These charmless commentators

Their hissyfit over the use of a Smiths song in a John Lewis ad shows how much middle-aged Moz-heads loathe other people.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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‘Basically anyone who has cried at the John Lewis advert should be made to watch Waltz With Bashir. Now *that’s* crying, you cunt.’

Admittedly, it doesn’t take much for the Guardian’s Charlie Brooker to start churning out affected invective. Still, getting into a sweary strop on Twitter because some people found the latest Christmas advert for John Lewis department store enjoyably moving does seem a little over the top. But rent-a-rant Brooker was not alone. The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick claimed to be left feeling ‘physically nauseous’; online parenting forum Mumsnet got into a tizz; and the blogosphere was awash with the self-avowedly heartbroken.

The source of such chattering ire lies, of course, not so much in the cutesy content of the £5million ad, but in the choice of music: namely the Smiths’ song ‘Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’. Strictly speaking, it’s not actually the Smiths; it’s an anaemic cover version by some wispy, breathy songstrette called Slow Moving Millie. Not that it matters too much. Morrissey, Smiths’ former frontman, is said to be ‘very happy’ with it.

Yet it seems that a possessive portion of the Smiths’ legion of fans, be it the bequiffed bouffant Brooker or the unquiffed McCormick, are rather less happy. They see this use of a Smiths song for an advert as a form of sacrilege; a pissing on the grave of the great ‘1980s anti-establishment rock band’. As one online Moz-head put it: ‘One of the very best, holiest of holy, heartbreakingly beautiful of Smiths songs is being sold to John Lewis in order for them to flog their middle-class tat’. The Guardian’s Alex Clark was equally as peeved at the perversion of the Smiths’ supposedly radical legacy: ‘It is a raw painful song about alienation and unfulfilled longing, not duvets and crockery and baubles.’ McCormick, like a jilted lover, agreed: ‘To allow some advertising executive to distort the core message of a song to sell an inappropriate product actually devalues the very thing an artist should be most precious about: their own connection to their art. The message it sends to loyal fans is that the artist doesn’t care about their own work as much as we do.’

I could blame this outbreak of preciousness on Morrissey himself. Aside from the musical brilliance of his collaboration with Johnny Marr, Morrissey was always fantastically adept at cultivating a curious intimacy between his pop persona and his large mass of fans. His largely first-person lyrics were made to feel like a direct address to the listener. From the start he invited generations of bedroom prisoners to identify with himself, to believe they were part of his interior life, all the while hiding his actual personal life from view – if he ever had sex, remarked Will Self pace Edward Heath, he did so in a vault in the Bank of England. Never has the personality of a pop star been such a public performance; and rarely has his private life been so steadfastly guarded.

That he was so adept at cultivating this connection between the Morrissey persona and his audience should not be a surprise. This one-time president of the New York Dolls UK fan club was always chiefly a fan become pop star. He was that boy who danced his legs down to his knees in that epic tribute to pop star worship, ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’. Recalling his 1970s youth in a 1991 interview with the New York Times, he said ‘Pop music was all I ever had, and it was completely entwined with the image of the pop star. I remember feeling that the person singing was actually with me and understood me and my predicament. A lot of times I felt I was engaged with an absolute tangible love affair.’ What he did so brilliantly with the Smiths and his later solo career was to became the object of his own devotion – hence the unblinking self-obsession of the lyrics. And it was a creation that played upon and exploited the nature of being a fan.

So there is something about fans of Morrissey and the Smiths that is curiously precious. Yet, the vitriol coming the way of the John Lewis advert cannot simply be blamed on the singular nature of Smiths fandom. Its other source is rather more contemporary: a snobbish loathing of the masses. You see, what really irks the now middle-aged Smiths fan, comfortably ensconced either at No 10 Downing Street or in the comment pages of a national broadsheet, is that lots of other people – the people who might, for instance, watch the John Lewis ad during the interval of The X Factor – are now listening to their band, or at least a covered version of it. And these people, the people who, as Brooker spits, might actually find the John Lewis ad a bit moving, are simply not capable of getting their band. After all, these are the people who buy ‘middle-class tat’ at Christmas as a treat; these are the people who think they can fill ‘the gaping hole in their existence by selecting fabric for a pair of curtains’; these are the people that simply cannot, as their oh-so-inferior taste indicates, really and truly get the Smiths. Not like Brooker can. Not like McCormick can.

Such is the adolescent arrogance of this portion of Smiths fans transformed by age into smug, anti-consumerist snobs. The irony, of course, is that the Smiths never wanted to be the secret pleasure of the select few; they always wanted to be the musical pleasure of the many. They wanted to do what Morrissey was to do as a solo performer – play to huge crowds throughout the US. This was why the Smiths left the small independent label Rough Trade to sign up with EMI in 1987. ‘I do… envisage higher record sales, higher chart placings, the power of EMI forcing Smiths records into radio and television’, said Morrissey at the time. ‘I do imagine that with EMI we will perhaps manage, for instance, television advertisements, which with Rough Trade we can’t manage because of the expense. I always felt that, chartwise, the records could have got much higher. I always believed that. If this doesn’t happen with EMI, of course, I will be enormously embarrassed!’

The Smiths and Morrissey were never against promoting themselves. They never shunned the masses. Instead they always wanted to be a band with mass appeal – and they deserved that kind of success. You never know, perhaps the John Lewis ad will rectify that.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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