Artful Dodger: The Complicated Genius Of Morrissey
Coming to terms with three decades of elusive enigma and provocation
by Sean Nelson (@seantroversy)
“The reversion of sexuality, out of the political marketplace, back to the furtive interiors of private persons, accomplishes a great deal more than simple retreat. It clears the ground for the articulation of that mystery called love … Going back in the closet does not erase the world of queers; it queers the world.” — Matthew Stadler, “Love Requires Liars,” 1997
Queering the world is a notion that might have appealed to the young Morrissey. It’s also a fair approximation of the effect of his band, The Smiths, on, if not the entire world, then certainly the world of popular music. Even the most ardent conversion therapist would struggle to deny the radical gay energy of early Smiths music, embodied all but literally by their singer.
If you were born after 1990 or didn’t grow up in London, Manchester, or Los Angeles, there’s an excellent chance your only knowledge of Morrissey consists of music blog news dispatches about cranky statements he’s made on the subject of animal rights or British immigration policies or the music business. Or perhaps you’ve seen the odd mention of an aging English singer with a reputation for being a “miserablist” whose robust cult audience would happily follow him into hell while the rest of the world cheered their departure. This is unfortunate, because, while all those things are true, Morrissey and his former band The Smiths have a legitimate claim to having transformed the culture and sound of indie rock and pop in far-reaching ways.
The Smiths arose from the same bleak cultural midwinter as Boy George, Spandau Ballet, Soft Cell, and Duran Duran in early 1980s England. If the vogue of the ’70s glam era was to claim to be gay or bisexual even when you weren’t, the rule of thumb at the dawn of this period was to break every available gender norm in look and sound while insisting you were as hetero as possible. The flamboyance of New Romantic pop was too calculated to be transgressive. Morrissey’s flamboyance was radical and radiant, a defiant burst of love. But, as he made clear in the first verse of the band’s very first single, “Hand in Glove” (1983), “it’s not like any other love / This one’s different because it’s ours.”
For all its captivating energy and catchy melodies, love à la Smiths was not of a stripe typically recognized by pop. As with punk, whose corpse was still warm when The Smiths got started in 1982, it was a love energized by loathing. The good kind: working-class loathing aimed upward; an idler’s loathing for work; an adolescent’s loathing of boredom and cliché; and self-loathing aimed inward, which is a form of self-love, ultimately. Morrissey’s depiction of love was animated by thwarted desire and unwanted yearning. His lyrics play out a series of superbly crafted tricks. They may sound sad while being archly hilarious; they may seem profound while being intentionally vacuous; and they may appear to be self-lacerating while truly being brilliantly self-aggrandizing. The hapless seduction in “Half a Person” offers one of many delectable examples: “And if you have five seconds to spare, then I’ll tell you the story of my life / 16, clumsy, and shy.”
From Bowie to Beyoncé, the finest pop stars have always found a way to balance confession and evasion, inviting fans to identify with their personal sagas while maintaining enough mystique to keep us wondering (and leaving room for reinvention). Morrissey’s innovation was not to balance confession and evasion, but to combine them.
The persona he showed the public was simultaneously transparent and cryptic, out and proud on the one hand yet intensely private on the other. He was equally sex-mad (“I know what will make you smile tonight” in “I Don’t Owe You Anything”) and sexless (“the hills are alive with celibate cries” in “These Things Take Time”). Although everything about him — voice, clothes, hair, dance moves, pocketful of flowers — screamed “Here I am, I can be no other,” he always left the space designated for a pop star’s self-declaration defiantly blank:
Likewise in the music press, which covered him incessantly, he eluded all questions about his sexuality by insisting that he was celibate — the ultimate inversion of what a pop star was meant to be, and the first step in a lifelong process of refusing to be bound within familiar binaries. “There’s all those very tangled bits of seaweed,” he told Melody Maker in 1986. “But, in essence, I don’t think, without wanting to sound self-congratulatory, that anyone with views such as mine has been successful in the rock ’n’ roll sense. And that makes me, if you like, vaguely unique but really I’m not plotting anything. I’m just dramatically, supernaturally, non-sexual.” For a pop singer, or anyone else for that matter, to come out in the ’80s was a far riskier move than it is today, though that didn’t stop his contemporaries Boy George, Marc Almond, or Jimmy Sommerville from doing it. But he wasn’t a closet case, either. Morrissey’s refusal to be defined was more elaborate and artful than simple denial. In addition to being a career strategy, it was also his greatest subject as a songwriter.
What Morrissey leaves out isn’t simply as important as what he puts in; the blank spaces constitute his boldest gesture. For all of the crafty omission, the message is plain: “I want the one I can’t have, and it’s driving me mad.” The idea was hardly new. The coy mistress is as familiar in pop songs as in romantic poetry — though in this case, the coyness extends to the narrator as well.
A lot of Smiths songs appear to detail frustrated longing for a man to come to his senses, ditch the girl at his side, and return to the fond embrace of the “unlovable” wretch who can’t stop mooning over him. The added wrinkle of confrontational gender confusion only makes the coyness more mischievous, almost as though he was trying to trick the hetero masses into thinking he was singing about them, too.
Morrissey’s burning need to assert his peculiar existence as a writer and pop star to a world that won’t listen is not contradicted but emboldened by the withholding of self-definition. By not “coming out” while blissfully (and publicly) enjoying the spoils of liberation, he revels in the refusal to be limited by the terms of the conversation. “We’ve something they’ll never have,” he sings in “Hand in Glove.” “The sun shines out of our behinds!” “We go wherever we please!” He’s not dodging the question, he’s rejecting the premise: “Ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye!”
The thrill lies in a secret shared but not revealed. As Mark Simpson wrote in 2001’s Saint Morrissey, “This was the supreme subversiveness of Morrissey’s erotic project — to use ordinary language and feelings to convey what were supposed to be extraordinary conditions … It was also the key to his artistic masterstroke: since (homo)eroticism was simultaneously universal but still beyond the pale, it offered Morrissey an entirely fresh, unadulterated, and vibrant vocabulary for his depiction of human desire — and weakness.”
That vocabulary expanded with The Smiths’ musical adventurousness, which enabled the band’s group identity to stand in for a “community” identity — what novelist/essayist Matthew Stadler called “the narrow constraints of the new liberation,” with its mandate for public pride. Pride, as any Catholic can tell you, is sin. In Morrissey, who was raised Catholic, self-regard is conspicuously spot-welded to self-loathing. His criminally vulgar 16-clumsy-and-shyness made pride not merely sinful but untenable.
The problem with pride is that no one can feel proud all the time. Here’s Stadler again: “Shame is never erased, so much as it is put in its place, contextualized, and incorporated into the broad stream of eros.”
Likewise, Morrissey’s evasive declarations contextualized pop music (and, by extension, himself) in the broad artistic and social tradition of open secrecy among queer figures in polite society — like Morrissey’s beloved Oscar Wilde. Needless to say, this “tradition” was born of unfortunate necessity, dating from when same-sex relations were a crime, which they were in the U.K. until 1967 — and, one feels compelled to mention, they still are in some parts of the U.S.
The codes and signals that arose from the secret queer world provided a subversive strain of expression that clearly captivated Morrissey as a young man. Wilde’s plays and epigrams reveal, among their many delights, a good deal of sub rosa naughtiness, to say nothing of Polari (also spelled “Palare”), the ’60s London street hustler argot that was later paid tribute in a Morrissey solo single (“Picadilly palare was just silly slang between me and the boys in my gang”).
But for all the brashness of his undisclosed disclosures, Morrissey was also a spectacularly vulnerable human figure in his songs, and there’s nothing coy about his treatment of this theme. The abjectness of “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does” is, obviously, the precise reason fans love him so fiercely and haters hate him so intensely. A third category, of disenchanted fans who occasionally join in the hating, is a natural consequence of an artist sticking around for 30-plus years.
It may not shock you to learn that I’ve always been squarely in the scratch-his-name-on-my-arm-with-a-fountain-pen school when it comes to Morrissey, but I understand the objection. I mean, what kind of world would this be if everyone went around feeling compassion for people who were in terrible pain? Tra la la.
Nevertheless, the contrast of these thematic and stylistic strains is in keeping with the rich seam of contradiction that runs through the four Smiths albums and the 10 Morrissey solo albums that have followed: bravado and despair; desire and disgust; the conjunction of the mind and the opposition of the stars. “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I dunno…” That “dunno” is caustic. He knows. He’s just not telling. Because that would be telling.
Talk about a coy mistress …
Turning now to the late Susan Sontag, because no talk of Morrissey can entirely skirt the subject of camp:
“[Camp is] a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders.” (From “Notes on Camp,” 1964)
In other words, it’s the eternal dilemma — or, if you prefer, the eternal beauty — of pop music: nothing more meaningful, nothing more disposable. And in the bright lexicon of pop, few have rivaled Morrissey for a pure, intuitive understanding of this dichotomy. But with that understanding comes the great pop peril of grasping your persona so completely that the glove threatens to wear the hand. Or, as hated Smiths biographer Johnny Rogan put it, “remarkably, [Morrissey] was now in a position where his emotional inadequacies had been magically transformed into commodity.”
The Smiths, in particular guitarist/co-songwriter Johnny Marr, got more musically ambitious on each successive record. But as the band grew more popular — their second LP, 1985’s Meat Is Murder, debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. album charts — Morrissey’s persona became more of an institution, a factor that necessarily affected their development. Though they are often characterized as a band drowning in their own woe, The Smiths always had camp moments — the squawk on “This Charming Man,” the Elvis-style rockabilly shuffle on “Rusholme Ruffians,” the entirety of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” The list goes way on. Sontag describes “a tender feeling” that “arises from boredom,” and the dandy figure’s quest for “rare sensations, undefiled by mass appreciation” — all of these are facets of the Smiths diamond.
The Queen Is Dead, released 30 years ago this month, is a profoundly camp album that had the effect of consecrating the band’s persona. The self-reference in the astonishing title track: “I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner / She said ‘Eh, I know you and you cannot sing’/ I said, ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano.’” The flaunting of poetic associations on “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” and, more flagrantly, on “Cemetry Gates” [sic]. The playful tweaking of his image in “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side.” As great as these songs are, they contribute to a sense that the powerful urge for declaration heard on the previous two Smiths albums and eight singles might be evolving into something a little more vulgar in the classic sense.
“… the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning on the one hand and a symbolic meaning on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.”
1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come features a song that represents the band’s ultimate reversion into big-C Camp. On paper, “Girlfriend in a Coma” reads like the confession/evasion of old: The narrator expresses concern for a comatose girl while secretly relishing the opportunity to comfort her worried boyfriend. But the song is glib (as opposed to irreverent or bold or daring or beautiful or funny or sad), in both conception and performance; it’s distinctive but not special. “I know, I know, it’s serious,” sings Morrissey, while Marr’s nimble acoustic guitar figure in the verses gives way to slightly damp strings splashing across the chorus. The song sounds like it’s making fun of itself, and of the predictability of such a self-consciously dark image coming out of Morrissey’s mouth. His persona had become purest Camp, an ongoing “instant character,” defined by Sontag as “a state of continual incandescence — a person being one, very intense thing.”
Indeed, even one very intense name.
“To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-As-Playing-A-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” — Sontag
When the high-echelon pop artist is subject to the demands of a huge number of fans — total strangers invested in his every whim — it’s easy to understand the impulse to take refuge in persona. But when the artist’s art consists of persona invention (through song, in this case), it’s hard to see where the cycle can end. In a sense, he becomes pop itself: no self but in the performance of self, no identity but in the fluid, anonymous reality of song — Is the I really me? Is there a Me left to reveal?
Other pop stars — again, from Bowie to Beyoncé, but also from Gaga to Grimes to Garth Brooks — sidestep this trap by reinventing themselves as alter egos, incorporating entirely new sounds, styles, and looks to keep themselves interested and interesting. But there was to be no Aladdin Sane or Sasha Fierce lurking in Morrissey’s wardrobe. He has always only been irreducibly himself.
Morrissey’s post-Smiths solo career, which began in 1988 with the release of Viva Hate, has been a study in contrast between his original instant character and the Camp icon he developed into along the way. The consummate example is the 1988 B side “Sister, I’m a Poet,” which depicts a renegade naïf, intoxicated with “the romance of crime” and wondering, “Is evil just something you are or something you do?” The refrain is the title, minus the word “poet,” repeated twice: “Sister, I’m a ___ / Sister, I’m a ___ / All over this town.” The result is a huge space into which the singer refuses to sing the defining noun, choosing instead to let the listener fill it in, and, I think, daring anyone who might care to insert a two-syllable gay slur in its place. Such is the twin refuge of a Camp persona. In time, these evasions would also get him into big trouble in England, where he was accused of racist and fascist leanings after writing so-called “equivocal” songs about immigrants and fascists. (More on that later. Let’s put a MASSIVE ASTERISK next to that subject.)
Having long since abandoned the question of how to feel lonely and rejected when millions of people are lining up to love you, Morrissey has returned time and again to the twin devices of confession and evasion, of coming clean without ever owning up. “Alsatian Cousin,” the very first song on Viva Hate, addresses his listeners’ desire for insight into his private life by asking (himself) the blunt question, “Were you and he lovers, and would you say so if you were?” (followed by a coy “I ask, even though I know”). Things are not so simple. Minutes later, on “Late Night, Maudlin Street,” he’s out with a bad boy who laments the fact that “women only like me for my mind.” But then there is the deluxe chintz of “Hairdresser on Fire,” full of self-conscious Camp rhymes like “you are repressed but you’re remarkably dressed” (followed with the pièce de résistance: “Is it real?”).
As his solo career progressed, the balance between obviousness and artfulness (within the larger invented reality of Morrisseyness, of course) listed back and forth. Sometimes, the whole story is told by the song title: “Will Never Marry,” “Lucky Lisp,” “I’m the End of the Family Line,” “There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” “I Am Hated for Loving,” “Maladjusted,” “Wide to Receive,” “Swallow on My Neck,” “I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty,” and, of course, the best ever dirty joke LP title, Your Arsenal.
Other times, the old inventiveness arose in the service of themes like the burdens of fame and lawsuits, such as the one in which Smiths drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke successfully sought back royalties — subjects that lack a certain nobility of purpose. A couple of shaky albums — Southpaw Grammar (1995) and Maladjusted (1997) — followed by a seven-year silence caused legitimate concern that perhaps he had run out of things not to say.
And then came You Are the Quarry, the comeback album from 2004, a work of incredible strength and wit that stealthily reconciled the many complicated strands that make up his Camp identity and his persistent voice. He was direct about prior abstractions (“I have forgiven Jesus,” he sings on the song of the same name, “for all the desire he placed in me when there’s nothing I can do about desire”) and blunt about former equivocations (“the woman of my dreams, she never came along / the woman of my dreams, there never was one”). And not for nothing, but “America Is Not the World” contains the first iteration of the word “gay” on a Morrissey record (the album also features his first use of the word “dyke,” though I don’t think anyone was waiting for that one).
At a glance, it might seem that these developments signaled a betrayal of the very virtues this unforgivably long essay was sent here to extol. But after 22 years of gazing upon his “continual incandescence,” it was thrilling to hear Morrissey allow his persona to incorporate the truly personal. The lapsed Catholic had earned his confession. Plus, it’s not as though the album was stingy on wit — “close your eyes,” he sings “and think of someone you physically admire, then …” (the song’s title and the next line are both “Let Me Kiss You”).
And any doubt that age, wealth, and adoration had completely replaced the questing decadence that inspired his emergence was vanquished by the album’s last line, which offered an archetypal Morrissey confessional evasion — a reminder that, mask or no mask, there are worlds within this charming man that we will never know, no matter how many of his blanks we care to fill in:
“Then in the end, your royalties bring you luxuries, but — oh, the squalor of the mind. The squalor of the mind. The squalor of the mind. The squalor of the mind …”
Apropos of mental squalor, the 12 years that have elapsed since the release of You Are the Quarry have not been easy ones for those of us who harbor an innate desire to defend Morrissey against the barbarous million. The internet is a convenient scapegoat for the collapse of many once-precious institutions: record stores, letter writing, the practice of constructing one’s personal identity from the ability to remember arcane details about, like, the uncredited extras on the punk episode of Quincy, M.E. But there comes a time when even the most bereaved designated mourner must ask the hard questions.
After the triumphant comeback, Morrissey released three studio albums — Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006), Years of Refusal (2009), and World Peace Is None of Your Business (2014) — on three different labels. There have also been three best-of/greatest-hits comps, a live album, two full-length live films, and several boxed sets/remasters/reissue repackages.
They have their moments.
Far more conspicuous, however, has been the steady stream of secondary source material spread across the internet that spotlights Morrissey’s cranky pronouncements about a spectrum of disconnected subjects ranging from the impassioned (his long-cherished vegetarianism) to the predictable (the royal family, Elton John, Madonna) to the far afield (Chinese circuses, the Olympics) to the perversely stubborn (the sovereignty of the Malvinas Islands).
It’s not the ideological convictions evinced in these statements that are dispiriting — although, unlike Morrissey, I happen to find pedophilia significantly more objectionable than meat-eating (but, as the English say, horses for courses) — but the churlishness of tone, the straining after a rebarbative effect, especially because it used to come so naturally to him. In 1983, it was “If George Michael had to live my life for five minutes he’d hang himself with the nearest piece of cord.” In 2011, shortly after the massacre in Norway, it was, “That is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Shit every day.”
And in 2012, it was: “The ‘dazzling royals’ have, quite naturally, hijacked the Olympics for their own empirical needs, and no oppositional voice is allowed in the free press … The spirit of 1939 Germany now pervades throughout media-brand Britain.”
And in 2014, it was: “I see no difference between eating animals and pedophilia. They are both rape, violence, murder.”
The internet didn’t invent hyperbole, though it did raise the noise floor to such a level that hyperbole became an acceptable inside voice for everyone, especially pop stars raging against their shrinking cultural currency. For Morrissey, the willingness to use deplorable rhetoric in the service of advancing his aggressive but essentially rational liberal ideas wasn’t new; the misplacement of emphasis was new. The calculation wasn’t new; the miscalculation was. After more than 30 years behind the microphone, you’d think he’d have learned what his voice sounds like.
Another new thing was the environment into which his declarations flew. The internet is spectacularly inhospitable to the grace notes of coy, hyper-intentional ambiguity and irony that marked the first wave of Morrissey’s verbal career. Online, no one can hear you smirk. This has made the project of connecting him to his old persona, to say nothing of his old work, an increasingly unrewarding act of will. But nothing has been quite so challenging as the recurring premise and the much-debated public perception that Morrissey is a racist, a dilemma that makes his pronouncements about Nazis and pedophiles seem charming by comparison.
Here comes the massive asterisk (and all).
Though several anecdotal issues have been raised over the years (such as the NME reading racism into the refrain “hang the DJ,” from The Smiths’ 1986 single “Panic”), five concrete charges have come up again and again. The most persistent is the infamous 1992 Madstock incident, when Morrissey appeared onstage at Finsbury Park waving a Union Jack flag — by then a symbol closely associated with Europe’s growing league of neo-fascists. The argument is that Morrissey used the flag as a semaphore to racist skinheads in the 75,000-strong audience at a Madness reunion show as he sang about an alienated teenager’s seduction into fascist ideology. That song, “The National Front Disco,” with its epigrammatic repeated lyric “England for the English,” represents charge No. 2.
Items three and four are songs about immigrants from his first and second records — 1988’s “Bengali in Platforms” and 1991’s “Asian Rut” — which are said to be at best “ambiguous,” and at worst flat-out derogatory, in their treatment of their immigrant characters. The key line in the former is the refrain, “Life is hard enough when you belong here.”
I’ve tried to find a way to back-justify “Bengali in Platforms”’s depiction of its central character, who wouldn’t be out of place in a Hanif Kureishi script, but I can’t find one. This has always been the one I skip on Viva Hate. I don’t mean to cop out — maybe it is racist. It’s too easy for me to fill in Morrissey’s blank spaces with compassion, however ironically phrased. The song’s glibness is cloying, but “life is hard enough when you belong here” is not the same thing as “fuck off back to India” just because that’s what some people think they’re hearing. There are layers. They might not matter, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. The specific character of Morrissey’s persona — arch, dandy, glamorous, tortured, judgy — complicates the picture. (This was not a problem faced by, say, Randy Newman. No one ever thought “Rednecks” was a secret Masonic handshake for Lester Maddox partisans.)
The suggestion that the capacity for glibness on this subject signals a deeper insensitivity and entitlement is harder to shrug off. The notion that it isn’t his story to tell is a frustrating one, because the old counterarguments don’t hold up anymore.
The superficial strike against “Asian Rut,” aside from Langer and Winstanley’s mawkish production, is that the title contains the word “Asian.” It’s plausible that the song was written as a roundabout response to the objections to “Bengali,” as a demonstration of empathy toward the “brave Asian boy” who goes off to seek revenge for the cruel cold killing of his best friend, only to be killed himself by three English boys. Or maybe it was meant as a sort of “The Killing of Georgie Part 3”? The syrupy dourness of the arrangement does invite speculation about “tone,” but the last lines of the song — “I’m just passing through here, on my way to somewhere civilized / And maybe I’ll even arrive, maybe I’ll even arrive” — are unmistakable to me as a statement of contempt for racial violence and solidarity with its victims.
On to the most notorious charge: A video of the Finsbury Park concert reveals that Morrissey did in fact have a Union Jack onstage with him, but he was hardly waving it. He desecrated that flag, repeatedly, with characteristic flourish: sweeping the stage with it, wearing it as a cape for a few seconds, then throwing it to the ground, and treating it — by any reasonable standard of theatrical gesture or military code — like a rag.
Also, significantly, he didn’t touch the prop during “The National Front Disco” at all, but rather two songs earlier in the set, during “Glamorous Glue.” If the symbolic value of a man in a gold lamé shirt open to the love trail whipping the dirty stage with the Union Jack and singing the words “London is dead, London is dead, London is dead, London is dead” is too obscure to parse, then it’s hard to know what to tell you.
(I’d never thought to look before, but of course there’s a YouTube video of the whole show. I’d read about this episode many dozens of times and always believed the accounts of the old boy swanning out, wearing the banner like a regal robe. If that flag was a semaphore to patriotic fascists, the message he was spelling out was “Fuck Off” — no wonder they pelted him with debris and he canceled his appearance the next day. Seeing the Madstock video after more than 20 years of lore is akin to finding a long-lost tape of that famous Springsteen show from the night after the 1980 election and hearing Bruce say, “How about a big hand for President-Elect Reagan!” )
As for “The National Front Disco,” the reading of this song as pro–National Front has always blown my mind, though it shouldn’t, since the presence of provocative language has always been a trigger to make pop music listeners assume the worst, lowest motivations. “England for the English,” he sings, a phrase employed by Oswald Mosely’s white power, pro-fascist National Front — later the British National Party — to curry favor with the white working class looking for an other to blame for their disenfranchisement. Morrissey’s song is an unquestionably sympathetic treatment of young David, a classically alienated British teenager who locates a sense of identity and inspiration in the rousing us-and-them rhetoric of neo-fascism — a process chronicled more viscerally in Shane Meadows’s film This Is England (2006). Because it doesn’t contain the words “I am anti-fascist,” the song remains open to the charge of being pro-fascist, and it would be credulous to ignore the degree to which fascist recruitment thrives on coded language.
However, pop songs are not, or need not be, picket signs, and it’s possible to acknowledge the allure of an evil ideology within the broad stream of human sympathy for a kid being led astray. To assume that repeating a phrase is the same thing as agreeing with it is to rob language, and therefore humanity, of a lot of its possibilities. The perspective swings from outer (his parents’ lament — “where is our boy? We’ve lost our boy”) to inner (“they should know where you’ve gone because again and again you’ve explained”) in an effort to portray the conflict. There’s no ambiguity in “David, we wonder, we wonder if the thunder, is ever really gonna begin.” That line is an argument that the glorious future promised by neo-fascism to its hapless recruits is the longest con of all.
How does a stirringly anti-racist song come to be interpreted as racist? Such is the danger of employing a writing style that leaves spaces as well as a pop persona that insists on evasion. The artistic freedom to leave questions unanswered is also the listeners’ freedom to answer them for you.
“Here was a person whose music with The Smiths we had all liked, putting out dubious feelers using Skinhead imagery, unqualified lyrics, Union Jack drapery, and like his denial on his sexuality (which is his right) not elaborating on the issue. The unfortunate thing is that not elaborating on the issue of fascism still breeds race crime, from someone whom was very influential at the time. As an Asian at a time when Asians were seeing increased street violence this wasn’t something I, and we could let pass. All these years later, I think we did the correct thing, and our stance on other issues has borne out that we did it with the right intentions.” — Tjinder Singh of Cornershop, 2013
You can’t blame the internet. These controversies predated it, and one thing Morrissey has never been is guileless. There are layers of irony, self-indictment, and mischief in his language, but there is also the expectation, the certainty, that those elements will be missed, or willfully ignored. There is also the increasingly vocal argument that irony is no longer an appropriate tool for this kind of discourse — not because it leaves room for ambiguity, and not even because there isn’t human comedy to be found in the minefield of prejudice, but because the moral value of those things is massively, crushingly outweighed by the historical and present-tense suffering and subjugation experienced by people on the receiving end.
This argument isn’t about propriety but priority. And after all these years, it’s becoming harder to shrug off in the name of creative liberty. While it’s true that the culture of outrage and public shaming online has made self-censorship a viable form of self-preservation, it has also led to the advent of people thinking a bit more carefully about what they say. Does the value of the latter justify the creepy draconianism of the former?
But it has introduced the spectacle of Morrissey explaining himself. Which he never would have done before.
Statement on Morrissey’s website, truetoyou.net (December 3, 2007):
“I abhor racism and oppression or cruelty of any kind and will not let this pass without being absolutely clear and emphatic with regard to what my position is.
“Racism is beyond common sense and I believe it has no place in our society.”
It’s hardly a tragedy for a celebrated singer to be held accountable for his gestures. But you can’t un-open that kimono. However convincing they may or may not be, these controversies and clarifications do have a way — with regard to the noble project of fandom — of blowing one’s high.
Matthew Foster in The Quietus (February 24th, 2014):
“At some point, defending Morrissey the public figure becomes too much effort, even for a ponce who used to write ‘Sing Your Life’ on his hands with a Sharpie before every night out. The memories fade, the lines that made teenage years tolerable go missing in the cartwheels performed to justify every thunderingly Controversial Remark. An eternal cry of loneliness and despair means less when things have turned out quite nicely, actually. The simple problem is this: you’ve grown up, and the point of Morrissey is never to do so.”
That’s it exactly.
Growing up with Morrissey has been a complicated process, partly because he, abetted by aging, simply refuses to be the person he was in 1988, when all you had to do to make his case was explain that Viva Hate didn’t mean that kind of … aw, skip it. Once again, “the passing of time,” as the song reminds us, is “making me sad again.”
I saw Morrissey’s July 23, 2015, show in Seattle, after swearing that the previous show I’d seen him play, in Hyde Park in 2008, would be the last. I may even have sworn that the time before, too. But I went. Of course I went. And though it wasn’t what I expected or wanted, I was impressed by how committed he was to his newer material — nearly half of the 20-song set was drawn from his last two LPs, World Peace Is None of Your Business and Years of Refusal.
He was in strong voice, and his virile, uniformed five-piece band was a powerhouse, making the less-familiar numbers sound far more vital onstage than they had on disc. The performances made a strong case for revisiting the last album in particular. Strong enough to justify eight songs in a row that only superfans would know? Well, actually, yes. Because superfans are the only fans Morrissey has. And in keeping with his obstinate, inscrutable nature, he rewards our devotion by testing it.
Alongside the characteristic still images from the singer’s pantheon of obscure black-and-white figures projected on a backdrop, two songs were illustrated by graphic videos of police brutality (primarily against people of color) and animal slaughter. The police footage was unbearable enough on its own, but this show fell 10 days after the alleged suicide of Sandra Bland, in the same year that saw police kill Walter Scott in Charleston and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and barely a year after Eric Garner’s death in NYPD restraints and Michael Brown being shot to death by a Ferguson cop. It was, safe to say, very much on the minds of this almost entirely white audience.
Maybe disrupting the expectation of a greatest-hits catalogue full of songs that made you cry and songs that saved your life was the point. Maybe it was a good point to make. The alternate view — that Morrissey was enlisting these images to support his own qualms with authority (including the TSA guard who allegedly groped him) — is ominous. The song the police brutality videos illustrated was a tense, gnarly B side called “Ganglord.” It ends with the lines, “They say, ‘To protect and to serve’ / But what they really mean to say is / Get back to the ghetto, the ghetto / Get back to the ghetto, the ghetto / Get yourself back to the ghetto, the ghetto.” That the song’s sympathies lie with the brutalized is obvious. The challenge posed by the live show, at least in that particular symphony hall, was: Who was meant to be identifying with whom?
That question was further exercised on “Meat Is Murder,” one of the three requisite Smiths numbers he plays each concert (after “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” and before the encore of “The Queen Is Dead”), and the clear winner of the worst-song-with-a-great-title in his catalogue. The stage lights were gelled blood red while the screen showed what felt like an eternity of PETA’s undercover slaughterhouse documentaries — cattle tortured, pigs eviscerated, chickens debeaked — as the punishingly slow arrangement ground on and on. Here, at last, was a battle in which Morrissey has legitimate skin.
But the punishment of those droning minutes was pure theater of cruelty. It was deeply motivated, and possibly even effective to some extent in making a complacent audience consider the source of their meals. But the gesture was also imperiously juvenile, like a teenage supervillain taking revenge in a comic book. You felt sickened, complicit, hopeless, defeated. Mission accomplished. And then you got to hear “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” which was like washing all that blood and death off you with lukewarm water from a length of hose you’d just been beaten with.
I walked home shaken by the conviction that Morrissey remains fully invested in his conception as a present-tense musical entity, reveling in the artistic birthright to provoke and affront. But I wondered when he last felt the desire to beguile, to delight. Why, I asked for the millionth time, do we — do I — keep coming back? And I gave the same answer I always give, and meant it: Because if you ever had a Morrissey-shaped hole in your life, you never forget how it felt to find a Morrissey to fill it. Some debts can never be repaid, no matter how full your heart gets. I’ll buy his records. I’ll click on his headlines. I even bought his novel. I may even read it one of these days.
Almost exactly 30 years ago, on the title track of The Queen Is Dead, Morrissey posed the immortal rhetorical question: “Has the world changed or have I changed?” The answer is obviously both, and neither one in the way I would’ve hoped. But every time I get to feeling that we’ve lost our boy, I go back to the records and discover that he’s still there, right where he always was. It’s a strange sort of comfort to realize that even though life is short, it continues to feel very long when you’re lonely.
Originally published at MTV News on June 23, 2016.