« JAMES BROWN | Main | The Difference Bert Williams Makes »

Godfather Meet Christian Dior

By Armond White

You have to love pop music to feel the connection between James Brown’s 1963 “Please, Please, Please” and The Smith’s 1984 “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want This Time.” The subliminal link can be found in the parenthetical subtitle of Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).”

As artists, both Brown and Morrissey of The Smiths search for satisfaction in a cruel, Man’s Man’s Man’s world. They don’t have to share a funk connection. Their upstart, “punk” connection is enough. It’s conceivable that Morrissey got ideas on how to be a distinct male performer from examples as singular as Brown’s soulful, pleading, yet defiant artistry. What’s worth listening for in pop music is the ideal that links a singer from the backwoods of Georgia with one from the cramped streets of Manchester. And that’s what worth looking for in life too.

Two young pop critics John Demetry and Ben Kessler had trouble finding the ideal in the awkward programming of Morrissey’s recent album Ringleader of the Tormentors. Individually, they pointed out the enervating, out-of-joint bulge of two tracks: “In the Future When All’s Well” and “To Me You Are a Work of Art.” Both good songs, but they distended the album’s narrative and slowed-down its gestalt. Or so Demetry and Kessler argued. They were being finicky pop listeners, glimpsing an ideal, fastidiously demanding to please, please, please get the perfection they wanted.

Uncannily, Morrissey’s fourth single release from that album answered their complaint. It extracted those two particular songs (the latter in a live-concert version), included a third Ringleader song for context (“I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now”) and anchored them all to an unexpected new composition, “Christian Dior.” It’s a song whose bold, original meaning could carry the subtitle “James Brown.”

In “Christian Dior,” Morrissey addresses the strange circumstance of a modern pop artist whose life and artistic pursuits are commonly misunderstood. “You wasted your life” goes the refrain that repeats the voice of philistine moralists. It could be the opprobrium of those who consider fashion design or pop music to be trivial endeavors. Dealing with the conflict of social rules and personal drive, Morrissey outlines the irony of a pop artist’s contributions to “Aroma and Clothes/ Fabric and dyes/ Grandeur and Style” and then the song’s first great stomp of irony: “Making the poor rich smile.”

Only the most doctrinaire confuse art’s value with capitalist critique. Post-punk, neo-soul Morrissey knows better; he wedges apart that narrow, dogmatic notion. “Poor rich” subtly criticizes the petty values of privileged folk while the word “smile” allows for the humane richness of pleasure that is not reserved for the rich but available for all. That’s a true pop insight. It goes for all those (from whatever social origin) who can appreciate the rigor of haute couture or the splendor of a James Brown funk groove. Doing so grants a certain grace to the undervalued work of pop artists whether fashion designer or soul singers.

Morrissey’s song redefines the virtues of an artist’s personal life. “Christian Dior’s” chorus is a list of status quo reprimands. It audaciously mixes middle-class norms with jet-set prerogatives. But these behavioral examples also describe the limits placed on famous people as others observe and judge them; each action (from impregnating women to kissing street boys) represents an article of envy in a fashion show of perverse moralism. Morrissey cites what Dior (1905-1957) could have done to satisfy convention or stereotype; virtually limiting himself to the conformity of others--those who “couldn’t even spell their own names” or “couldn’t even write their own names.” The paraphrasing is double-veiled. It’s not merely a snipe at illiteracy (hinting at social exploitation and class slumming allowed to celebrities). But evokes the will toward self-definition that Dior modeled by making his own path.

“Christian Dior” counters judgments of “failure” rendered by guardians of the cultural status quo. It puts into perspective the post-mortem moralism one often gleans from obituaries and elegies that offer quick and dirty sum-ups (or put-downs) of a man’s life and work. Here’s where the context provided by the other Ringleader tracks becomes artfully life-enhancing. “In the Future When All’s Well” proposes a summary judgment like that of the early Smiths song “Cemetery Gates” (where all men and all tastes are equal). “To Me You Are a Work of Art” equates personal devotion to aesthetic evaluation. And “I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now” offers the writhing anguish of desire and frustration—the need to be appreciated, loved, valued.

After the bridge on “Christian Dior,” Morrissey takes this all personally (“When you look at me/ Failure is all that you see”). That is, he makes you take it personally; sharing an artist’s doubts and wishes—proving the difference between a mere obit and poetry. He salutes Dior’s example: “I discipline my days just like Christian Dior.” It’s a marvelous line that follows an inner homonymous logic of “discipline” and “Christian”—discipleship. This lyrical feat sets up the song’s powerful, dramatic descent into personal regret and uncertainty:

I could have run loudly and proudly
Or Forcible Entry
Morally Bankrupt
Or Never Known
And drawn to what scares me
And scared of what bores me

These bad life choices are not envied alternatives to a celebrity’s life; they describe the turmoil and various agonies sung about in the other three Ringleader songs that precede and highlight “Christian Dior”—story-songs about sorrow and dissatisfaction so unlike the pure grace of “sensually stroking the weave of a sleeve.”

It is in that simple, seemingly trivial gesture that Morrissey locates Dior’s particular genius. And he backs it up with a series of wordless exhalations “A-Whoosh!” that synch with James Brown’s most outrageous guttural onamotopeia. By imitating the sound of whirling fabric, the vacuum of moving pleats, Morrissey turns the experience of the fashion world into a force. You could call it fey, as Brown’s grunts were called vulgar, but by this point Morrissey’s homage has reached a level of understanding—of personalization—that transcends any demeaning judgment.

From here, the song sails into tribute: “Lionized maverick” is the extent of an unusually curt—yet sufficient—paean. Again, it’s a detached view like the “wasted your life” opening but it’s followed by the deepest, gentlest commiseration: “Design if you can/ A way to just be a man.” After each line Morrissey provides his own moralizing context: a falsetto “Ahhh” in a daringly high register that tweaks the basso-profundo concept of “man.” And every “Ahhh” takes the tribute higher, lifting the singer and the listener out of the depression of life’s bad choices and regrets and other people’s miscomprehension; rising on the good foot of anti-masculinist equality toward absolution, a humane ideal.

It’s not merely respectful. Morrissey’s soaring, most open-hearted singing ever makes it a hilarious act of justice. You can imagine Christian Dior himself rising from his grave to say “Thank you for the privilege of being understood.”

From February, 2007