The Smiths are one of those bands whose fan base is particularly rabid and terrifying, which I guess isn’t that surprising considering that they’re disciples of Morrissey – a guy who’s not exactly know for his level-headedness. So when Miley Cyrus decided to cover ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ at a stadium show in Belfast as part of her Bangerz tour, there was bound to be a backlash. The Smiths have been a touchstone of adolescent angst for several generations now. It’s only natural that people get protective of the anthemic emotional ballads that guided them through that sweetly-melancholic teenage loneliness.
Point being, a lot of people have some sort of emotional connection to The Smiths. I’m not excluding myself from that category either. There’s a chapter in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (that other talisman of suburban teenage-hood) that’s named after the same song that Miley elected to cover. It follows beloved loser Spud through a night of heavy drinking that culminates in him sabotaging his own advances on a girl he’s crushing on. Basically he realises that no matter what the outcome of his actions he’s inevitably going to fuck everything up for himself, so he decides that it’s easier not to bother trying at all. The whole thing revolves around one line from the titular song “In a darkened underpass, a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask.” The articulation of that feeling of paralysing frustration and self-defeat is so pitch-perfect that it made teenage me decide that I wanted to try my hand at writing. That’s one of many moments I associate with being underscored by a soundtrack of The Smiths. Other notable experiences include the juvenile realisation that the theme song to Charmed was a Smiths cover, and that the line is ‘I am the son and the heir’ and not ‘I am the sun in the air’; being in Year 10 and jimmying the lock on classroom doors at lunchtime and listening to The World Won’t Listen on class CD players; or, much later, dancing frustratingly close to my now-girlfriend, before we were together, to The Queen Is Dead in a half-empty room at 4.00 am as a house party collapsed around us.
Long story short, I get the sentimental attachment to The Smiths – and sure it’s easy to take cheap shots at Miley. But like many knee-jerk reactions on the internet, the glib snark tone of most criticism generally detracts from some actual conversation points surrounding the content. Hating on Miley is easy, and in many respects she sets herself up for that criticism. But that’s also her power: she’s more than anything a product of the constant media attention that’s thrust upon her – and to imply that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to recognise that she’s playing a game with that spotlight is reductive and patronising. The fan-captured video of Miley singing the opening bars of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ is so amazing that it defies comprehension. For Hannah Montana, the purest incarnation of mid-western values, to stand in a stadium draped in Kenzo and sincerely sing “Please don’t drop me home because it’s not my home, it’s their home and I’m welcome no more,” is so perfect that I can easily overlook the fact that the vocals are lacklustre.
What makes this whole thing sublime though is the fact that Miley is so acutely aware of her representation that she films herself singing the cover mid-performance. And which clip did she choose to share with her audience of 10 million followers on Instagram? Morrissey’s poignant lament “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” Except Miley delivers the line with a smile and wink, and, of course, the trademark tongue. I don’t think there’s a better articulation of the state of popular culture in the 21st century than that moment, and it was deliberately engineered as a performance mechanic by the artist herself. The roles of performers have changed: Miley’s direct interface with her fans represents an unbelievably powerful platform that excludes the media and all the hyperbole surrounding her. Miley is a 21-year-old recording artist who’s spent the majority of her life under intense public scrutiny, and her progression as an artist has undoubtedly been expedited by that constant attention. The fact that she’s gone from blithely name checking Jay Z on ‘Party In The U.S.A.’ to recording with Mike WiLL Made-It, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J in under three years (two years and 364 days to be specific) is mind blowing.
One of the criticisms that’s often levelled at Miley is that she lacks subtlety, which may well be the case. But how is it possible for someone whose entire life is a public spectacle supposed to understand the power of holding back? Miley is a product of the constant attention that’s focussed on her, and to her credit she’s self-directed enough to play with that representation. To discredit her for engaging with cultural landmarks is to overlook the power of modern celebrity – and to be honest I’d much rather watch Miley work the media into a frenzy than listen to a middle-aged Morrissey bitch about vegetarianism or drop another racist soundbite.
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