Mister Misery: Why Madonna and Celine Dion are Two of the Most Important Figures in Indie Rock

You just watched one of the most symbolic live performances of all time. That greasy-looking guy in the white suit was Elliott Smith, an indie folk singer-songwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He was performing his song “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Oscars. “Miss Misery” was featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. “Wait a minute”, you might be thinking, “you mean to tell me that some dopey indie kid from Portland performed at the most prestigious film awards show in the world, in front of millions of people?” Yup, that’s exactly what I mean. Not only that, but guess who performed just minutes after him?

Celine Dion, singing “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. Feel free to skip to 3:30 in the video, as I’m sure you’ve heard the song before.

Look at the way Elliott ascends from that bow, smirking and flipping his unruly hair back into place as if he didn’t know that his face was being broadcasted to the entire world. He couldn’t look more out of place even if he tried, standing between the regal Celine Dion and million-selling country singer Trisha Yearwood, both clad in skintight black dresses while he wore that baggy white suit. The whole thing was a farce, anyway, and Elliott saw the ridiculousness of the situation. “My Heart Will Go On” was obviously going to win, having sold 15 million copies, and Dion’s performance was clearly the main event of the night. Elliott’s nomination was one of the more shocking choices in Oscars history. His hushed performance with just his guitar, whispered vocals, and some sparse background instruments stood in direct contrast to Dion’s and Yearwood’s over-the-top histrionics backed by full orchestras. Take a look at Madonna reading the winner (skip to 1:50):

There are two things that I hate about this video (three, if you count the way she pronounces Anastasia). The first is Madonna’s condescending smile as she reads Elliott’s entry, as if him being there was a complete joke. His song clearly had the most artistic value out of all the nominees, and it was the only song actually written by the person performing it. But to Madonna, the fact that he wasn’t a platinum-selling artist meant that all he deserved was a sarcastic smile. The second is her reaction to “My Heart Will Go On” being written on the inside of that envelope: that snickering laugh and her proclamation of “what a shocker.” Yes, Madonna, “what a shocker” indeed. “What a shocker” that a beautiful song written by one of the most gifted and intimate songwriters of the 90’s didn’t win against the overblown pomposity that is “My Heart Will Go On”. Madonna later stated that she “greatly admires” Elliott. When asked which song of the last twenty years she wishes she’d written, she replied with “Between the Bars”, a song from Elliott’s classic 1997 album Either/Or. In fact, here she is covering the song at a teaser for some new project she’d been working on (I posted the original before Madonna’s version):

Um, yeah. I’ll let alternative rocker Beck do the talking for me: “The good thing about his [Elliott’s] songs is they’re so well made, they’re so crafted and meticulous, they can weather even the most feeble rendition.” That about sums it up. So why does all this matter? Well, just the fact that an indie singer-songwriter made it onto the Oscars stage, that he stood next to Celine Dion, that Madonna even had something to say about him, sent shockwaves through popular music. The 1998 Academy Awards exposed the entire world to the mystifying craft that is indie music. In fact, Elliott was the one who indirectly opened the door for Arcade Fire’s astonishing Album of the Year win for The Suburbs at the 2011 Grammys, over Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. Take a look at how shocked the band (and Barbra Streisand) were when “The Suburbs” was read:

That is one of my favorite videos ever. Anyhow, the same way that the Bee Gees popularized disco, Elliott Smith popularized indie. Well, not exactly the same way. Elliott never sold millions of albums, but he vastly increased the world’s awareness of the indie scene. Wait, but isn’t that a huge contradiction? Doesn’t popularizing a genre that is inherently meant for a niche audience destroy the genre? Well, that’s a rabbit hole that we could escape to for hours, but I think that indie is more about the feeling behind the music rather than the copies sold. And think about how many people Elliott inspired to pick up a guitar. I know I’m one of them. Elliott showed that indie was a legitimate genre that could stand up to the best and would never leave. Unfortunately, that last bit wasn’t true of Elliott. Five years after his “Miss Misery” performance, Elliott Smith would be found dead in his apartment with two stab wounds in his chest. Murder? Suicide? We’ll never know, but it’s one of the great tragedies of modern music, especially since Elliott was seemingly recovering from his drug addiction around the time of his death. But Elliott wouldn’t want us to fret about his untimely demise. He was simpler than that, and he wasn’t the type to overanalyze. After hearing of his Oscar nomination, Elliott remarked: “Mainly I just want to go so I can wear my white suit. I always have a great time when I wear my white suit.”


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  1. One of my favorite elliott performances simply due to the surreal atmosphere which put him so out of place. And just to see that many people sitting still listening to one of his songs is really cool.

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