Morrissey: The last unwoke pop star
There was always only one Morrissey. But in 2019, this matters more than it ever has. All intelligent people know that we must separate the art from the artist. In our culture, this results in disallowing an artists’ real-life actions to affect the perception and appreciation of their art. It’s harder to apply this basic rule to Morrissey. That’s because, more than any other artist, Morrissey is his art.
The concept of an individual artist embodying their art to the point where they are indistinguishable from it is as 20th century a phenomenon as new wave. Musicians who appear to be what they present themselves as have been lauded and worshipped. So, what is Morrissey? As an artist who has maintained an elevated sense of mystery about his work, his sexuality, and his political perspectives, he continues to make music that calls directly to the hearts of his fans.
The political will amongst the elites to take him down for his provocative gestures is strong. Bolstered by a fan base that just can’t quit him, he soldiers on. Instead of cowing to political pressure, he doubles down, often trolling those who would seek to do him damage. As long as Morrissey keeps crooning, he will be okay.
The authors of this essay are diehard fans and outspoken writers; thoroughly advocating for artists to speak their minds, stray from the fold, and not give in to pervading views. We won’t do it, and whether in agreement with Steven Patrick Morrissey or not, we are in favour of his right to free expression, artistically and socially. Morrissey has carved his own path through pop culture and the music industry, and as the last, seriously independent thinker on the pop scene, he keeps his cool, and fans stick with him, despite the persistent apology culture of wokeness that has taken hold of virtually every aspect of mainstream, western culture.
With this in mind, we attended the first two sold-out concerts Morrissey performed on his truncated spring Canadian tour. What we found was a very engaged crowd, and an artist who performed with grateful love for his fans. Those who crowded Sony Centre were expectant and even a little surprised to find themselves searched, and confronted with petitions to sign.
Morrissey survived libel and smears throughout the first wave of political correctness in the 1990s. No doubt he will survive the current one. He has been betrayed by fawning journalists too many times to mention. As Russell Brand recently put it on The Joe Rogan Experience, “[Modern journalists] change what you say, and then you have defend what they said you said.”
Morrissey is perhaps the only pro-Brexit pop star who still has a career. Like Kanye West with his MAGA moment in America, Morrissey has kicked against the pricks of the ruling class and revealed the convenient lies they rely upon and the inconvenient truths they are desperate to conceal. Morrissey on the media post-Brexit: “I am shocked at the refusal of the British media to be fair and accept the people’s final decision just because the result of the referendum did not benefit the establishment.” Kanye on the media post-MAGA: “That sounds like control to me. They will not program me.” Are Kanye and Morrissey the last living punks? Morrissey, certainly, was invented by punk and his own punk fandom. Now, in his later years, he has embraced the defiant gestures of the genre.
In a world of fearful compliance, Morrissey stands apart. Whether in agreement with his views or not, we need contrarians. We need people who will not bow down to the approved messages. Media-approved art is not art but propaganda. As Morrissey croons in “My Love, I’d Do Anything For You,” “Teach your kids / to recognize / and despise / all the propaganda / filtered down / by the dead echelons mainstream media.”
Many of the messages Morrissey coveys are particularly pertinent to our times. “WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID?” was projected on the backdrop on the second night as he launched into the Viva Hate classic “Dial-a-cliche” Our social media-obsessed culture has reduced us to cliches and made us afraid of each other and real life. Morrissey’s altered the lyric slightly, as he did with a few of his older songs, and instead of simply “dial a cliche,” he sang “be a cliche.” Isn’t this what social media reduces us to? The yen to be a cliche instead of an individualist is strong on platforms where relevancy = likes, and unrelatability = obscurity.
So many people want to be the thing that most people will like, whether it is representative of their true selves or not. Instead of revealing themselves, they connect with identifiers that are broad enough to buffer them from having to attend to their inner lives. Morrissey and his fans inherently buck this, because so many of them began to express their individuality against a backdrop of normative expectations, and it was Morrissey’s lyrics and sound that gave them the understanding that life didn’t have to be like that.
“Speedway” takes on media mobbings. As the song reaches its crescendo, he croons “I could have mentioned your name / I could have dragged you in / guilt by implication / by association / I’ve always been true to you.” It makes sense; Morrissey was mobbed and shamed before it was an everyday occurrence. He’s been called every progressive slur in the book before progressivism was even a thing.
In the US, and online, there is a growing concern among artists that art should contain political activism within it. Morrissey is a peculiar case study in that he has always been political yet embodies the spirit of aestheticism almost perfectly. He exists within the realm of the sublime, a beauty through pain of sadness that speaks to his fans, refugees from mainstream pop joy.
He has disdain for any of those men and women who aspire to lead nations. One of his many concert backdrops featured Margaret Thatcher about to be whacked with a baton by an officer astride his horse. Those who take his unapologetic free speech advocacy as some sort of right-wing dog whistle should take note that this is still the man who proclaimed that the Queen was dead, called for Margaret on the guillotine, and claimed in song, “We won’t vote conservative!”
The political songs are often the ones that miss the mark in an emotional context, precisely because his ability to connect on the heartfelt songs is so stellar. But they bring weight to this tour that marked the end of Morrissey’s personal boycott of Canada over barbaric seal hunting practices. In coming back, he said, “My stance was ultimately of no use and helped no one. My voice was drowned out by the merciless swing of spiked axes crushing the heads of babies. On my return to Canada I feel that I can be of more use by making sizeable donations to animal protection groups in each city that I play.”
Morrissey has the most intense fandom ever. For most, it’s a lifelong love affair that began with songs heard in early teenage years that carried them through those difficult years. The feeling that an artist truly understands the pain of growing up from a shy child into a miserable adult cannot be underestimated.
We listen to Morrissey because he speaks to that part of us that we don’t readily share. To recapture feelings of love and red wine on lazy summer afternoons, to live the songs of our hearts, the places where shame keeps us from expressing true desire, true loss, true hopeless expectation. But unlike so many of his peers in alt rock, Morrissey does it with both a deep reservoir of artistic knowledge and a sense of humour, like Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Dorothy Parker. The smirk that plays at the edges of his mouth, at the edges of his verse, give us the feeling that no matter how miserably we have failed, it doesn’t matter if we rise again, because rising is not the goal, laughing at our tears is.
A mass of vulnerability crams into the theatres where he plays, and while we yearn for the old songs, he gives us something better. New ideas and perspectives that we weren’t expecting, that jar our realities and keep us from sinking into the peevish darkness. We can fight him, debate him, feel antagonized and betrayed as though by a lover we have loved more than he has loved us. Because despite his love for his fans, it’s we that keep reaching out for more of this fascinating artist, who, decades into his career, continues to deliver a vulnerable, expressive distance.
On the way to Toronto, the tiny, flimsy airplane was dotted with Morrissey shirts. A few hours before the first concert, the cafe girl asked us what we were doing in town; she had never heard of Morrissey. In that moment, it was inconceivable to us that one could ask such a question. It was also true of the customs guy, the hotel clerk, and for sure the kids in the hotel lobby watching the new Taylor Swift video on their iPhones. But for us—as well as thousands of jean-jacketed, rockabilly Betties and Quiffed-up, tattooed Latino fanboys—in the hours leading up to the first show, Morrissey was the world.
Security stood at the ready on the edge of the stage to push back worshippers. When fans jumped up on stage, as they have been doing for decades, Morrissey reached out for them, allowed them human touch. Other fans simply bowed their heads in appreciation, wanting to acknowledge what he’s given. We all felt the joy of a fan recognized by the man himself. The best artists know that their careers are held aloft by the experience the fans have with the work. The art is neither the object nor the man, but the moment in between the expression and the individual who craves what is expressed.
The joy of the crowd at the first licks of “How Soon Is Now” has been holding strong since its release. We know all the words, and we’re thrilled to have our outsider lonely lovelessness acknowledged. Could it be that we all stood at the edges of dance floors in the all-ages clubs of our youth, wishing for the DJ to play tracks we could sway and cry to, and that if we’d only looked into each others’ eyes we would have connected like we yearned to? Together we press toward the stage and toward each other. It’s our hearts reaching out and finding camaraderie. How can it be that so many controversial outsiders find a home in this music? We feel a kinship with each other despite our unwillingness to admit it, acknowledge it, or speak to each other. We’re still too shy.
Adding the Spanish vocals in “World Peace Is None of Your Business” is something that comes from the Latino fandom and is an acknowledgement of it. These kids carry the torch, and the merging of Mexican American Chicano culture with Morrissey’s post-punk English sound is a glorious 21st Century collaboration.
Though it’s a tour for California Son, an album of obscure covers, he only played one song from the album each night in Toronto. “Wedding Bell Blues by The Fifth Dimension, and Jobriath’s “Morning Starship.” He noted that no one has probably heard of Jobriath, and we mostly hadn’t. Bringing these nearly forgotten tracks to his fans reveals Morrissey as a fan himself. The range of Morrissey’s influence is a treasure trove of obscure 20th Century music, and fans should take the time to dig in, listen, and then attend to Morrissey’s new covers record. Standouts include covers of R&B legend Dionne Warwick, American folk singer Phil Ochs, and Canadian pacifist Buffy Sainte-Marie.
He sang “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” in front of a backdrop of flames and a single “Gilet Jaunes” protester defiantly waving a French flag. A reminder that political reality is complex, no matter what the media would have you believe. A reminder, too, that Morrissey has always been with the working class, Les Miserables.
Speaking of what the media would have you believe, shortly after the Canadian stint we observed, Morrissey caught another wave of bad press. This time, he was smeared for wearing a “For Britain” badge during a performance of “Morning Starship” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Kimmell. One of Morrissey’s oldest frenemies in media, the NME, summed it up this way: “The performance led to posters for his new album ‘California Son’ to be removed at Merseyrail stations and for his music to be banned from the world’s oldest record shop.”
Morrissey issued a statement:
Everyone always wants to jump to conclusions.
Morrissey has never been affiliated with any political party in the past. Morrissey has never voted in his life, and is not a member of any political party.
Morrissey opposes racism, hatred and press censorship. Morrissey believes in free speech and free expression and opposes totalitarian regimes. Morrissey has only ever met two political figures – Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair.
Morrissey currently wears lapel pins of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Aretha Franklin, Oscar Wilde.
Morrissey is quite used to smear campaigns from the UK press. It is nothing new for us.
Thanks to the fans the CS record is currently # 2 at HMV today. And thanks to Merseyrail for all the extra press today!
Morrissey later clarified in an interview with Sam Esty Rayner that while he supports For Britain (it appears largely for their broad animal rights platform), the notion that he is in anyway racist is preposterous: “If you call someone racist in modern Britain you are telling them that you have run out of words. You are shutting the debate down and running off. The word is meaningless now.” The world, as ever, won’t listen.
Back in Toronto, while belting out his recent hit, “Spent the Day in Bed” Morrissey once again turns his gaze on the media that often maligns him. In taking aim against duplicitous, fear mongering journalists, he offers a way forward by which we should all abide: “I recommend that you / stop watching the news / because the news contrives to frighten you / to make you feel small and alone / to make you feel like your mind isn’t your own.”
This is what keeps his fans feeling connected. We don’t want to feel small and alone, even as much as we acknowledge that we do. We don’t want to feel like our minds are not our own, and we won’t. That’s the point. To feel connected to our flaws, to know what they are, and to rail against those that would define us by our flaws, our vulnerabilities, and our misgivings. It is not a weakness to laugh at ourselves, to indulge in our shyness. The weakness comes in giving over your thoughts and attention to a culture that places no value on individuality or critical thought. Morrissey is ultimately a critically thinking individual, who does not hold back his views, his heart, his art, or his love.