Or, Why Morrissey is god and Duncan Sheik is an insufferable poseur. Or possibly the other way around.
I have a confession to make. There's this Duncan Sheik song I like.
Well, it isn't a Duncan Sheik song, first of all, it's a Smiths song. But he does a cover of it.
It was released yonks ago, and I grabbed if off Napster, back when I was in college and it was free to do things like that. After college, for some reason, that track never survived -- probably because well, I don't like Duncan Sheik. I loathe him and all his works and all his ways. He is, in his own little way, the opposite of everything I like in music.
But when, in the course of my internet travels today, I saw an mp3 of this song, I was over-joyed. And then drowned in a sea of self-loathing. But it got me thinking:
Why is his cover better than the original?
It hit me: /because/ Duncan Sheik is loathsome and pathetic.
Here me out:
"Reel Around the Fountain" is, like practically every Morrissey song, a song about being pathetic (Deeply pathetic: "Slap me on the Patio/I'll take it now..."). It's Morrissey's delivery of the song, with just the right level of self-awareness, that makes the song ironic. And irony, of course, is based on the existence of two simultaneous levels it is and isn't pathetic at the same time, since it is an honest statement of how the speaker feels, but by being aware of how sad it is, it isn't quite as sad as it could be.
And this wry self-consciousness is what makes oh, every smart adolescent with a sense of style fall hopeless for Morrissey. Your sex doesn't matter. Neither does your sexual identity. A few years ago my friend Maddie Minx, noted Midlands lesbian, went to a Morrissey concert. "Oh," she told me, "I wish I was 18 again, so I could lose my virginity to him*." I remember nodding, and thinking "That is exactly the way I feel."
[Of course, the practical reality is non-sense. We all know he'd ejaculate prematurely onto your favourite t-shirt, then immediately run away crying. Later, he'd write a song about it, and you'd love it and sing it to yourself when you're lonely. But that's hardly the point.]
But Duncan Sheik eschews that sort of complexity. It goes after emotion of the song with all the awareness of a basset hound going after a ham. He revels in it. He recognizes himself in the utter bathos, and brings it out in a way more purely honest than Morrissey ever could.
Which utterly, utterly misses the point.
The song is quite clever, in its way, and Duncan misses it all. Take the verse for example:
I dreamt about you last night
And I fell out of bed twice
You can pin and mount me like a butterfly
But "take me to the haven of your bed"
Was something that you never said...
If you take the time to actually listen to the song, you can hear that Morrissey is quite careful in his phrasing: the middle line, after all, comes in between two references to being in bed; it's fairly obviously a sexual reference. Accordingly, Moz manages to make the verse into a coherent lyrical unit, downplaying the rests between line three and lines two and four. If he were speaking, that line'd be a parenthetical (subjunctive) statement underlying the (indicative) statement of the verse. Irony. Especially considering the concrete blutness of actions of "pin and mount me" with "Take me to the haven of your bed."
But poor Duncan has a plodding rhythm with rock solid rests between the lines: each line becomes another item in a list of wrongs done by the would-be lover. Nothing subtle. Nothing ironic. Just one dumb person getting treated brutally by another. It's almost painful to listen to, since you almost become drawn into the conflict.
Sheik identifies himself with the emotional experience (and knowing anything about his person, this wouldn't surprise you. I don't know that much, but I do know he got locked in a limo by a group of models he was trying to hit on...) completely. He isn't posing, as such, because he is that sad, but he is posing, because he clearly doesn't have the first clue how the song works.
Still, such is the glory of music, I suppose. He gets it wrong, but it's still sort of right. His appeal comes from his forth-rightness, his genuineness, in presenting it. But if you like the original song, there's a fundamental feeling of him missing the mark, a sort of "Yes, but..." that you can't shake. I mean, I suppose I should laud someone that willing to open themselves up to the world, but like I said, it also makes you a party to his abuse and emotional stupidity.
Good lord, I've gone and turned a Smiths cover into a Sarah Kane play. Excuse me, but I'll have to go and masturbate into my shit now.**
*Quote slightly altered to preserve dignity.
**This isn't pointless vulgarity. Honest.