could not guess the depths of Emily Dickinson’s alienation; I did not get Kafka’s jokes. They were inimitable, and so they made poor teen idols. I began casting around for something more accessible, or at least easier to copy, and discovered Oscar Wilde.
I came to Wilde’s work partly on the Smith’s endorsement. Morrissey loved Wilde, and at first glance, it is easy to understand why. Like Morrissey, Wilde views his world with a humorous disdain, raising an eyebrow and a cigarette at its vanities and minor injustices. But, also like Morrissey, he seems to be performing his discontent like a character actor. He was hamming it up, or at least not taking his own irritation very seriously. In his four society comedies, the plays for which he is best remembered, Wilde deals exclusively in fluff. Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest are marriage plots populated by pointedly frivolous members of a decadent upper class. The jokes are one-liners and aphorisms, usually at the expense of entitled people’s narcissism, often hinging on a turn of phrase that’s clever without exactly being smart. Though he’s remembered as a wit, a healthy proportion of Wilde’s comedic theater actually relies as much on silliness as it does on insight.
Morrissey, who collects Wilde first editions, once said of him that, “although he was the most intelligent he simplified everything, and therefore practically anybody could read Oscar Wilde and understand.” Perhaps this crystalizing accessibility is what makes Wilde so readily appealing to people for whom other high-minded literature might not be as approachable—self-conscious suburban teenagers, for instance, or pop musicians from Manchester.
As a young man Wilde was a champion of aestheticism, the fashionable literary movement that rejected any role for politics in the arts, and his dialogues and critical writing defend this position. But it’s hard not to read the plays that indict the silliness of the upper classes as comments on the ways that certain types of power enable people to take themselves more seriously than they deserve. “In my young days one never met anyone in society who worked for their living,” one pompous woman says to another in A Woman of No Importance, and we are meant to understand this snobbery as wrongheaded, if not especially consequential. Ultimately it is the assumption of one’s own specialness that Wilde found ridiculous: his plays are always ready to laugh at self-importance.
Perhaps this is why Morrissey found him so appealing. The Smiths’ front man didn’t just admire and imitate Oscar Wilde; he experienced the writer’s charisma as an intimacy, and claimed him as something of an artistic godfather. “In a way he became a companion,” Morrissey said of discovering Wilde in his teens. “He had a life that was really tragic and it’s curious that he was so witty.” In terms of wit, Wilde’s influence on Morrissey is considerable. In his humor, Wilde crafted a signature brand of effete cynicism that Morrissey mimics perfectly, and which no one else quite matches. Famously, in “Cemetery Gates,” Morrissey even imagines Wilde paying allegiance to him: Keats and Yeates are on your side/while Wilde is on mine.
A charismatic writer—or rock star—has the power to insert himself into the permanent loyalties of his audience, especially when that audience is young, impressionable, and lonely. There might be no gesture that accomplishes this as swiftly as when the object of fandom shows himself to be, in turn, somebody else’s fan. In the interviews he gave to magazines like NME and Spin, reading Morrissey talk about Oscar Wilde was unnervingly like reading an account of my own relationship to his music. Morrissey’s love of Wilde was so genuine, and his imitation of him so precise, that I was drafted into his fantasy. He was a cohort of Wilde’s, and so was I.
It is easy to presume that the artists’ relationship is primarily stylistic, grounded in the wry humor dealt out as retribution by two men speaking truth to a world that didn’t deserve them. But take a look at their lives and parallels of biography begin to emerge as well. Both men, at the heights of their careers, found themselves hailed as oracles of their age, and both were highly conscious of having become standard bearers for a cultural elite to which they were not exactly native. Morrissey was famously the son of Irish immigrants, a porter and an assistant librarian, who brought him up in cheerless Manchester. Wilde, meanwhile, grew up comfortably, the son of wealthy Irish nationalists in provincial Dublin, and was noted as a star pupil and teacher’s pet at Trinity and Oxford. He was from money, but he was not, necessarily, from society. When he arrived in London at 27 he had only recently managed to eradicate the Irish lilt from his accent, and was confronting the private and inconvenient knowledge that he preferred men.
Part of what endeared Morrissey to me, and I suspect to other lost young souls who took comfort in his music, was that the precision with which he mimicked adolescent yearning made it possible for me to think about the Smiths while always only thinking, really, about myself. When he made his entrance into London society, Wilde used humor this same way. Admired almost instantly for his biting wordplay, Wilde secured what in a different world might have been the permanent affection of the social elite with the plays and dialogues that mocked its foibles and small absurdities. The wealthy and sophisticated could consume his work while doing little else besides contemplating the particulars of their own social milieu, and his professional success was based largely on their willingness to be told about themselves. And so, when he was still young, Wilde found himself frequently published, frequently quoted, and always invited to parties by the same people whose approval would have seemed, in his adolescence, aspirational and out of reach. When the Smiths rose to fame in the mid-eighties, Morrissey became fixated on the band’s popularity, and obsessively tracked their placement on the UK singles charts. In his home in Chelsea more than a century before, Wilde counted calling cards.
At some point I had decided to stop spending warm summer days indoors and to insert myself, however warily, into the social economy of my high school. Even with Morrissey on my side it had become difficult to pretend that my friendlessness was romantic and principled, instead of just boring. I began attending the parties that were thrown every Saturday in an old barn that a classmate’s parents used as a garage, and drank misguided mixes of liquor with my peers among confused chickens and a suburban family’s refuse—a broken table saw, boxes of curling paperbacks, a wire dress form on a stand. It was at these gatherings that discovered I could win over my classmates with jokes, and specifically, with jokes about them. Among populations inclined to anxiety of status—high schoolers, say, or high society—it is not difficult to guess the way that people hope to be perceived, and I soon found that my most popular jabs were those made not at my friends as they really were, but my friends as they hoped to be thought of.
The Smiths’ humor proceeds from the assumption that their young listeners really are as miserable as they imagine themselves to be; Wilde’s humor proceeds from the assumption that the self-obsession of the upper classes really is devoid of consequence. Behaving as if all pretended identities are real ones is a good way to ingratiate yourself to your audience, and doing so allowed me to advance socially with remarkable speed. I soon found myself in shocked possession of friends, weekend plans, and male attention, strange new assets that I studied as if they were moon rocks. Taking my cues from Wilde and Morrissey, I had unearthed an introvert’s social methodology that would prove reliable well into adulthood. One of the best defenses against the rich, the self-assured, the beautiful, or the otherwise intimidating is to disarm their capacity to hurt you by making them disinclined to. Want to be accepted? Make them laugh.
It is easy, when you look at Wilde and Morrissey’s humor, to dismiss their jokes as coming from a place of privileged spectatorship: they were not really so personally invested in the dynamics that their wit took on. As two Irishmen, they pretended to be more English than the English. Morrissey had little of the formal education whose affectations he adopted; Wilde was absent from the rituals of heterosexual sociality whose ridiculousness he mimed. They were outsiders, and therefore they perhaps had the luxury of disinterested observation. But such an analysis overlooks what is perhaps the emotional crux of their work, the core that becomes lucid only after repeated readings. For though they each lay claim to certain forms of social exception, neither Morrissey nor Wilde is wholly comfortable or unqualifiedly smug in his position as an outsider. Both men’s work is tinged, too, with a desire for belonging.
The problem with using humor to conceal your anxieties is that it tends to be a pretty weak disguise. In jokes, the psyche often rears its head where it’s not supposed to. This might be why there is a sincere and disquieting bitterness detectible in these men’s work beneath all the snark and sheen. Why would Morrissey quip, in “Cemetery Gates,” that Keats and Yates are on your side, if he had no desire to demonstrate the erudition that is held as a standard of worthiness by the sort of people who admire Keats and Yates? Why would Wilde write When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is, if he did not wish to show himself to be a self-conscious member of the leisure class? One of the prices of upward mobility—be it an upward mobility of wealth, culture, education, or just social popularity—is the twinging shame of knowing that you’re not quite a native in this new strata of yours. It can be difficult to shake the dark suspicion that you will be rejected as readily as you were welcomed, once your new admirers discover that you’re a fraud.
For Wilde, this is precisely what happened. It would not be exactly correct to say that Wilde kept his homosexual relationships a secret in the cosmopolitan circles of London and Paris where he conducted most of his social life. It would be more on point to say that he officially told one story while very frankly living another. In his comedies Wilde demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the politics of good manners, and being in the closet is a lot like being polite, in that it is essentially about pretending not to know something that you do. He understood that his sex life would be allowable so far as those in his company were able to consider it as something of an inside joke.
At the height of his career Wilde was surrounded by intellectually ambitious younger men, and most indications are that he was generous and prolific with his attentions. But he went to jail, absurdly, for Bosie Douglas, a trust fund pretty boy of middling talents. It was Douglas who first wrote, in a poem to Wilde, about “the love that dare not speak its name,” a line so dripping with adolescent melodrama that it could have been a Smiths lyric, if only it contained any redeeming irony. Nevertheless, when I first read about Wilde’s trial in a dusty-smelling biography that I found in my high school’s library, I mistook their affair, as Douglas had, for romance. In the notebook where I was preparing for a paper on The Picture of Dorian Grey, I wrote out the line from “Hand in Glove:” And everything depends upon how near you stand to me. Thinking back on this now, years later, I’m embarrassed by my own earnestness.
As I got older, left high school, and acquired the sort of confidence that I didn’t have to fake, it surprised me to find that the Smiths’ music never lost its power. I no longer take Morrissey to be the semi-divine prophet of tortured intellect that I once did. To an adult, his performances of precious sadness can look cheesy and clownish more than incisively self-aware, and in interviews he has shared opinions that seem unsophisticated and arbitrary, even racist. But his music—particularly the Smiths—retains an elusiveness that does not lose its allure. I never feel confident as to whether Morrissey is being satirical or solemn, mocking or sincere. This constant alternation between concealment and revelation in his work makes him at once inscrutable and alluring, like a flirt. It is an artistic achievement that can only be described as “adult.”
For Wilde, the stakes were perhaps higher. Someone once told me that Wilde would sometimes decline social invitations and sit alone in his room thinking up aphorisms, so that he could be especially clever the next time he went out. I have no idea whether this trivia is true, but it seems credible, at least in spirit. In spite of all his decadent playfulness, the insecurity within Wilde’s humor is difficult to ignore. Pithy wisecracks that today are printed on tee shirts and tote bags reveal an embittered melancholy just beneath the surface—look hard at the phrase “A true friend stabs you in the front” and try not to see it.
On the stand at his sodomy trial, his patience exhausted by the puerile questioning of the prosecutor, Wilde allowed himself the indulgence of a sarcastic retort. Asked whether he had ever kissed Bosie Douglas, he replied, “Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.” The prosecutor predictably jumped on this tacit admission, and in the transcripts the exchange that follows lasts for an excruciatingly long time, with Wilde’s anxiety and defensiveness mounting as he realizes the consequences of his mistake.
“Perhaps you insulted me by asking the question.”
“Was that a reason why you should say the boy was ugly?”
“You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously. I admit it.”
“So you said it flippantly?”
“Oh yes, it was a flippant answer.”
In a very literal sense, humor had become Wilde’s alibi.
The insecurity felt so potently in adolescence can be cumbersome and ugly in adults; unchecked, it morphs easily into hostility. People who remind you of your own vulnerabilities can become the people against whom you are most inclined to wield your strengths. There is more than a touch of this antagonistic anxiety within Wilde and Morrissey’s humor. Against uncultured philistines and classist snobs, prudish homophobes and narcissistic decadents, Morrissey and Wilde are always fighting, though the pervasiveness of their anger makes it unclear exactly what they’re fighting for.
Sometimes, as in the case of Wilde’s trial, the aggression can be righteous. At other times, it can be misplaced, pitiful, uncomfortable to look at. In these moments, their peevish and pathetic moments, I begin to feel alienated from the artists, despite all my loyalty and love. What is it they are trying to compensate for? What are they so busy defending?
Often, the latent antagonism expressed in their work can feel as if it is directed at the audience. What is disconcerting about listening to Morrissey and reading Wilde is that the pleasure of being in on their jokes is always tempered with the knowledge that their jabs are partly at your expense. I love these artists; I have no confidence that they would love me. Living a practical adult life, the sort of life that does not require someone to make a career out of his defiance or go to jail trying, means making minor daily concessions to bullshit, and negotiating a catch-as-catch can relationship between what is required of you and what is strictly speaking right. If you let them, these small compromises can accrete into something that bears down upon your dignity, and can make it difficult to know yourself. When I was a teenager, I talked back to every teacher who belittled me, and was always ready to exchange a classmate’s mean stare for a sharp retort. As an adult, I’ve stopped fighting these minor battles. Admittedly, my life is much more privileged and comfortable than I deserve. Still, part of why I feel slightly embarrassed by Morrissey and Wilde is the knowledge that they held on to something that I gave up: they never stopped demanding a world that treated them more compassionately than this one did.
Sympathy for insecure people, the kind of people who display Wilde and Morrissey’s wounded defensiveness, is a good deed that is usually swiftly punished. But Morrissey and Wilde still retain their grips on my loyalty, and their work—anger, anxiety, and all—is still instructive. These men found themselves speaking to communities that they both identified with and found threatening, and their art represents the slippage between wanting to mock these audiences and to write their perfect anthems. As their fans, it can be difficult to tell where we stand. Now we know how they felt.
Illustrations by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.