March 8, 2007

’80s Rock Icons Don’t Cry

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On that long list of substantial rivalries throughout history, few have perplexed music fans as greatly as the Smiths versus the Cure; both groups are considered definitive, prolific acts of the late ’70s and ’80s, contributed significantly to the evolution of rock and pop, and, twenty years later, are still incredibly fun to dance to. Perhaps spurred on by Robert Smith and Morrissey’s own tendency to trash each other in interviews during their heydays (after Morrissey began promoting vegetarianism, Robert Smith supposedly remarked that “if Morrissey says don’t eat meat, then I’ll eat meat because I hate Morrissey,” although the latter apparently conceded to Smith’s being a “nice person” in the late ’90s), fans refuse to simply appreciate each band for their respectively unique styles. Furthermore, this debate has evolved from mere late-night conversations into popular “Smiths versus Cure” dance parties, a theme that pervades hipster clubs from New York City to our very own Ithaca a few years back. I was underage at the time, but I hear that the fight was bitter to the end.

Admittedly, the Cure has reached a much larger audience than the Smiths. As I mentioned last semester, sneaking “Just like Heaven” onto a party playlist is the perfect way to coax your guests onto the dance floor. You’ve undoubtedly heard “Lovesong,” “Friday I’m in Love” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” and I vaguely recall “Pictures of You” being cleverly appropriated by Hewlett Packard in one of their printer commercials a few years ago. Indeed, at their essence, the Cure is a singles band. They have two compilations of greatest hits (“Galore” and the aptly-titled “Greatest Hits”), each track of which can cause even the most musically-challenged of us to scratch our heads and say, “Hey…I know this song!”

Equally appealing is the variety of their music. Through his unwashed, frazzled hair, black clothing, and dark eye makeup contrasting against his chalky, powdered face, Robert Smith has understandably earned — and perhaps perfected — the image of the morbid, brooding musician. His is truly the face that launched a thousand Hot Topics, inspiring high school outcasts everywhere to enter a phase they will undoubtedly regret ten years later. However, many of the Cure’s most popular songs are, dare I say it, happy. I have been known to blast “Just Say Yes,” “The Caterpillar” and “The Lovecats” from my car during the most beautiful of summer days. The last of these is reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley with an amazing arrangement of horns, piano and upright bass, and this swinging single, so far a reach from our contemporary conception of the Cure, reached #7 in the U.K. upon its release.

Whereas the Cure spread these hits over two decades and a dozen albums — leading, of course, to an inordinate amount of album-fluff — the Smiths condensed their genius into several incredibly strong pieces between ’84 and ’87. Yes, after three years, Morrissey’s proclivity to stuff gladioli in his back pockets during performances and insult everyone in the music industry became too crazy even for his Keith Richards-wannabe band mates. Getting into the Smiths is more difficult than getting into the Cure, however, because Morrissey and his ilk never quite achieved the same mainstream popularity. Then again, there is something undeniably appealing about the Smiths’ dark, controversial, underground music, making them a hipster’s ideal gateway-band. How can an angst-ridden teenager resist references to Oscar Wilde in “Cemetery Gates,” allusions to child abuse in “Reel around the Fountain,” or the self-explanatory “Girlfriend in a Coma”? I remember first hearing the Smiths while driving up the coast of Big Sur a few years back. “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” came on the mixed tape, and, after listening to lyrics such as “And if a double-decker bus/ Crashes into us/ To die by your side/ Is such a heavenly way to die,” I was hooked. Yes, I was so terrified about crashing into a bus during our road trip that I made my friend crawl around the mountainside at thirty miles an hour, but I was hooked.

As with every “Smiths vs. Cure” dance party, my column concludes with no definitive answer, but merely an overwhelming urge to spend my potentially productive time dancing around the room to great ’80s music. Obviously, the only way to resolve this bitter rivalry is to lock Robert Smith and Morrissey in a room and force them to fight to the death. My money is on Morrissey. Sure, he’s a little scrawny, but Smith really let himself go during the ’90s; plus, being a celibate vegetarian who needlessly wears a hearing aid, carries flowers in his pockets and alienates himself from all of his peers, can do unsettling things to a man.