The illusion of authenticity and music criticism


Many academics argue that an understanding of the issues around authenticity is crucial to an understanding of popular music and the dialogue that surrounds it (Atton, 1998; Frith, 1996b; Jones & Featherly, 2002; Sanjek, 1992). What is not so clear is what authenticity means in the context of popular music. All music is a performance. This holds true whether the music is being played in a live setting such as a concert hall, through an online platform like YouTube, in a recording studio, or in a bedroom on an acoustic guitar. Frith (1996b), however, argues the historical importance of the music press is ideological not commercial, and so it falls to the writers to pass judgment based on the music’s perceived authenticity and aesthetic value, not its commercial potential. Jones and Featherly are blunt: “Authenticity is critical to the discourse surrounding popular music” (2002, p. 104), as is Sanjek:

One of the central issues to rock ideology is authenticity: the degree to which a musician is able to articulate the thoughts and desires of an audience and not pander to the “mainstream” by diluting their sound or their message. (Sanjek, 1992, p. 14)

This line of thinking has dominated rock criticism since its inception in the 1960s. It includes a common denial of, or at least refusal to engage with, the fact that popular (rock) music has anything to do with commercial considerations.

‘Authentic’ rock bands are not supposed to care about sales. The reason for that is because the music critic-as-fan often uses authenticity as a tool: the band is legitimised, made authentic, by personal experience. This feeds into the fan’s sense of personal identity, and no music fan likes to believe they have been manipulated by marketing and hype. In the same way that subcultures are defined in relation to their dominant counterpart, mainstream culture, so too is the value of the players within that subculture (Thornton, 1995). Over the years, many critics and academics have interpreted that value as authenticity. Moore, for example, argues that authenticity is interpreted several different ways in relation to popular music, citing the example of Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell:

The term has frequently been used to define a style of writing or performing, particularly anything associated with the practices of the singer/ songwriter, where attributes of intimacy […] and immediacy […] tend to connote authenticity. It is used in a socio-economic sense, to refer to the social standing of the musician. It is used to determine the supposed reasons she has for working, whether her primary felt responsibility is to herself, her art, her public, or her bank balance. It is used to bestow integrity […] . (Moore, 2002, pp. 210-211)

How authenticity is defined is dependent on the subculture that is using the term. For example, “hip-hop artists claim authenticity through a form of autobiographical lyrics about racism, crime, and drug abuse, with which they establish an ethos, or ‘street cred’” (Enli, 2015, p. 12). Some form of rebellion against the dominant culture is implicit in the usage of the term in conjunction with rock music, conversant with the origins of rock in the counterculture of the 1960s.

However, that notion has changed in the last couple of decades after the assimilation of rock into mainstream culture became so apparent that it was impossible for all but the most fervent of rock fans to ignore (Grossberg, 1992). These days, to charge rock music with being more (or less) authentic than pop music lacks credibility (Kramer, 2012) and leads to charges of rockism (see above), and yet the notion persists, romanticised and mythologised by critics whose function is to romanticise and mythologise music. Authenticity is used on an ad hoc basis, applied by those so inclined with equal vigour to Top 40 chart stars and the most underground of independent artists: ‘Are they authentic to themselves as artists?’ runs a familiar nonsensical line:

Authenticity can be thought of as the compass that orients rock culture in its navigation of the mainstream. Rock fans, critics and musicians are constantly evaluating the authenticity of popular music, on the lookout for signs of alienation and inauthenticity (including, for example, over-commercialisation, insincerity, manipulation, lack of originality and so on). This preoccupation with ‘authenticity’ helps rock culture constantly to draw lines of division within the mainstream of popular music…

‘Authentic’ designates those music, musicians, and musical experiences seen to be direct and honest, uncorrupted by commerce, trendiness, derivativeness, a lack of inspiration and so on. ‘Authentic’ is a term affixed to music which offers sincere expressions of genuine feeling, original creativity, or an organic sense of community. […] authenticity is a value, a quality we ascribe to perceived relationships between music, socio-industrial practices, and listeners or audiences. (Prior, 2015, p. 131)

Within a music press (NME, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork) that favours rock and latterly ‘indie’, which is rock by any other name, authenticity is considered crucial as it is the principal point of difference between favoured bands and theirinauthentic’ pop counterparts. This is confirmed by Moore who writes, “The issue of what can be understood as ‘authentic’ is […] of course pertinent to the hallowed distinctions between ‘pop’ and ‘rock’” (2002, p. 210). The reason authenticity is most commonly associated with (male) rock music and inauthenticity with (female) pop music can be traced back to rock’s beginnings as an oppositional force to the dominant culture (Bangs, 1987; Grossberg, 1992) and the fact rock criticism (and, to a lesser extent, rock music itself) has up until recent times been the domain of the male.

Until the last decade and the ongoing democratisation of music criticism, few female critics have been allowed into (or wanted to be allowed into) the boys’ club of (rock) music criticism, and popular music has been shaped accordingly (Brooks, 2008; Kramer, 2012). This gender imbalance is rapidly changing however and as a result, these narrow gendered definitions of authenticity have been challenged numerous times in recent years, notably in the writing of female music critics such as Ann Powers, Maura Johnston, and Jessica Hopper, who regularly speak out against outmoded terminology. For example, Hopper contends on her blog that popular chart singer Lily Allen “regardless of what anyone thinks, is basically the Sex Pistols of girls making bedroom electronic pop” (2010), an assertion that strikes at the heart of rock ideology. In an essay reviewing Hopper’s book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015) Crawford writes,

Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t own any albums by the Rolling Stones. They’re just so archetypal, so very rock and roll—and that, I find, can be a difficult thing to admire. Rock music has rarely offered women the same tangible promise of social rebellion and sexual freedom that it has given men—though plenty of women, myself included, have tried all the same to find those liberties in it. “Boy guitarists notwithstanding,” the journalist Lillian Roxon wrote to a friend, in 1966, “I don’t think I can stand the sight of another bloody electric guitar.” I know just how she felt. (2015)

On Collapse Board, a fierce debate raged during the latter half of 2011 over the concept of authenticity:

Before we go any further, let’s be clear on something. ALL music is fake. That’s why they call it a performance; that’s why they call it an act. The act of performing a song in front of people is a profoundly strange and unnatural thing. It is ALWAYS pretentious. There is ALWAYS some degree of artificiality to it. People don’t normally get up in front of a bunch of strangers and express themselves melodically. It is, whether the artist is aware of it or not, an act of creation that—while it may share some, or no, similarities with the artist—is not the same thing as the person doing the creating. (Creney, 2011)

Being deemed authentic is one of the lines used by both critics and academics to separate high (or middle) brow contemporary music from lowbrow (mass-produced) pop. However, in the increasingly complex and complicated world of web 2.0 environments, this idea is becoming less and less relevant as it becomes easier to fake authenticity. Every heard song has been mediated by the production process and other related processes, whether in a live setting or in a studio. Every song reflects the character of the personality and identity of the persons performing it, the same way all fiction is rooted at some level in ‘fact’ and all factual writing is rooted to some degree in ‘fiction’. As pioneer filmmaker Jim Jarmusch puts it (while conflating use of the word ‘authenticity’):

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and your theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable: originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to”. (2010)

Not all academics believe that authenticity is a useful classificatory tool. Many argue that authenticity does not exist within popular music, or if it does, it exists at such a low level within every performer as to have little or no value as a descriptive tool (Williams, 2006). And yet the notion of authenticity in popular music persists, constructed via various conventions and tricks, as Enli (2015, p.136) terms them in relation to media studies; predictability, spontaneity, immediacy, confessions, ordinariness, ambivalence and imperfection.

Enli argues that the “paradox of mediated authenticity is that although we base most of our knowledge about society and the world in which we love on mediated representations of reality, we remain well aware that the media are constructed, manipulated, and even faked” (p. 1). That paradox is central to an understanding of the ideology of rock (and thus popular music) criticism. Popular music is a mediated representation of reality, constructed and manipulated, and yet rock fans are frequently searching for what they believe to be an unmediated representation of the bands they give their support to.

Weisethaunet and Lindberg (2010) reason that the concept of authenticity when applied to popular music is even vaguer than when it is used in philosophy, where it has already become so vague as to become near-meaningless (p. 481). To illustrate their argument, the pair break down the concept in detail, and give examples of differing forms of authenticity that occur within different forms of popular music: “Folkloric ‘Authenticity’”, “‘Authenticity’ as Self-Expression”, “‘Authenticity’ as Negation”, “‘Authentic Inauthenticity’”, “Body ‘Authenticity’”, and so on (pp. 469-476). This should serve as a good example of the definitional confusion that awaits any academic or critic attempting to justify usage of the term. Establishing what authenticity actually means is highly problematic. A more sound approach is to usethe illusion of authenticity’. As Frith points out,

Critical judgement means measuring performers’ ‘truth’ to the experience or feelings they are describing or expressing. The problem is that it is, in practice, very difficult to say who or what it is that pop music expresses or how we recognize, independently of their music, the ‘authentically’ creative performers. Musical ‘truth’ is precisely that which is created by ‘good music’; we hear the music as authentic (or rather, we describe the musical experience we value in terms of authenticity) and such a response is then read back, spuriously, on to the music-making (or listening) process. (1996a, p.121)

Frith argues that the question is framed incorrectly: it should not be “what does popular music reveal about the people who play and use it”? Rather, it should be “how does popular music create them as people, as a web of identities?” (p. 121). All art is performance, or, as Creney (2011) bluntly terms it, “ALL music is fake”—and so the idea of looking to it to discover the ‘real’ person that lurks behind the façade lacks credibility:

Popular music is popular not because it reflects something or authentically articulates some sort of popular taste or experience, but because it creates our understanding of what ‘popularity’ is, because it places us in the social world in a particular way. What we should be examining […] is not how true a piece of music is to something else, but how it sets up the idea of ‘truth’ in the first place. (Frith, 1996a, p. 121)

I propose that until an understanding of the importance of the illusion of authenticity to rock criticism is reached, understanding various motivations and patterns of popular music criticism will remain problematic because the roots of what is termed popular music criticism in the present-day are so closely aligned with the roots of rock criticism. If popular music criticism is to lose the ‘death of the music critic’ tag and adapt to changing taste patterns in web 2.0 environments it needs to acknowledge the role the illusion of authenticity played in its creation, and still plays in much of present-day writing around music.

From The Slow Death of Everett True: A Metacriticism (Thackray, 2016, pp. 74-79)

Illustration: Vincent Vanoli

Everett True’s advice for aspiring music critics (late 2018 version)

Everett True, Courtney Love

(See photograph above – interesting that a website I have never visited should attempt to claim ownership for a photograph that they have nothing to do with.)

1. Do not ever attempt to apologise for holding an opinion.

This is a fundamental. The clue is in your job title. You are a music critic. So criticise. People will disagree with you. That is their prerogative. They are also wrong. Others will be able to out-argue you, out-describe you, be more eloquent and informed and passionate in any way you can name. It does not matter. What matters is this: your opinion. The writing follows.

1a. There is no such thing as good and bad music, only good and bad listeners.

Ask yourself: why would other people want to read my words? Do you add another layer of understanding SLASH enjoyment SLASH interpretation SLASH context to the music? There is an assumption of authority through the act of writing music criticism that you should neither ignore nor be cowed by.

2. 400 words good. 800 words horrible.

Self-explanatory really. The extra 400 words will be flimflam discussing how you showed up to the concert late because the police pulled over the car in front of yours, or lengthy excerpts from the press release, or re-writings of the Pitchfork review. (You want to really push the boat out? Steal from a second source as well.) Don’t take it to Twitter lengths, though. Do not think that just because you can understand what the hell you are going on about in 280 characters, and you get all your references and context and shorthand and such, anyone else will. Music criticism should not be crossword compiling.

3. Most musicians are dicks. (Most people are dicks.)

So you should not feel sorry for having a go at them, if required. Occasionally, I am asked to lecture media students about music criticism. I used to tell them that what I do is a craft, an art, and a thousand times more creative than the music I write about. It must be, because I make that dullest of breeds – the musician – sound interesting. Now I just tell them to get out there and do the damn thing.

3a. Do not abbreviate.

Just one of those short cuts you need to be aware of. Do so, if you are good at it. If you have problems with apostrophes however, why not avoid them altogether?

4. The music industry is not your friend. Unless you choose to make it so.

Do not be fooled into thinking that just because folk are nice to you when you are starting off, and flood your mailbox with free CDs and offers of free concert-tickets, they are your friends. They are not. They are simply trying to figure out how much of a soft touch you are. Of course, this can cut both ways.

4a. Play to your strengths, not those of other people.

Make them a feature. Enjoy swearing? Then swear.

5. Do not forget to place value upon what you do. If you fail to do this, why should anyone else?

This is important. You cannot become a critic without establishing authority or determining identity. If you do not give a crap about what you are writing, find it boring – rest assured, your readers will also.  Music criticism is a monstrous game of bluff, all smoke and mirrors, but do not feel downhearted about that. So is music.

6. Having the ability to turn an amp up really loud does not make you an interesting person.

It is incredible the number of people who believe otherwise.

7. The Rolling Stones ruined music for every generation. Discuss.

This is not a criticism levelled at The Rolling Stone per se – more at the canon of rock music that has developed because The Rolling Stones existed, and took drugs, and had beautiful girlfriends, and liked to piss against garage walls. Classic rock. Ugh. The same charge could be levelled – less accurately – at The Beatles. Less accurately, because at least The Beatles had some decent songs. That were their own. In other word (and fundamentally), question everything. 

7a. How to Build an Argument, Part 1.

Start with a contentious statement which you then need to justify through use of point and counterpoint. Bring in previous research (articles, music, sound clips). Bring in some prior knowledge, often obtained through immersion in music culture. Look to outside context (social, political, cultural). Look to genre. Look to examples that you value. And so forth.

7b. Music criticism, not rock criticism. (Unless that is what you do.)

Words are your weapons and your lovers. Please treat them with appropriate care.

8. Do not overuse adjectives. One is usually more than enough.

This rule particularly applies in the days of Search Engine Optimisation. It used to be the place of music critics to describe the music they were talking about; part of the service, alongside giving your windows a once-over with a dirty rag and cleaning the spit off your loafers. No longer. We are in the days of the Internet, folk. Your readers are perfectly able to search out and hear the music for themselves: all they are mostly seeking from you is validation and, of course, a little direction. Fact: sales of thesauruses have dropped 1,200 per cent among music critics in the past five years.

9. Do not confuse research with the ability to parrot press releases from memory.

Not when there is the Facebook page and Wikipedia waiting to be pillaged.

10. No one gives a fuck what you think. Get over it.

This is true. This is not true. It is one of those central… damn, what is that word… crucial to the craft of the critic. I mean, it is obviously true and it is equally as obviously not true. (Why would they be reading you if it is not true? Why would they be reading for you if it was not for the music you are discussing?) Depending on which grimy rung of which grimy ladder you are currently grimly holding onto.

11. Your principles mean shit if you did not have any to start with.

Ask Bono.

12. 10 words good. 50 words pointless.

The single most important lesson I had in English at school was on the art of the précis. Those extra 40 words are only going to be filled with useless stuff like the full name of each band-member, reasons why you showed up to the concert 30 minutes after the main band started, adjectives, and shit you nicked off the Facebook page.

We all do it. Do not be ashamed.

12a. How to Build an Argument, Part 2.

Introduction (most commonly a hook that lures your potential readers into reading on). A paragraph or two follows the introduction, justifying it and fleshing it out and making it…ahem…readable. Only then do you start to provide the background context, the information, the detail. The trick with building an argument is to make it feel like you are not building an argument. Unless that is your intention. Synthesise all those way-important details. Pay attention to the details. This is what separates you from the herd, helps confer authority.

13. Do not ever try to describe the music.

See above. Unnecessary. Impossible, mostly. What you should be attempting to do is trying to describe how the music makes you feel. The way musicians look and act is usually way more interesting than the music. The way audiences behave and feel is usually way more interesting than the music.

13a. Of course you have to try and describe the music.

You dolt.

14. if you have to resort to lists to make your point, you probably should not be writing.

This blog entry is not a review. Or an interview. It is a list. Do not confuse the three. It does not stop it being any the less disheartening to realise that, 99 times out a hundred, the idiots who click on stuff to read on the Internet (or watch on television, etc) will favour a list over a non-list.

14a. Pay great attention to your headings. 

This is all most people will see of your words. FACT! Eighty per cent of people who share links on Facebook do not read the articles attached first before sharing. FACT! Just writing the word FACT! before a sentence does not mean the sentence is true.

15. You should not care. Not in public, anyway.

If you show that you care you open yourself up to attack from all those master-trolls like Toby Young and Donald Trump and Katie RefuseToTypeHerName. Do not open yourself up to attack. You are a God. You only have power if people believe in you.

15a. How to Build an Argument, Part 3.

Hook. Introduction. Context. Background. Information. Point. Counterpoint. Description. More description. Analysis. Comparison. And so forth.

Order as you will.

16. Record companies and press agents do not always tell the truth.

Surprising how few writers realise this. Next week’s shocker: newspapers and TV channels are not always honest.

17. Do not write for magazines/websites you do not read.

Everyone does. Even me. Especially me. Fucking hacks. Do not worry about it. It is the editors who suffer.

18. Write because you have to, not because of your career plan.

Do not ask if you can submit. Write. Permission is not necessary.

19. If you do not have a clue why you are doing it, do not do it.

Have a clue before you sit down to write an article or a review: have a clue before you spend 10 minutes on the phone with the former drummer of Oasis: have a clue before you start accessing Pitchfork and NME looking for other reviews to rip off. Trust me. It will make your life way easier. And if you do not have a clue? Get lost. Trust me, it will make life of everyone else way easier.

20. It is not sexy. It is not glamorous. And it certainly will not get you laid.

I was once featured in three different items in Spin Magazine’s cover story, the Top 100 Rock And Roll Roll Moments Of All Time – twice as the main focus of the story. Each one centred around some alleged moment of debauchery: mostly sexual. My favourite was the one at Number 89 which stated that, in return for writing the story that broke grunge to the world, Sub Pop Records supplied me with a variety of press agents who orally pleasured me on flights to and from Seattle. I think I was also involved in a threesome with Evan Dando and Courtney Love. (That one made the Top 10.) What matters here is not the truth. What matters is what has been written.

21. It is not over. It is never over.

There is a rumour going round town that Pitchfork had a clause inserted into their writers’ contracts a couple of years ago stating that under no circumstances should a review be more interesting than the music it is discussing. Which, given the quality of most of the music Pitchfork likes to promote, is quite some task.

22. Fuck hyphens.

And fuck apostrophes too, while we are here. Keep it direct, entertaining, informative.

23. Think a band sounds like another band? You are probably right but so what?

See also the point about not making lists. Just because you can do it, it does not mean you should. This is a lesson you wish you could teach a six-year-old.

23a. The platform is way more important than the critic.

Obviously. (Unless it is not.)

24. Never trust a writer without an agenda.

A writer without an agenda is like Tom without Jerry, Donald Trump without any Russian friends and kinky sex life, an umbrella without rain. They can exist but you ask yourself: why?

25. Your editor will always value your ability to time-keep way over your ability to wield flowery prose.

This was the single most re-Tweeted line when I originally posted this series up on Twitter.

26. It is nice that folk want to send you free stuff. Get over it RIGHT NOW.

See also #4 above. Has it ever occurred to you that the free stuff might not be the most interesting?

27. A 10-minute rehash of the press release on the telephone does not constitute an interview.

Above all else: preparation. Research. Background knowledge. Or… failing all that, get trashed on your mum’s secret Jagermeister stash and spend the 10 minutes insulting the musician in question. And then make the whole thing up anyway. Seriously, who is going to care?

28. No one gives a fuck you once made out to an Ed Sheeran B-side.

Not unless it is for embarrassment value. What were you doing listening to Ed Sheeran past the age of eight anyway?

29. Having the ability to use a keyboard does not automatically make you a writer. See also #6.

Ah, for fuck’s sake. How many times do I have to say this? Everyone is NOT a critic – unless you are also of the opinion that if you have ever bashed a table-top a few times, sung along to Katy Perry in the shower or blown down one of those cute little nose-tickler things that come in Christmas stockings, you are a musician; if you have ever drawn a line across a piece of paper, you are an artist; or if you have ever taken a drunken snap of your mates covered in vomit, you are a photographer. It is true, technically. True, but a pointless and useless way to define the words in any sort of social or cultural or professional context.

30. Be candid. Be yourself. Be aware. Be yourself. Be entertaining. Be yourself.

Where is the clause in your contract that states all music criticism has to be dull?

30a. It’s not a career choice. Trust me.

Heard about the music critic who lived happily ever after? Me neither.

Buy the book, Ed Sheeran is Shit and other Major Musical Malfunctions. Buy two books at once for a £5 discount

How NOT to write about music – 24: Morrissey

British singer Morrissey performs during

This is reprinted from Collapse Board, 2012 – wherein I was merely trying to prove that there is  more than one way to review a show. Of course, there are more than 17 ways to review a show as well – interpretative dance, political, unseeing, seductive, podcast, ranting, haiku, whistled, choppy, sculpted, dress-making, self-centered… the list goes on and on. And on. Can all these be counted as music criticism? Depends on how narrow you like to set your parameters.

Couple of notes:

  1. Since this was written I find my 2018 self in violent disagreement with my 2012 self and section 15, particularly in regard to Morrissey and racism. So much so, I have thrown in a bonus rant (drawn from Ed Sheeran Is Shit) at the end, to counter the goodwill. The idea of reprinting this blog entry and the rant is not to draw attention to Morrissey however, but to try and alert people to the endless possibilities contained within music criticism – especially in the wake of Dave Simpson’s well-meaning but perhaps misleading Guardian article about the health of the music journalism that chose as its visual a magazine rack full of covers that only featured white male musicians over the age of 35.
  2. In section 14 (comparative) I cannot find links to all the music originally played so I have had to guess a couple. Unfortunate, but a good reminder of the transient nature of the Internet.
  3. I have added comments where I have deemed them necessary. Frankly, this shit should be shared and taught across every country where folk consider music journalism to hold any worth – but of course it won’t be. The folk most vested in music journalism’s value also have the biggest stake in music journalism not changing. Plus ça change.
  4. I still fucking LOVE that clip of ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’.

17 reviews of Morrissey @ Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, 17.12.12

The show took place on the 17 December. So I thought I’d print 17 versions of the review.

Version 1: Literal

1. Shoplifters Of The World Unite (The Smiths single, 1987)
2. You Have Killed Me (single from the 2006 Morrissey album Ringleader Of The Tormentors)
3. You’re The One For Me, Fatty (1992 solo single, later released on Your Arsenal)
4. Alma Matters (single from the 1997 Morrissey album Maladjusted)
5. Everyday Is Like Sunday (second single from Morrissey’s debut solo album Viva Hate, 1988)
6. Speedway (final song on 1994 solo album Vauxhall And I)
7. Ouija Board, Ouija Board (1989 solo single)
8. One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell (eighth song on the 2009 solo album Years Of Refusal)
9. How Soon Is Now? (B-side of The Smiths 1984 single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’)
10. I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris (first single from the 2009 solo album Years Of Refusal)
11. To Give (The Reason I Live) (Frankie Valli cover)
12. Meat Is Murder (title track from The Smiths’ second album, 1985)
13. Let Me Kiss You (single from the 2004 solo album You Are The Quarry)
14. Still Ill (sixth song from the first Smiths album The Smiths, 1984)
15. Irish Blood, English Heart (single from the 2004 solo album You Are The Quarry)
16. Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want (B-side of The Smiths 1984 single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’)
17. I Know It’s Over (third song on the third Smiths album The Queen Is Dead, 1986)
18. November Spawned A Monster (1990 solo single)
19. The Youngest Was The Most Loved (second single from the 2006 Morrissey album Ringleader Of The Tormentors)
20. Sweet And Tender Hooligan ( B-side to ‘Sheila Take a Bow’, 1987)
Encore: 21. First Of The Gang To Die (second single from the 2004 solo album You Are The Quarry)

Version 2: Abstract

Invoice for u/c
Exercise 5: Towel exercise
Sally Breen



Version 3: Pedantic

I can take or leave Morrissey. I’m ambivalent way more than obsessed. Never liked The Smiths or (it would be more accurate to say) never liked the idea of being seen to be liking The Smiths. Indie? Pah. Sometimes, I think he’s a one-trick pony. Sometimes? I mean, often. On Monday night at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre I find myself bored 32.1 per cent of the time, charmed 5.3 per cent, thrilled 3.87 per cent, spirits thoroughly uplifted 8.2 per cent, and entertained 64.9 per cent. I believe that adds up, and if it doesn’t that’s because it shouldn’t. I don’t like rock bands that think like rock bands. I like rock bands that rock. On Monday night, the only time Morrissey’s band really get into their stride – from my perspective, high in the stalls – is when they’re whipping up a howling vortex of noise during the PETA film, leading on from ‘Meat Is Murder’. I write, howling. I write, vortex. These words aren’t to be taken literally. You should never take anything literally, especially Morrissey and reviews of Morrissey. Unless, of course, it’s more entertaining to behave that way.

I’m not sure how I split on the songs. I’ve created my own “Morrissey, live in Brisbane 2012″ playlist and some of the songs on that are already more memorable than they were on Monday night, particularly the blousy ‘You Have Killed Me’.

And some aren’t.

Version 4: Irrational (fan-lust)

I love Morrissey. I’ve only seen him live once, but that’s more than most people. It was the most amazing experience in my life. Why? Not only because seeing him live just made me feel so euphoric, but because he took off his shirt and tossed it into the crowd. I was lucky enough to get a piece and I swear to you, it smelled so sweet. Drinking my favorite beer, Blue Moon, on this lovely Wednesday night while listening to him has reminded me how much i love him. This is a special frame with the piece of his shirt. I have it hanging in my house ever so proudly. (SolarV, Tumblr)

Version 5: Visual






the clash

Version 6: Imaginary

by Jake Cleland

Out trudges Moz, his face the picture of graven sadness – or at least, I think so. I can’t really see from a hundred rows back. But let’s just say that the aura of this sadsack LEGO man stomping around half a football field away is one of gloom. “The Queen, bad,” he says. “Capitalism bad. Marxism bad. This heat bad. Our impending collective deaths, good.” Each statement is punctured with a round of cheers. “This is not going to be a typical show. You’re going to get much more than your money’s worth and I hope you’ll appreciate it although I think for some it might be too much. That’s OK. What’s important is we’re all here now and we’ll all go through it together. OK.” I didn’t know it then – I couldn’t have – but what Morrissey had in store was a trip to hell and back. Travel time: 16 hours.

The First Quarter
“I’d like to introduce a special guest tonight…” he motions stage left. The curtain parts to make way for whichever sap was pulled in to be his gimmick tonight. No doubt some member of the Australian rock vanguard. Timmy Rogers? Paul Kelly? No, this guy’s got dark hair. The excitement ripples through the crowd from the front row like the vacuum preceding a nuclear explosion. “I believe you know my mate Richey.” The fandom detonates. By some miracle, Morrissey’s revived the Britpop prophet of blank, emotional exhibitionism. He’s brought out Richey Manic. I start pushing my way through the crowd to get a better look. “A few guests, actually…” The curtain parts again and onto the stage shuffles Damon Albarn and a typically dapper Jarvis Cocker. A lot’s been made in the past year about 90s pop revivalism and the cynicism of reunion tours in Australia – it felt especially inevitable following the popularity of Simon Reynolds’s Retromania last year – and yet how could anyone be cynical about this? Sure, it was backwards-looking navel-gazing like all nostalgic tripping but shit, for the kids who weren’t there the first time, this simulacrum of a historical moment is just as good as the original. The set begins strongly, sprinkling covers of the guests’ songs between two decades of hits and treasured deep cuts.

The Second Quarter
The hits and covers done away with, Morrissey and his mottled crew hand off their instruments and come down off the stage. “It’s time for a break. Flex the muscles a bit.” Security staff begin circulating through the crowd, carrying an assortment of sporting equipment. Tennis gear, cricket bats, footballs of every kind. Even a ping pong table, set up in front of the stage, although this quickly turns into a round robin tournament of beer pong. Despite the sensitivity, Moz still draws the lad crowd. The band begin mingling. “Fancy a kick, Moz?” I ask him. For an old feller, he’s pretty spry, dodging and weaving like the ball’s glued to his legs. We set up a small area, maybe 5×5 metres, fans vs band. Moz’s a deadly midfielder but Richey’s cadaverous goalkeeping nudge the fans ahead.

The Third Quarter
Requests and crowd favourites. Security gathers up all the gear – even the ping pong table, which some had had the bright idea of using as a stage of their own [actually, in its original incarnation, my old regular venue in Brighton UK, the Free Butt, would set up the pool table as the stage – Ed] – and furrows it away as the band take their original positions. “So, what shall we play next, my darlings?” asks our fearless leader/lover. “Khe Sanh!” one shouts. They play it. “Cattle And Cane!” another shouts. They play it. “The Wild Ones!” yet another shouts. They play it. “Wonderwall!” The crowd goes silent. Morrissey’s stare freezes the culprit to the spot. “You’ve asked for it now.” Richey, standing in for Noel Gallagher, begins strumming the opening chords. And he strums. And he strums. And he keeps strumming for what feels like half an hour as the rest of the band stands poised as if they’re about to come in but it seems like they never will. Finally Morrissey enters. “Tooooooooooooooo-” it drags on. He slides up the scale and back down again. Then he starts syncopating. All on this one “oooh” sound. He drags it out, twisting and contorting it in every way imaginable, and just when it’s sunk so deep into the psyche it seems as natural as the sound of the breeze on a spring morning or the cars along the highway at night, he switches into “Dayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy-” and on and on. Finally it dawns on me, but the realisation makes it no easier to bear. A three-and-a-half hour long version of Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’. By the end there are folks huddled on the ground, while some just stare blankly ahead, thoughtless, except for a kind of existential stillness, an emotional paralysis. He’s hurt us. Like any abusive lover, at this point it seems the only hope he offers is to make the cruelty that much more satisfying.

The Fourth Quarter
That hellish nightmare endured, Morrissey gives one more surprise. “This is the final one, I swear, but please welcome to the stage my dear friends, the original members of S Club 7.” The crowd muster a feeble moan of approval but can’t even get it up enough to appreciate the spectacle of Albarn and Cocker mimicking their choreography with rehearsed precision. The hits go by with rote energy. ‘S Club Party’, ‘Don’t Stop Movin”, ‘Bring It All Back’. It doesn’t matter. Who cares? I’m defeated. The entire world seems grey. Wait, is that it? Oh Morrissey. Morrissey, you sly dog. I finally get it. The last sliver of my conscious mind grasps Morrissey’s genius. “We’re all here now. We’ll all go through it together.” My god, he didn’t mean the show, he meant life! The optimism followed by the crushing pessimism which evolves into jadedness. I doubt many here could understand but Morrissey’s just replicated the experience of human emotional growth, from the boundless curiosity and hope of children through to the bleak limit of reality one discovers as an adult. Torture, yes. Fairly sure everyone here could be considered prisoners at this point. And yet, we’d all been offered the most real glimpse into Morrissey’s psyche as any one man could ever provide. In that moment I understood exactly what made Morrissey who he was, and exactly what I could do to stay the fuck away from it.


LOVED: The complete deconstruction of Morrissey’s metaphysical nature.
HATED: The beer was a bit watered down. For $8 a cup, I expected better.

Version 7: Street press

The following is taken from The Australian:

Back on the road with no new album to support, the Mancunian front man took to the stage looking like a well-aged matador. Opening with The Smiths’ Shoplifters Of The World Unite, Morrissey’s five-piece band swung in to action behind him.

You Have Killed Me was next and the troupe had a full head of steam by the time You’re The One For Me, Fatty came around. Morrissey’s voice sounded, for the most part, as good as it ever has, although there were moments when the quaver wavered. Speedway was rough around the edges but that was part of the appeal.

John Lennon, towards the end of his life, referred to David Bowie as rock’s last great original. A few years later, Morrissey came along

Version 8: Poetic

Oh Morrissey.
You mean little when you’re separated but sometimes you mean
The night to me

Version 9: Note form

We were in the seated section to the right hand side of the stage, as you look at it.

Charlotte asks me what I take notes about at a concert (it’s very rare that I do). Usually, it’s just the song titles (although strictly speaking this isn’t necessary in the age of set-lists being available on the Internet the following day – e.g. here) and some general observations: the stage banter, as that’s what is unique to this night alone. (Some artists repeat themselves night to night, but I can’t imagine for one second that Morrissey, who prides himself on his capriciousness, does.) Lighting arrangements, number of musicians. Whether I enjoy a particular song or not. The mundane stuff. Stuff I forget. Also:

Did the crowd chant his name? (Yes.) Were fans pulled on stage? (Yes.) How many shirt changes? (Three.) Were the lights blinding us in the stalls? (Yes.) Was a giant image of Himself projected onto the screen behind the stage so we could see nose hairs in detail? (No.)

The following are my notes, word-for-word, typed into my mobile phone during (and before) Morrissey’s set. Quotes signify Morrissey speaking (or a lyric).

Jean Genie
Salford Boys Club
football chant of “Morrissey”
never turn your back on mother Sparks 1974
new york dolls looking for a kiss

“let me spit it out”
“well, look at it this way, this bottom therapy”
You’re the one for me Fatty
always was a Clash fan (and that’s a difference between us)
mic lead
security monitor every move as he touches hands
“this is my life to destroy my own way”… I like this one (song 4)
big gong behind drums
“you’ll be horrified to hear we had a fantastic time in New Zealand and whether Australia can compete, I don’t know”
Every day is like Sunday (“It couldn’t be much further from Queensland, this song” – Charlotte)
bows (mention way the band looks when they come out)
“in my own strange way I’ve always been true to you” – with ‘Funeral Pyre’ drums (song 6)
guitarist with his arm in a sling
Ouija Board has vague carnival signifiers, gong at end
“I had a shocking experience last night…. Rock Kwiz…’name a singer whose name begins with “m”… someone said the obvious one, someone another obvious one…six down the line, I wasn’t even mentioned…”
no costume changes yet
“I’m human and I need to be loved/just like everyone else does” – theatrical end with Morrissey in foetal position, and banging on major drum (song 9)
“You’re feeling weary now, you’re thinking about tomorrow, there isn’t one… prozac, prozac”
next song like ‘Eloise’ singer Barry Ryan (song 11)
“I’m very pleased to see such a movement in this country against factory farming… until it’s gone, humans aren’t humane”
footage of chickens and turkeys
“and the turkey you festively slice/it’s murder” – band almost coming into their own (song 12)
“Will and Kate. Bag. Of. Shit”
“close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire”
strips off shirt and lobs it into the audience, returns in green Johnny Cash top (costume change!)
into Smiths song, very messy. ‘Still Ill’, voice cracking a little
Meat is moider, “brave English heart”
A plant in the audience… “thank you for your great courage and compassion”
stands still, encourages audience participation
Please Please Please… done subtle with keyboards (song 16)
ties shoelace
Also gentle, ‘I know it’s Over’

“Oh, you’re bored stiff, I can tell”
Shouting on “etcetera  etcetera” lyric repeated (song 20)
same venue as citizenship ceremony, seemed big then
another costume change, and a bow
“You have never been in love… first of the gang with a gun in his hand” – pulling fans up on stage

Version 10: Musical

The songs I enjoyed particularly are as follows:

  • Alma Matters – score! I don’t believe I’ve heard the song before, but it has a lovely circular guitar motif that cuts in every so often across, enhancing Morrissey’s deliciously playful croon
  • Everyday Is Like Sunday – score! Charlotte memorably remarks halfway through, “It couldn’t be much further from Queensland, this song” and later revealed she would listen to the song in the car on the way to Southend, on a Sunday. Utterly charming. Couldn’t believe it wasn’t a Smiths song, when C informed me of the fact. I thought only Smiths songs possessed this lightness of touch – as opposed to bludgeoning force. Wrong.
  • Speedway – it’s muscular, sure. But it’s pleasingly muscular.
  • Ouija Ouija Board – what sets the great Morrissey songs aside from the merely ordinary or mundane is the choice of phrase, often. For example, this song here. (‘One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell’ rocked reasonably hard, what with those tempestuous drums but didn’t have a phrase. Or a melody.)
  • How Soon Is Now? – oh yes. I mean, really. This is the song the entire early mythology of Morrissey and The Smiths is built upon, right? The one The Stone Roses hark back to (which is why they could be MASSIVE while Suede only ever aspired to ordinariness as they took ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ as their template). Lyrics lyrics lyrics… but of course not only. The band aren’t Johnny Marr. Only Johnny Marr is. It didn’t matter. And it was sweet to see Morrissey stray away from his standard dance move of twirling the microphone lead around to curl up in a foetal position in front of the drum kit as the noise droned on and eerily on. Lyrics lyrics lyrics.
  • Meat Is Murder – memorable, certainly. Awful song, but memorable.
  • Irish Blood English Heart –  yeah of course.
  • Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want – oh, it’s such a relief when he drops the volume for a couple of songs, and lets us all breath again. This always was a wafer-thin delight of a song (thrown away with the other great Smiths song on the same B-side), recognised long ago for its sensitive touch, and it’s always a pleasure to be reacquainted with any version that doesn’t feature bland indifferent female vocals.
  • I Know It’s Over – see above, and triplicate. Score! A Smiths song I really wasn’t on speaking terms with, reclaimed – subtle and playful and wistful.
  • First Of The Gang To Die – the only encore. (The crowd can’t say Morrissey didn’t warn them. He kept warning them!) Absolutely the stand-out of the night. Storming chorus, storming phrasing, storming storming. Loved the way he played up to the idol worship, pulling outstretched hands up onto the stage, security all crouched and vigilant in case the play-acting became too real. (Which of course it was.) Wonderful way to end the night. I could forgive him any number of faults for this one song alone, and indeed do.

This doesn’t mean I hated the others, more that I was indifferent.

Version 11: Conversational

Conversation One:

“Went to see Morrissey play at the Exhibition Centre the other night…”
Oh yeah? How was it?
“Well, I wouldn’t classify myself as a fan…”
“No. It was pretty good actually. I objected to the way he semi-shouted several of the numbers, and I didn’t really like the band, but there were enough moments to make it worth the trip…”
Oh yeah? Did he play any old Smiths songs?
“Seven, actually.’How Soon Is Now?’, the one Smiths song I’ve always had a soft spot for. And ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’, which everyone thinks is a Smiths song anyway.”
Yeah? Good, was it?
“Yeah, great. And he closed the show with an absolute belter, ‘First Of The Gang To Die’. Absolute stormer.”
Yeah? I haven’t heard that one.
“No, neither had I. Remind me to play it to you some time.”
So. Did you speak to him afterwards?
“Morrissey? Are you kidding me?”

Conversation Two:

“He was a lot more jovial than I expected” – Charlotte, on the way back to the car

Conversation Three:

“We consider ourselves the Morrissey and Johnny Marr of Brisbane. There are fights over who gets to be Johnny Marr, because no one wants to be Morrissey” – Gentle Ben Corbett, on the songwriting process between him and Dylan McCormack, 2008 (interview by Shan Welham)

Version 12: Cynical

He’s no David Bowie.

Version 13: Lyrical

I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular

You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does

There’s a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die

When you say it’s gonna happen “now”
Well when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone

You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does

(‘How Soon Is Now?’, The Smiths, 1984)

Trudging slowly over wet sand
Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen
This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down
Armageddon – come armageddon!
Come, armageddon! come!

Everyday is like Sunday
Everyday is silent and grey

Hide on the promenade
Etch a postcard :
“how I dearly wish I was not here”
In the seaside town
…that they forgot to bomb
Come, come, come – nuclear bomb

Everyday is like Sunday
Everyday is silent and grey

(Everyday Is Like Sunday’, Morrissey, 1988)

Version 14: Comparative

Most of these are Morrissey’s own comparison points, drawn from the music and films played before the set on Monday. I threw in Barry Ryan, mainly for the Frankie Valli cover, and I can’t imagine Morrissey would object. If I was feeling real mean here, I’d compare some of the set to the lesser bands that came after Viva Hate (which is my favourite of any of Morrissey’s albums, with or without The Smiths), but I ain’t feeling real mean here, just comparative. Oh, wait. That means I should.

Hence the Suede clip at the end.

Version 15: Vitriolic

This section is halfhearted because I ain’t got no call being vitriolic towards Morrissey. My feelings for him veer from indifferent to admiring and, on occasion, glad that he’s around. Do I think he’s a racist (to answer one popular call)? No. Not vaguely. I think he likes to think he’s challenging.

Also: it ain’t his fault the shit his music has inspired… OK, maybe some of it is (Easterhouse, anyone?) but not all of it.

  • ‘Still Ill’ has always fucking sucked and it STILL FUCKING SUCKS
  • As does ‘You’re The One For Me, Fatty’
  • ‘Sweet And Tender Hooligan’ should never have been afforded a release. The “etcetera” lyric sounds way better in its original form, “You’re my pride and joy/Etcetera”.
  • I wouldn’t remove my shirt, looking like that. Oh no. What does he think this is? 1992?
  • If I’d wanted to hear someone bawling his way over graceless noise I could have stayed at home and listened to Isaac and Daniel fighting, thanks.
  • Meat means dinner. Always.
  • He’s a bit Tony Bennett, all this reaching out to the crowd.

Version 16: Conflicted

Ah yes. Should I ‘fess up now after all these years? That I only ever hated The Smiths because everyone else so overrated The Smiths when all they simply were was an occasionally brilliant rock band with a lot of chaff attached?

Doing research for this review, I saw plenty of examples of (overwhelmingly male) music commentators making irritating and outrageous claims for Morrissey (the Second Greatest Living Englishman, according to a poll conducted a few years back). That he’s the Last of the Great Pop Stars. That he’s the World’s Greatest Living Lyricist. Etcetera. Etcetera. Bugger that. All they’re doing is trying to reaffirm their own place in the world, one rooted in nostalgia and a yearning for times when they still understood half of what was going on around them.

The Last of the Great Pop Stars? To paraphrase Bill Naughton (The Goalkeeper’s Revenge), I buy and sell pop stars, they’re two a penny to me.

I like The Smiths but I don’t like The Smiths. I don’t like The Smiths but I do like Gene, The Sundays, The Stone Roses, even (very) early Cranberries…

Fundamentally, because I’m old, I can still remember independent music in the U.K. before The Smiths’ champions (and Creation Records) got their teeth into it and turned it all retro and put paid to myriad of the possibilities. This is the prime reason for never being a fan, but that’s ancient history now and it’s 2012 and yes I’m glad Morrissey is up on stage tonight. I can forgive almost anything for one, just one great song.

On his day, Morrissey can handle a phrase, that’s for sure. And he struts with a certain insouciance befitting of the former president of the New York Dolls fan club. He ain’t half rooted in a different world to mine though (one that seems weirdly indifferent to his sojourn in Los Angeles). He’s known for his sensitivity and wryness, yet attempts to browbeat us into awed compliance half the time with an arena rock band interchangeable with dozens of other arena rock bands.

I like the fact he’s petulant, still cares enough to wind up folk he sees as the foe. I dislike the fact he’s petulant, doesn’t really care enough to wind up folk he knows are the foe. I am not a Smiths fan, but I do really like about six of their songs (same as with Roxy Music, Sparks). I am not a Morrissey solo fan, but Bangs alive several of those songs really came alive for me tonight.

Version 17: the Spotify playlist

Bugger that. Create your own, you lazy fuckers.

Morrissey is shit (2018)

There I’ve said it. Happy now? Morrissey is shit. Of course, I don’t really believe that. Not really. He’s a diarrhoeic stream-of-consciousness twat whenever he opens his mouth these days, he doesn’t think before he opens his big fat mouth… or perhaps he does? Maybe that’s the problem. But back in the day, he was great… wasn’t he? Well no. Never felt that either. A pleasing enough diversion, but I didn’t grow up in buttfuck USA. I knew of plenty of alternatives already, many of whom weren’t so obviously performing sorrow and integrity and sensitivity the way he did. Nothing wrong with performance of course, not per se – but to me, back then? Fuck yeah there was. Still, The Smiths (and Morrissey solo) released a good couple of songs and several albums of mediocre imitations and approximations of same. So blanket shit, like Chris Martin? Hell no. ‘Course not… unless you happen to believe he is.

Hell, I’m not scared of my own taste, but I don’t believe you should be either. Got n’owt against him as a performer. Puts on a damn good show sometimes. But nowadays? Fuck man. Nothing feels like shit more than someone people once placed their trust in, their belief, and formed their identities via. No one can stand up to that pressure, that spotlight. Imagine being Johnny Rotten for 40 years. Imagine being Morrissey day in and day out, and not being able to switch off. Bad enough being Everett True. The other day I had a student tell me that she liked DailyMailfuckwadwriter’s name, cos at least she’s being honest. Here’s the thing, though: is DailyMailfuckwadwriter being honest or is she being selective? Perhaps she, like us, eats Oatibix in the morning, but she doesn’t Tweet about that, does she? Nah. She Tweets shit like, “An entire city of monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Blind. Deaf. And dumb.” Not about her Oatibix at all. Just the stuff she knows will rile people. She’s a professional twat, a Troll of the First Order, thriving on fear and hatred and everything that is low and scummy about life. A bottom feeder on the bottom feeders.

Morrissey isn’t a Troll of the First Order like that… and he’s not as bad as Bono either. But he is a twat, isn’t he? Maybe he always was, and we just didn’t care (or know) back then. Maybe he’s changed, or our demands upon how he should behave have changed? He says stuff to provoke, to get people thinking. That’s the defence. (Is it?) What, so you like people thinking what a racist piece of shit you are, Mozzer? Nice. ‘Course you don’t need to defend yourself mate. This is art. All you need to do is call other races ‘subspecies’ when you get upset. Not individuals, mind. Whole races.

Claims to love animals, bans all animal products from his shows: Wears leather shoes, so I’m told. (Who knows? I’m no expert. I’m down with the alternative reality brigade, just not the alt-right scumbags.) All he does is sing the same melody from the Dominant 5th to the major 3rd of whatever key his songs are in… so I’m told. Behaves like an impoverished rejected outsider when he isn’t. (Is that a crime? Well, it explains Trump.) And he looks like a Tory MP these days. Flag waving ex-pat. Still, he’s got a nice voice, don’t he? Lovely voice. (‘less you don’t like it, of course.) Shame The Smiths only had about eight good songs. Still. That’s eight more positive contributions to humankind than that fucking DailMailfuckwadwriter has managed.

People who have always been shit don’t disappoint. Not in the same way.