Why Is Donald Trump Playing the Smiths at His Rallies?
It’s been weird to be a Smiths fan for a long time. Being weird was kind of the point for fans in the ’80s and ’90s, who were drawn to the band’s ability to express what it felt like to be a lonely teenager longing for love, or at least some heavy petting at a high school dance. I have come to love the band’s playing and the way Johnny Marr’s jangling guitar created a bridge between Buddy Holly and shoegaze, but if we’re being honest, every Smiths fan first got on board because of the band’s lead singer, Morrissey. Lyrics like “I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside” spoke to us weirdos and our longing, but they also made us laugh. Morrissey laced the loneliness and anger with enough wit and humor to remind us that it was better to be clever than cool, and that the jocks and the alphas were the real losers.
It was okay when the Smiths started to get just a little bit cool, mostly on the back of “How Soon Is Now?”, a 1984 B-side that started out as Marr’s attempt to write a Creedence Clearwater Revival song (even though he had never actually heard CCR). Morrissey turned it into a George Eliot–quoting anthem about shyness and not hooking up at gay clubs. The song found new life in the ’90s after the dance track “Hippychick” made it to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990 and an execrable cover of the song was used in the credits sequence of the WB show Charmed. The original song even made it onto the unnecessarily good soundtrack for The Wedding Singer in 1998.
The Smiths stayed underground enough for fans to feel like the group still belonged to the outsiders and weirdos, even after most of us had quit smoking because we were hoping for an early death. Things got harder for fans as Morrissey began laying waste to the band’s legacy with politics that veered deeper into right-wing nationalism and xenophobia, but it was easy enough to navigate the contradiction of the voice of the disenfranchised becoming the voice of disenfranchisement. Morrissey became an asshole. We stayed cool.
Then we learned about the Trump rallies. A journalist reported on primary day in New Hampshire that the music played pre-rally included one of the Smiths’ most iconic songs, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” It took no time for video to emerge of the track playing before a rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, last September.
Fans were not the only people who were shocked. Marr, who has a long record of supporting left-wing causes (and disavowing Morrissey), got on Twitter to say, “I never in a million years would’ve thought this could come to pass. Consider this shit shut right down right now.” The evidence of past attempts by liberal musicians to stop conservative politicians from playing their songs at rallies suggests this shit won’t stop until the Trump team wants it to. If the Boss couldn’t get Ronald Reagan to stop co-opting “Born in the USA,” what chance does Johnny Marr have?
The real question is: How did this shit happen? How did a pretty little song written in waltz time, about a sad sack begging the universe to let him get what he wants for the first time in his life, end up in MAGA world? As Trump told the world, he gets whatever he wants. He doesn’t even need to ask. And he certainly doesn’t say please when he does.
Could it be a joke at Trump’s expense, a prank by a resentful campaign staffer mocking the ex-president’s refusal to accept responsibility and tendency toward self-pity? You could see Trump breaking out the song’s most maudlin lines at his trial: “See, the life I’ve had can make a good man bad.” It’s hard, however, to imagine that it’s a joke you could get away with more than once. The multiple appearances of the song on the campaign trail suggest that it’s got the Trump seal of approval.
Morrissey’s anti-immigrant attitude would certainly chime with Trump’s politics, but that would not seem to explain how an English queer anthem became a Trump anthem. Why this song?
To find the answer, I think we need to talk about what the Smiths have come to mean for Gen Z. I found out recently when I was talking to the teenage son of one of my oldest friends. We were talking about music, and he sheepishly admitted he liked the Smiths, even though they’ve got a bad reputation nowadays. I expressed my shared regrets about Morrissey’s rightward turn. When he looked at me with a blank stare, I asked what he was talking about.
“The Smiths are incel music. You know what an incel is, right?”
I did, but I had no idea that the band I used to listen to after high school in my girlfriend’s car as we drove around looking for secluded places to make out had become the music of choice for militant virgins channeling their inability to get laid into misogyny. What started out as a very online term for involuntary celibates has forced its way into popular culture, with several self-identified incels having committed acts of mass violence. Trump has been caught up in incel discourse too, as several articles and online forums have moaned about how hard it is for young right-wingers to get a date in Washington, DC.
Though I assumed most incels were listening to death metal and Kanye West, it turns out that plenty of them have found comfort in the Smiths. In 2019, an anonymous contributor on a Morrissey fansite wrote a post called “Morrissey’s music isn’t for women.” His logic was pure incel:
A large portion, or even a majority of [Morrissey’s] music is about loneliness. No matter if a woman is a 10/10 or a 1/10, there will always be plenty of horny men who will want sex with the femoid. With men, that isn’t the case. There are literally millions of attractive men who can’t get girlfriends because they are anti-social or poor. There is not a single woman who could connect with the lines: “Two lovers entwined pass me by, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.”