Some wag recently quipped on social media that, whereas 2016 was the year that claimed the lives of many of our (mostly white, male) pop culture idols, 2017 will be remembered as one that scuttled the reputations of many more, outed as sexual harassers or abusers of one kind or another. Except for some risible commentary, Morrissey has yet to be implicated in the post-Weinstein reckoning – I’ve seen jokes online to the effect that the only offence the once famously celibate singer could be accused of is ‘asexual harassment’. And yet it hasn’t required the revelation of a history of bullying or predatory behaviour to precipitate Morrissey’s fall from grace, his becoming a Problematic Man with Suspect Politics.
It’s worth recalling – before we come to Morrissey’s latest transgressions, which of themselves seem only to prove the truism that the older men get the more reactionary they become – that this fall has been a prolonged one. In 1985, at the height of the Smiths’ success, the singer quipped when asked by music magazine NME to name the ‘Best Reggae Act’ of 1984 that ‘reggae is vile’. (For some reason, its more overtly racist, not to say bizarre, follow up a couple of years later – ‘reggae is to me the most racist music in the entire world… it’s an absolute total glorification of black supremacy’ – is less infamous.) Then came Morrissey’s first solo albums, with their suite of tracks – namely, 1988’s ‘Bengali in Platforms’, 1991’s ‘Asian Rut’, and 1992’s ‘National Front Disco’ – with their troublingly ambiguous portraits of Asian migrants and right-wing extremists. ‘But’, as Murray Healy noted in Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity, and Queer Appropriation (1996),
it was his association with skinheads that both acted as confirmation of this [affection for nationalist imagery] and proved to be most controversial in its own right … He walked on [at Finsbury Park in August 1992] wearing a silver lamé shirt and draped in a Union Jack to a stage decorated with a monumental blow-up of two (female) skins. Such imagery was evident elsewhere that day but in far less ambiguous context: Madness were headlining the gig, whose unwelcome skinhead/NF following, dating from the band’s original emergence from the post-punk Two-tone ska scene, meant that there were fascist skinheads in the audience; and nearby, National Front and British Movement members were being mobilized to attack a Troops Out march in the area.
For some commentators, such as Will Self, the Finsbury Park gig – which would snowball into court proceedings against the NME for their characterisation of Morrissey as a racist in a 2007 interview – demonstrated Morrissey’s camp sensibility rather than his nationalist sympathies; his subversive interest in freely mixing, as Melinda Hsu has put it, ‘macho-fascist signifiers (tough, working-class skinheads) with queer and effeminate signifiers (flowers, Romantic poetry, gentleness, and idolisation of Oscar Wilde)’. And yet there seemed little that was playful about Morrissey’s adoption of the pseudonym ‘Stoney Hando’ – based on the name of Russell Crowe’s character in Romper Stomper, Morrissey’s then favourite film – for a 1997 press release about Maladjusted, an album which produced a B-side, ‘This Is Not Your Country’, the title of which was also borrowed from the film (the song, to further confuse things, was about British imperialism in Ireland).
So if Morrissey queers the skinhead by also promoting gay aesthetics, does that let him off the hook of these charges of his alleged racism? That is, can we assume that gay and racist-fascist are mutually exclusive? Healy sensibly argues that to do so would be a fallacy, citing prominent gay skinheads within the British Movement such as Nicky Crane.
(To which we might well add, as he tours Australia, the gay alt-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos, who publicly approved of Morrissey’s Facebook rant about the Manchester Arena bombing.)
To say that the politics of Morrissey are complicated – especially in the light of recent, unequivocally awful comments on the Weinstein and Kevin Spacey allegations, German nationalism, Brexit, Nigel Farage, and much else besides – risks performing the kind of excusatory mental gymnastics fans have been engaged in for years. (A musician friend, for example, once torturously explained to me why the long, discordant passage of guitar squall at the end of ‘National Front Disco’ exonerated the song from the charge of promoting neo-fascism, while Simon Goddard’s otherwise excellent Mozipedia (2012) reads at times less like the encyclopaedia of Morrissey and the Smiths it bills itself as and more like a volume of exculpatory evidence.)
And yet it also happens to be true. Emerging in the wake of a British music scene divided along sharp political lines – the Clash identified as leftists, the Sex Pistols as anarchists, while the Jam (by way of differentiation rather than conviction) initially aligned themselves with conservatism – Morrissey cut a thrillingly protean figure. It was precisely his cultivated opacity, in matters of gender and sexuality especially, that appealed to the kinds of outsiders he made the subjects of so many of his lyrics. It is little wonder that many of these listeners, for whom Morrissey was as validating of their angst and unconformity in their youth as Bowie had been for him, now feel a sense not unlike treachery. As Stephen Wright observed in a recent essay for this journal:
Rock stars get into our hearts the way that film stars, or anyone else for that matter, don’t. We get married while their songs play, dance to their rhythms, hum their melodies under our breath on the train to work, and sing their lyrics in times of despair and exaltation.
So when these heroes of our inner lives are revealed to be reactionary, childish and bullying, thuggishly committed to courses of action that are so clearly aligned with the cruellest, bloodiest and most malicious desires and intentions of the Most High, and so out of tune, as it were, with their own songs, songs we have become so dependent on, it can feel like a betrayal of a kind.
In her essay ‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?’, Claire Dederer asks who sees the work of problematic artists more clearly: those who can view it dispassionately, without committing the biographical fallacy, or those who cannot fail to see the ways in which the work is animated by its makers’ beliefs and drives? Dederer is right to point out that the former position is a kind of privilege. In her example, it is easier for a male friend of hers to argue that Woody Allen’s Manhattan is objectively a masterpiece than it is for her, who cannot but be unsettled by the film’s depiction of women in the light of the director’s history. It is easy for Tony Parsons, the conservative British journalist, to joke that ‘Morrissey could invade Poland and I still wouldn’t believe he is a Nazi’. It is easy for me, as a white man, to listen to Morrissey’s early solo albums – which I happen to think are great, even better in some respects than the Smiths albums that preceded them – without being troubled by the thought that here is a man who thinks I do not belong in England, a country he feels I have played some small part in ‘throwing away’. It is easy for me to reconcile Morrissey’s championing of feminist and women writers with the victim-blaming inherent in his defence of Weinstein and Spacey, and the casual misogyny of songs like ‘Kick the Bride Down the Aisle’ (‘Kick the bride down the aisle/Look at that cow in the field/It knows more than your bride knows now’).
It is easy, too, because, on the strength of new album Low in High School, I may never care to listen to any new material Morrissey puts out again, and will not feel obliged to buy it, much less defend it. From the ham-fisted Brexit analogy ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage’ to the condescending portrait of a British solider on ‘Bury the Living’ and the pro-Israel sentiments of, well, ‘Israel’ (‘And they who rain abuse upon you/They are jealous of you as well/Love yourself as you should/Israel’), history will no doubt record the album as the one which marked the moment Morrissey’s media persona – professional bore, dial-a-provocateur – fatally merged with, and laid claim to, his art.
It is not simply that the album coasts in a musical sense, or that its politics are ‘unsound’. It is that, like a shock jock mired in a relentless present, required to know nothing except how to use words like a boxer uses their fists, little adds up. I don’t think it’s just sloppiness that accounts for the fact that Morrissey can sing one moment that ‘I haven’t a clue/What the war is about/I haven’t got a clue/Have you?’ then, a couple of songs later, ‘The land weeps oil/What do you think all these conflicts are for?/It’s just because the land weeps oil’. It’s that he no longer cares how he comes across – the hallmark of the modern iconoclast. It is also, I think, that his worldview remains essentially adolescent. The album’s title, as well as its cover image of a teenaged boy with a placard bearing the words ‘axe the monarchy’ – reminiscent of the sign reading ‘The Queen is Dead’ Morrissey wielded during the Smith’s last concerts – seems to bear out this arrested development. Does Morrissey still think he’s playing to teenagers, rather than an ageing, and ever more distanced, middle-aged fan base?
In an essay for New Statesman earlier this year, Michael Hann wrote that:
What is increasingly apparent is that back when he seemed so empathetic to teenagers, it wasn’t because he understood them, it was because he still thought like them: that he was the centre of a world that wouldn’t listen. You can get away with that when you’re in your 20s and your audience is teenagers. In your late 50s, when those original fans are in middle age themselves, you cannot.
In her essay, Dederer poses the questions: ‘What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work?’ The questions are left hanging, and shade into a sort of Montaignean uncertainty:
I’m not saying I’m right or wrong. But I’m the audience. And I’m just acknowledging the realities of the situation: the film Manhattan is disrupted by our knowledge of Soon-Yi; but it’s also kinda gross in its own right; and it’s also got a lot of things about it that are pretty great. All these things can be true at once … What do I do about the monster? Do I have a responsibility either way? To turn away, or to overcome my biographical distaste and watch, or read, or listen?
I think it is simultaneously true that the Smiths are a great band, an ineffaceable part of the soundtrack to my life, and that listening to them is disrupted by Morrissey’s almost daily commentary that suggests his allegiances can no longer be assumed to lie with the marginalised. Perhaps they never could, and the real shock is not one of Morrissey’s betrayal but of our own (my own) self-deception.
One of us has to grow up, I suppose, but that still doesn’t mean I know what to do about monsters either.
Image: Morrissey / Djenan Kozic