'Miserablism' is the art of wallowing in the miserable; it was coined by the Pet Shop Boys
and is generally used to refer to a wave of rock groups who, throughout the 80s, prided themselves on being sombre
. Although the term is relatively recent, miserablism in pop and rock stretches back to the beginning of time; the blues
, every young man who discovered he could attract girls by pretending to be sensitive
, Roy Orbison
, the list goes on.
If you flick through old copies of the NME or the inner gatefold sleeves of 'Now that's what I call music Vol 1-14', you'll notice that the vast majority of the acts photographed are unsmiling, often gazing past the camera in a manner reminiscent of Alberto Korda's famous photo of Che Guevara. This is miserablism in action. Whilst heavy metallers did not smile either, they did not pretend to be sensitive; and although many metallers were angry, miserablism is not about anger, it's about a certain kind of passive enjoyment of being miserable.
Although modern rock miserablism had its roots in late-70s goth and punk (particularly Joy Division), U2's meaningless, vaguely political anthems provided a template for acts throughout the 80s, with the post-'Wish you were here', pre-'Delicate Sound of Thunder' version of Pink Floyd running a close second in terms of influence. Other notable practitioners in the rock field included Sting, The Cure, the solo Roger Waters, Public Image Limited, The Smiths, Morrissey, New Order, every single indie artist, but not Duran Duran, who were widely derided for not being miserable at all, despite the miner's strike, recession and Tegan in Doctor Who.
The rise of house music in the late-80s did a lot to kill miserablism off, although there was a last gasp provided by Tracy Chapman and Tanita Tikaram; during the period from 1989 - 1994 the UK pop charts were dominated with ecstacy-inspired dance acts. By the mid-90s Massive Attack were keeping the flame of miserablism burning, and of course at this time America joined in with grunge, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and every single artist who played at Lilith Fair. In terms of sexual equality there was some progress here, in that female acts were now affecting an air of poetic sensitivity in order to attact mass adulation from men and women alike, and the press.
On one level, miserablism has produced some fantastic music - The Smiths alone show that the movement was capable of greatness. On the other hand, a lot of miserablist music is pompous, pretentious, and irritatingly self-pitying.
Outside music, miserablism has a rich history; what else connects Erich Von Stroheim's 'Greed', Alan Bennett and Les Dawson?