Robert Smith has just turned 57, and this year The Cure turns 40. All along there has been something that spurred critics to make negative comments about them, and comments about Smith’s looks in particular have haunted the frontman throughout his career. But why? And is it fair?
Not to say that they weren’t hugely successful. They were. Songs like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘The Lovecats’, and ‘Close To Me’ are completely ubiquitous. They are pervasive enough to reserve, without question, The Cure’s place in the pop music pantheon.
The Cure reached a very dark place in 1982 with their album Pornography, on which Smith harps on about people drowning in the shower and about worms eating his skin, all to the sinister sound of a church organ. It was after this that they found the sound that brought them further commercial success — a mix of poppy and uplifting original sounds over sad and heartfelt lyrics.
While this musical clash is what brought the band their commercial success, some of The Cure’s other contradictions might be behind what bothers people about them. Their songs gave voice to private sorrows and so they always appealed to a crowd of outsiders, a paradoxical group of loners. Smith said in an interview with MTV in 1986 that he thought his fans were “more individual.” From the perspective of a non-fan, maybe there was something odd about their mass audience – this cult – of mopey “individuals”, who thought they suffered alone.
Despite their success – or maybe because of it – critics of the band have been harsh. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? In labeling and pigeonholing Smith as the king of the moody, the mopey, the misunderstood, maybe the media misunderstands him and gives him fair reason to mope.
Few people in the public eye are able to avoid unwelcome scrutiny in some form or other. In the entertainment industry, talking about celebrities’ appearance seems to become fair game. The public and the media often make cruel judgements about looks. Women suffer especially from this scrutiny, as do ageing stars of all genders.
But Robert Smith has been sensitive about attention to his looks even from the time he was a young man. As early as 1977, he and his band (then called Easy Cure) got an audition for a German label by sending in a tape and a photograph in response to a magazine ad. Smith says in a 1988 biography, “I don’t think they even listened to our tape – they just liked the photo!”
Aside from a few short breaks, he has worn his long black hair teased and his red lipstick smudged since the mid-80s. And his feelings about his appearance have been the same for years. In a 1986 interview with MTV he expressed faith in his fans: “I would hope that they would just like to listen to what we do rather than to look at what we look like.” Throughout his career he has appeared on stage and in interviews with his distinctive look, sometimes wearing a dress and always wearing make-up. Again and again he has expressed a desire to shift attention away from his appearance.
He has always been sensitive, but media voices have recently made particularly scathing and bullying mention of Smith’s appearance. Noisey’s Dan Ozzi made a mocking comparison between Smith and Liza Minnelli, and The Guardian’s Caroline Sullivan called his appearance “scary”. And these and other outlets have continually chosen unflattering photos in their coverage of Cure concerts.
But is this obsession with appearance just another of his contradictions? He dresses outlandishly and doesn’t want anyone to comment on the elephant in the room. Maybe the media see him like a teen with a tantrum shouting “Don’t look at me!” so loudly that no one can help but look. Should he be allowed to get away with it?
The answer, obviously, is yes.
Think back to the recent flood of media comments reflecting on David Bowie after his death. He was hailed as a hero for those who wished to create their own identity. Through Bowie’s confident image crafting and his persistent oddness, he convinced a generation that it was normal to be weird. Of his role models, including Bowie, Smith says, “I didn’t want to be them, I just wanted to be someone who lived in a world that was of my own making.”
Smith is the shy rebel who stands up for himself and for others like him. The defender of the shy and the othered must themself be shy and othered, even if this is a contradiction. It wouldn’t make sense any other way. So if we’re going to mention Smith’s appearance from now on, fine. But let’s mention it so we can give him the credit he deserves as a champion of self-expression.