What is “Panic” about? Dismissed and attacked since its release as small-minded, or snobbish, or even borderline racist, The Smiths’ anti-disco broadside continues to intrigue. On this thread, The Pinefox calls it a “yoking of two ideas” – a revolutionary fantasia and an attack on dance music – and claims that it’s the second of the two that’s made the press running ever since. What he doesn’t ask is how these ideas might fit together.
The origin of the record, also as described on ILM, is Morrissey’s hearing a Radio 1 DJ playing a bit of pop fluff (Wham, apparently) after initial reports of the Chernobyl disaster. This horrified him, and I’ve always heard the song’s verses literally – a vision of England not in revolution but in catastrophe, and a vision tinted with disgust at the ghastly gulf between the potential severity of, well, everything and the shiny escapism of pop. A pop The Smiths were and are tangled in – “Panic” still gets played in discos itself, week-in week-out.
“Panic” is not so much a manifesto, then, as it is a great gut-level shudder, a visceral response to a world where life-as-presented and life-as-lived have become cleanly and utterly disconnected, in the three minutes it takes George Michael to sing his song. Which maybe makes it relevant, right now.
Now of course we know the correct musical response to disaster – slow songs, old songs, and plenty of them. But watching kids’ TV, and listening to the radio, in the week or so after September 11th – with the same songs as before in the charts, the same pre-paid adverts furring up the television – pop culture did seem inane and stupid, and something worse too. In the paranoid, panicky post-attack climate you could imagine the same jingles and adverts on reels, shown this time to a different, hostile audience. Look, this phantom projectionist is saying, beyond the speeches and uniforms, this is the West at its materialist heart: garish, decadent, obsessive, weak. Despise it.
The thought passes. But the same thought – to look at ourselves through more pitiless eyes – is there in “Panic”, I think. There is a relish in Morrissey’s voice when he sings about his imaginary crisis, and there is a reason why the song links panic and hedonism. Morrissey, like many a punk before and since, is toying with the idea that the panic is – aesthetically speaking – deserved, inevitable, a judgement come to wipe a worthless culture away. (“If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together”, as the follow-up starkly put it).
It’s never a totally unappealing sentiment – you can see its milder, milkier reflections now even, with critics like Jim DeRogatis pronouncing the doom of teen-pop in the wake of tragedy, and a return to the fiery rock values that Jim DeRogatis happens to quite like. But if that spasm of dislike was all there was to “Panic” it might just be smug. What “Panic” is about, in the end, is its music: chiming, careening, bouncing, unflaggingly rhythmic. A pop song that hates pop songs, Panic’s final secret message is this: if the disco does burn down, you will most likely be inside. We are all in this together.