At the risk of giving credence to the apocryphal, I’d like to focus this week on a particular musical urban legend. It concerns the Smiths, a Mancunian group active in the 1980s. Everybody who’s hip to the Smiths and their contemporaries—even those who, like myself, were too young to have been interested in them at the height of their popularity—seems to know someone (or to know someone who knows someone) who was saved from suicide by the Smiths’ music.
I don’t know whether there’s any truth to this myth, but let’s assume for the moment that there is, and that at least one person made it through a prohibitively tough time in his or her life by listening to Smiths LPs. The band’s album titled The Queen Is Dead was released in 1986; Brian Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla Ciaccona, a piece for which (to my knowledge) no such legend exists, dates from the same year. By no standard of intellectually responsible analysis is The Queen Is Dead a more significant work than the Intermedio. Nevertheless, if we accept the tale, the Smiths’ record has a power that Ferneyhough’s vastly more important piece does not: Dude was about to slit his wrists, but he listened to “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” and decided not to.
Obviously there are confounding variables. For one thing, it’s safe to assume that the Smiths’ audience includes a far greater share of turbulent adolescents than does Ferneyhough’s; for another, the Smiths’ music explicitly addresses the melodrama of alienated youth. Maybe any piece of music, if it strikes the ears that need it at the right time, can prompt a sudden re-evaluation of priorities, and the substance of The Queen Is Dead is therefore immaterial (except in a catalytic sense). It’s also entirely possible that the whole ordeal never happened, but the story is so deliciously appropriate to the Smiths’ catalogue that it has persisted to this day.
Even if it’s false, though, it’s an interesting yarn to keep in mind. There are many perfectly reasonable but by no means easily accomplished goals—beauty, profundity, complexity, provocation—we might have in mind when writing music, and we’re justifiably proud when they’re achieved. On the other hand, if this story about the Smiths is to be believed, there’s music out there that is, under optimal conditions, capable of saving lives. At the very least, it’s a nice thought.