Earworm Weekly: “Ask” by the Smiths

Sometimes I know why an earworm has lodged in my brain. I hear it on the radio or over a store's sound system or someone sings it in my vicinity. Maybe I stumble across a mention of it in a book or an article. Or it wells up from the depths of memory to function as a mini-soundtrack for whatever's going on in my life.

[jump] Other songs stick around for less explicable reasons. Some of them hang out for a few days, weeks, or months before moving on. But a select handful circle back again and again, sometimes for no discernible reason at all except that their melody is catchy and their lyrics memorable. “Ask” has been hanging around my mind since the late 1980s, when it was first released as a single by this odd little U.K. band known as the Smiths, fronted by some guy named Morrissey and his guitar-hero pal Johnny Marr.

My first college was located in a small neighborhood in a big city, and it had a central casual eatery that absolutely everyone patronized sooner or later. It was and is particularly famous for the erudite and intricate graffiti layered over the walls and tables – years and years' worth of accumulated carvings, scratchings and occasionally famous signatures. For many years, the wall of the women's bathroom sported the lyrics of the first verse of “Ask” prominently on the wall. They may still be there for all I know. I was always comforted by the fact that this simple little song was compelling enough to an anonymous graffiti artist that she scrawled the lyrics in thick Sharpie just above the sink. And, of course, seeing it would inevitably kick off the sonic loop in my head.

The melody of “Ask,” enhanced by a harmonica vamp, is simple and upbeat. The tempo is brisk, and the overall effect is cheerful and light – not a sentiment one always associates with the Smiths' body of work. The subject matter of the lyrics, however, is firmly within the band's wheelhouse. The first verse straightforwardly states that “shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.” Morrissey was open about struggling with his own shyness. But for once the crippling self-doubt and awkwardness is swept aside with a bouncy chorus admonishing, “if there's something you'd like to try, ask me, I won't say no, how could I?” As a shy person myself, having someone musically promise to hold my hand when venturing out of my social comfort zone is impossible to resist. It brings a smile to my face every time.

After that, the threat of nuclear war, very '80s, makes a cameo appearance – “if it's not love, then it's the bomb that will bring us together” – along with the rather frustrated admonishment that “nature is a language, can't you read?” The combination of arch disdain for the world as it is, the earnest yearning for love and human connection, and the grim doubt that such things are even truly possible made the Smiths catnip for Goths, queerdoes, and intelligent and disaffected teenagers of all stripes, and the appeal has hardly faded over the intervening decades. Part of the charm of this particular song is that it's not merely earnest, it's downright sweet. Quirky, blunt, and lacking social grace, perhaps, but lively and cheerful despite obstacles large (“the bomb”) and small. A big cross-eyed puppy of a song.

My favorite line in “Ask” is the one about the “buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg” that the singer writes poetry to. The consonance of the line itself is pleasing to the mouth, but I am also won over by the idea of having a glamorous international pen pal who is actually a homely teenager in a country many people cannot locate on a map. Lest anyone think I am projecting a little too hard, I would like to note that I had an underbite rather than an overbite, thank you very much. Also, I did all the writing; nobody ever sent me any “frightening verse.” I did manage to scare my grandparents into thinking I might be suicidal because my teenage poetry efforts were so dark and disaffected, though. No wonder I still have a soft spot for the Smiths.

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