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Bus One Seven
Miserablism

by Roderick Armageddon

 

Miserablism; it’s one of the most rich, robust and downright inexplicable words I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. Miserablism has captured my attention, keeping company with a bevy of strangely rough-hued "ism" cousins (including communism, Marxism, masochism, criticism, racism, fascism and colonialism). Unfortunately for scholars and students alike, the term doesn’t even exist as documented English vocabulary. That is, Merriam-Webster does not consider miserablism a piece of the common English vernacular. This is truly unfortunate, for the word has the depth and social perception to easily share a locker with "Sturm und Drang" or "constructivism."

Though I’ve searched unsuccessfully for an earlier origin of the term, I first came across miserablism when listening to the 1995 album, Alternative, from my favorite musicians, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (the Pet Shop Boys). Plain enough, Tennant and Lowe succeeded in drafting a wonderful little tune celebrating —rather sarcastically— the musical rise of a depressed, self-indulgent "state" best defined as: world-weariness in order to appear thoughtful and deep. Rare in distribution and downright catchy, the song’s title is Miserablism.

Accoridng to Wayne Studer, author of Rock on the Wild Side: Gay Male Images in Popular Music of the Rock Era (1994: Leyland Publications), Miserablism is a song that Tennant wrote from the apparent viewpoint of the public persona of former Smiths lead singer (and later solo star) Morrissey. In the song, Neil reveals how little patience he has for young people who adopt a self-consciously, perpetually pessimistic or gloomy pose as a fashion or even a lifestyle. In fact, he mercilessly lambastes it for being the pretentious, escapist cop-out nonsense that it is, coining the term "miserablism" to describe it. Further, he maintains that it's more than mere nonsense–it's destructively self-fulfilling nonsense. As the vocoded voice in the background repeats, "It's what you want, it's what you get."

To further explain the birth of miserablism and its subsequent definition and use, I found it best to go to the source —Neil Tennant. In the liner notes to the Pet Shop Boys’ previously-mentioned album, Alternative (their double-CD collection of B-sides), Tennant provides an intriguing glimpse into the song’s background. In particular, the primary chorus of the tune states, "Miserablism, is is, isn’t isn’t." Here’s what Tennant had to say:

"'Is is and isn't isn't' is a quote from someone's father when they died. It was the last thing their father said and it was taken to mean that what is really around you exists and the rest of it doesn't. In the song there's a bare statement of Miserablism: life's terrible - don't even dream of a better future or a better life. As quite often in the middle bit you get the real sentiment. It sounds a bit pretentious, but it says 'but if is wasn't and isn't were, you can't be sure, but you might find ecstasy'."

Armed with this intriguing insight into an already catchy term, I believe Tennant and Lowe gave birth to a word and definition that could just as easily find appropriate use and analogy in today’s diverse artistic, political and social landscapes. Quite simply, I’d like to see miserablism rise to the ranks of Merriam-Webster and enter this new century, where it would no doubt find many suitable homes. Come, gentle readers, embrace miserablism and help lift it to the status of common vernacular!

While I’m not positive that Neil Tennant was the first to scribe the word and its subsequent definition —my research to date has yielded little evidence that the term was born prior to his penning it in 1990— Tennant’s usage seems to make such strong sense, (from a social and socio-psychological perspective) that I can’t help but find a home for it in my own vocabulary.

Perhaps one of our readers has heard of or read the word and can attribute it to an earlier inception —if so, please drop me a line! Until then, I’ve managed to bring together an odd collection of resources on the Web that make reference to the term (for better or worse) in one form or another, though from where it’s derived for each example, only the sites’ creators know.

Like choosing a different route on the way home, make a subtle change in your behavior and adopt miserablism for a day —see if you too can find a home for this flexible, oft-appropriate term in your own vernacular.

http://www.gadgetto.com/miserablism.htm
- This chap has managed to bring together a number of interesting quotes on art, society and life in general, as it relates to finding and dealing with the state of miserablism

http://barebacksexinsf.com/miserablism.html
- This site is interesting for the mere fact that you gain an intriguing glimpse into someone’s life that you would never know and perhaps ever even want to know. Damn, the Internet is an amazing monster —realized even more-so after you see a page like this. Check out the author’s main page for perspective (http://barebacksexinsf.com).

http://miserablism.blogspot.com/
- This blog, like the previous site, represents an intriguing case for miserablism and yet delivers such sweet and basic humanity. It’s another glimpse into someone’s personal world; a glimpse that perhaps very few have seen (or so the author thinks). Check it out and read the first few entries. This stuff is golden.

http://www.geocities.com/society_for_ecoli/miserablism.html
- I’m impressed that someone went to the trouble to document their quick disillusionment with the University experience. This truly is an excellent example of collegiate angst, manifested as miserablism with a humorous tone.

http://home.attbi.com/~wwwstephen/comicography.html
- It appears that miserablism was also the subject of a quickly axed comic strip…

http://www.totalguitar.co.uk/article.asp?ID=5861&type=ART
- Someone at Total Guitar magazine seems to have a recipe for battling the plague of the new millennium’s torrid case of miserablism: Sum 41. While the article isn’t that grand, the mere fact that the author relates modern "nu metal" as today’s miserablism leads one to believe that they’re on the right track.

http://www.prospect.org/print-friendly/print/V12/4/heller-s.html
- This chap seems to have it all together —or so he thinks. While he provides an interesting take on miserablism, he states, "Rock critics a few years back coined the clever term miserablism…" We know better.

http://www.citypages.com/filmreviews/detail.asp?MID=3462
- Until we find a solid explanation to the origin of the term, we can assume that Eastern Europe was not known for miserablism (at least not Neil Tennant’s miserablism). I believe the author of this movie review might be attempting to refer to the word because of the region’s harsh, cold social bleakness.

Author’s Note:

The Pet Shop Boys’ song Miserablism was recorded in early 1990, though it didn’t see wide distribution until December 1991. It finally appeared as B-side on the single release of Was It Worth It?, from the 1991 hits collection, Discography. According to Tennant:

"The reason it wasn't a B-side for any of the singles on Behaviour, was we always thought it might be a single. I still think it's a good song. It's got a sample from Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony in the middle. I’d entered my Shostakovich phase.

The words took ages to write. It's sort of about if you have the style of being serious, people assume that you are a serious artist. Something like that, which was particularly prevalent in rock music at the time. Obviously the whole thing is ironic anyway, it's a statement of bleak realism...It isn't a very well known [track]."

 
 
Roderick Armageddon was recently indicted on charges of "tampering with the elemental substance of nature." He currently writes from his cell at the Umatilla County Justice Center in Pendleton, Oregon.