Paint a Vulgar Picture

Did I think about calling this post “Bigmouth Strikes Again”? 

You bet your ass I did. 

Too easy.

THAT JOKE ISN’T FUNNY ANY MORE

I was a huge Smiths fan, beginning in the late Eighties, which admittedly made me a little late to the party. My initiation—courtesy of my friends Martere and Frazer—was the song “Panic,” released in 1986. The first time I heard it, it already sounded like a classic that had been burned into my memory, the lyrics at once surprising and yet inevitable, as if they were something I’d known my whole life:

So burn down the disco 
And hang the blessed DJ 
Because the music that they constantly play 
Says nothing to me about my life

I instantly went batty on the band, the same way millions of others did. Over the next several years I devoured everything they ever recorded. Soon tired of pestering DJs at crowded clubs (and I’m sure they feeling was mutual), my friends and I had business cards made up that said, simply, PLEASE PLAY THE SMITHS.

I remained a fanatic as the band broke up and Morrissey embarked on a solo career that has now lasted about seven times longer than the group’s. (It takes nothing away from him as a lyricist, singer, and frontman to note that fair credit for the Smiths’ glory also goes to guitarist Johnny Marr, who wrote most of the music, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce.)

On his own, Moz roared out of the gate with a string of great solo albums in the late Eighties and early Nineties (Viva HateKill UncleYour ArsenalVauxhall and I), went into a bit of decline, then emerged with at least one powerhouse comeback, 2004’s You Are the QuarryIf his output since then has been a bit uninspired, that of course is not at all unusual over a career of that length, and I held out hope that at least one more fertile period—and likely more—awaited. 

Sadly, that was not the turn that his career took. 

Morrissey had made his name on controversy. To say he was opinionated and outspoken was like saying Keith Richards liked a drink now and then. Still, few were prepared when, in May 2019, he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” with its audience of millions, wearing a button with the emblem of For Britain, an openly racist, white power political party that Fiona Sturges, writing in The Independent, called “so far to the right that even Nigel Farage has distanced himself from them.” 

No one who has paying attention could have been totally off guard. Morrissey had first expressed support for the party back in April 2018. More to the point, there had always been worrying racist undertones (and overtones) in his work. Still, it was a stark escalation of his willingness to promote an open racist organization, and a brazen provocation, even for him.

Loads of Smiths and Morrissey fans were crushed, to say the least…..and this is not a group given to Gary Cooper-like stoicism in the face of disappointment. 

Immediately lambasted for the gesture (uh, it didn’t escape public notice), the famously combative Mancunian characteristically doubled and tripled down on his new politics, writing, “There is only one British political party that can safeguard our security.”

Since then the backlash has been rightly severe, and only grown. The world’s oldest record store, Spillers, in Cardiff, Wales, stopped carrying his records. The Council on American-Islamic Relations called for a boycott of his concerts. The Merseyrail train service in Liverpool removed ads for his latest album, prompting Moz to compare them to Nazis. Gallons of metaphorical ink has been spilled on the topic, becoming almost a cottage industry for rock critics.Morrissey is now effectively a pariah in pop music, even as he retains significant base of fans who aren’t bothered by his newfound right wing politics, or worse, like him even more because of it.

It’s a sorry tale, and one that leaves us still trying to unspool how this once-heroic artist came to this pretty pass, as well as how we are to grapple with it. 

That is a question that becomes much more disturbing when we begin to explore the ways that it did not come out of thin air, but rather, was part of an ugly pattern we had long ignored or wished away. 

IT’S HARD TO WALK TALL WHEN YOU’RE SMALL

Morrissey was the finest lyricist of his generation. His work was dark and sardonic and literary, full of witticisms, and of scathing and original turns of phrase, and of his trademark blunt assertions that were almost prose-like, which I mean as a compliment. (At one point I contemplated crafting this essay entirely out of repurposed Morrissey song titles, which is actually easier than it sounds. He used to be a sweet boy, and he was good in his time, but he’s maladjusted and still ill, and will never be anybody’s hero now. I know it’s over. That’s entertainment.)

Of course, his lyrics could and often did veer into wanton narcissism, self-pity, spite, sanctimony, hyperbole, and high HIGH drama. Both in his music and in his public pronouncements, Morrissey could really get on his high horse: about vegetarianism, about the monarchy, about the musical abilities of former bandmates, about schoolmasters and lovers and Cromwell. But that was part of the fun, and it all felt slightly knowing and ironic. 

Morrissey’s politics, too, were always reliably left of center: after all, this is the man who wrote of Thatcher, “The kind people have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine.” His entire oeuvre reflected identification with life’s downtrodden, its iconoclasts, its shat-upon, its abused and rejected. Lots of rockers speak to outsiders and misfits—it’s practically the heart of (any decent) rock & roll—but Morrissey did it with a directness, a depth, a poignancy, and a sense of humor that few could match. His fans, accordingly, responded with a passion that is rare to find, and I was one of them.

So the transformation into a racist, right wing shitbag is hard to understand, and to take. 

Was this just some sort of weird John Lydon-brand contrarianism? (No one is surprised, or saddened, by the erstwhile Sex Pistols frontman’s pathetic shock jock-style ploys for attention.) That would be in character, for sure. But it felt like more than that. Was it just another pedantic case of somebody growing old and conservative, even to the point of embracing neo-fascism—an old white Englishman, in this case, a demographic highly susceptible to that phenomenon? Maybe. But if so, it really hurt. 

On the British anarchist website Freedom, the writer Darya Rustamova asked: 

Is he just committed to an out-dated Punk trend of being as outrageous and offensive as possible? Or is this just a blundering error by a 60-year-old man who still cuts the top four buttons off his shirts?

Rustamova telegraphs the answer to her own questions with the title of her piece, which is “Morrissey Isn’t Senile, He’s Always Been a Racist”:

This isn’t just an ageing old man sliding into the simmering bitterness and racism typical of many elderly Brits. Since the start of his career, Morrissey has been outspoken against multiculturalism and immigration, citing his fears of a threatened English identity. He has a historic hatred for foreigners and his fans need to do more to recognise his views and fight these messages.

“Bengali in Platforms,” “England for the English,” “Asian Rut,” and “This is Not Your Country” are quotes you’d expect from the mouth of Boris Johnson; but they are song titles by the king of alternative playlists, the heart of British indie, or the “second-greatest living British cultural icon” (according to the BBC in 2006).

Rustamova reminds us that as far back as 1992 Morrissey told Q Magazine “that he didn’t ‘really think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other.’” That same year he released “National Front Disco,” a song automatically presumed to be a tongue-in-cheek critique of British neo-fascism, but which becomes very slippery when he performs it draped in the Union Jack, and when skinheads adopt it as an anthem. (And you thought American conservatives’ co-opting of “Born in the USA” was bad.) 

In 1984 Morrissey famously said “all reggae is vile” in what may seem an innocent comment in isolation, yet it takes a more sinister form when considered amongst his consistent diatribe of bigotry. For example, a biography of the early formation of The Nosebleeds points out that around the same time Morrissey declared, “I don’t hate Pakistanis, but I dislike them immensely.”

Cherry-picking? Maybe, but when there are so many cherries to pick from, the defense starts to lose its credibility. 

As some wag recently noted, perhaps the best way to understand the New Morrissey is to read all of the Smiths’ lyrics as if they were written with no irony. I guess they weren’t.

I DON’T MIND IF YOU FORGET ME

In The Independent, my fellow aggrieved former Smiths fan Fiona Sturges takes us back to 1988, noting Morrissey’s “grim pronouncements on music by black artists—including the assertion in a Melody Maker interview that “a black pop conspiracy” was preventing the Smiths from fulfilling their potential.”

As the years have passed, he has become ever more brazen in his anti-immigration stance, telling NME in 2007 that England had been “thrown away,” that “the gates were flooded” and complaining that in London’s Knightsbridge “you’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.” 

Here’s Morrissey in his own words in that 2007 NME interview:

England is a memory now….Although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. Travel to England and you have no idea where you are. It matters because the British identity is very attractive. I grew up into it and I find it very quaint and amusing… You can’t say, ‘Everybody come into my house, sit on the bed, have what you like, do what you like.’ It wouldn’t work.

(Writing recently in the Guardian, Tim Jonze, who did that interview, reports how NME initially tried to excise Morrissey’s offending remarks. When they ultimately didn’t, he sued for libel, and won, without denying the accuracy of the quotes.) 

It must be noted that for a man with such a xenophobic bent, Morrissey is the son of Irish immigrants to the UK and himself moved to LA in the Nineties, where—weirdly—he has a fanatical fan base in the city’s Mexican-American community. (Check out the cover band Mexrissey.) 

Even Morrissey’s adamant vegetarianism has caused him to traffic in xenophobic tropes about various foreign cultures, calling the Chinese “a subspecies” and railing against halal food in the UK), and comparing the meat industry to Auschwitz (and pedophilia to boot). For good measure, he’s also dismissed mass shootings like that in Norway in 2011 as nothing compared to everyday business in an abattoir.

Fiona Hughes goes on to run down some other recent lowlights:

There was an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel in which, discussing allegations of sexual abuse related to Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, Morrissey said there were times “when the person who is called the victim is merely disappointed.” There was last year’s comically mad interview on his own website where he mocked shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and claimed Hitler was left-wing.

Morrissey’s remarks on Mayor Khan are worth reading verbatim to fully appreciate his venom:

London is debased. The Mayor of London tells us about ”Neighborhood policin” What is “policin”? He tells us London is an “amazin” city. What is “amazin”? This is the Mayor of London! And he cannot talk properly! I saw an interview where he was discussing mental health, and he repeatedly said ”men’el ”…He could not say the words “mental health.” The Mayor of London! Civilisation is over!”

I could go on. (You can find a tidy list of Moz’s outrages here.) 

YES I AM BLIND

You won’t be surprised that the former Steven Patrick Morrissey has not exactly turned the other cheek over the criticism leveled at him. In a 2018 interview posted on his website, he said:

It’s just a way of changing the subject. When someone calls you racist, what they are saying is “Hmm, you actually have a point, and I don’t know how to answer it, so perhaps if I distract you by calling you a bigot we’ll both forget how enlightened your comment was.”

Defending himself for the Tonight Show episode in a June 2019 interview, also on his website, Morrissey said, “The word (racist) is meaningless now. Everyone ultimately prefers their own race—does this make everyone racist?” He went on to say, “Diversity can’t possibly be a strength if everyone has ideas that will never correspond. If borders are such terrible things then why did they ever exist in the first place?” 

In that same interview he further defended For Britain, calling its leader Anne Marie Waters “extremely intelligent, ferociously dedicated to this country….(and) very engaging.” 

Right. Waters was filmed in the ITV documentary Undercover–Inside Britain’s New Far Right, saying the following: 

The idea that these fuckers can just come along and take it all. Stop all Muslim immigration now…..My thinking is we need to reduce their birthrates now. You cannot dismiss the idea, that there are, that most kids are called Mohammed, most kids born in … boys born in Britain now are named called Mohammed, and you cannot discuss that as meaningless without being as thick as shit. I’m sorry, it’s stupid, it’s dangerous.

That’s not just a one-off caught on hot mike. For Britain began as an even more right wing offshoot of Nigel Farage’s already far right, Trump-aligned UKIP. It is a white nationalist party linked to various neo-Nazi movements, one that advocates a de facto ban on Muslim immigration to the UK, traffics in COVID-19 conspiracy theory, and has associated itself with Holocaust deniers. (For Britain’s ostentatious pro-animal rights stance is surely part of the appeal to Morrissey, even as it’s part of the party’s general Islamophobia.) 

And if you don’t know, now you know.

But since so many of Morrissey’s offenses preceded the For Britain bullshit, by decades in some cases, why did we forgive it—or ignore it—until now? Speaking only for myself, and not that it’s any excuse, but I suppose I wrote it off as mere theater. Morrissey’s entire brand was self-absorption and outrage, so were we supposed to be surprised? 

Until recently there was also some calculated ambiguity in his work and his public statements, or at least we wanted to believe that there was. But now it has become impossible to maintain that self-delusion. The accumulated weight of his offenses has become too much, especially when he stakes out an even more outrageous stance during the volatile era of Trump and Brexit. I will cop to having been willfully blind. But I can’t do it anymore.

SHAME IS THE NAME

Artists operating in troubled times frequently have to make hard decisions about collaboration, accommodation, and resistance as regards the tyranny du jour. (For a lovely portrait of that dilemma—to name just one—see István Szabó’s 1981 film Mephisto.) But part of the mystery here is that Morrissey does not really stand to gain much, practically speaking, by his fascist-friendly stance. (What idiosyncratic psychological benefits he accrues is another matter). He is not a citizen of an autocracy where the ruling authority demands obeisance from its artists and dishes out rewards for collaborators and punishment for rebels. If anything, his racist right wing stand is costing him fans, and squandering decades of critical approbation, and doing lasting damage to his legacy. 

In that sense then, we can at least say that he is not acting opportunistically, but rather, expressing his genuine beliefs. Unfortunately, that is not a compliment. 

Indeed, the fact that he has embraced the fasces voluntarily, without being under any kind of duress, makes his actions even more contemptible. 

But this is as much farce as it is tragedy.

“The Simpsons” recently satirized Moz’s rightward turn in an episode called “Panic on the Streets of Springfield,” guest starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and including a note-perfect song parody called “Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (and Possibly You)” co-written by staff writer Tim Long, who penned the episode, and the brilliant, Oscar-winning, diminutive half of Flight of the Conchords Bret McKenzie. Hilariously, the episode prompted an equally note-perfect, megalomaniacal response from Morrissey, who seemed less infuriated that he was portrayed as a racist hypocrite than that he was portrayed as fat. 

(A statement from his manager, posted on Facebook within hours of the show’s broadcast, complained with No Discernible Irony: “Poking fun at subjects is one thing … but when a show stoops so low to use harshly hateful tactics like showing the Morrissey character with his belly hanging out of his shirt [when he has never looked like that at any point in his career] makes you wonder who the real hurtful, racist group is here.”)

Continuing the war of words with a family of beloved yellow-skinned cartoon characters (racist!), and reminiscent of Eminem attacking Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Morrissey himself wrote on his website:

You are especially despised if your music affects people in a strong and beautiful way, since music is no longer required to. In fact, the worst thing you can do in 2021 is to lend a bit of strength to the lives of others. There is no place in modern music for anyone with strong emotions….

I’ve had enough horror thrown at me that would kill off a herd of bison. Accusations usually come from someone with a crazed desire for importance; they don’t operate at a very high level. Writing for the Simpsons, for example, evidently requires only complete ignorance. But all of these things are too easy for me to say. In a world obsessed with Hate Laws, there are none that protect me….free speech no longer exists.

The response is classically self-pitying—almost Trumpian, in fact—in its insistence that he is the real victim. But how the neo-fascist, For Britain-supporting, 2021 version of Morrissey is lending “a bit of strength to the lives of others” eludes me. 

THERE IS A PLACE IN HELL FOR ME AND MY FRIENDS

So what to do with all this? How bad do an artist’s politics have to be before we say fuck off?

It’s the old question of how—or if—we can separate the artist from the art, and more to the point, whether we ought to do so. Over the years it’s been asked of a numbingly long list of geniuses with problematic personal views, behavior, and other baggage: Celine, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Wagner, Polanski….the list goes on and on. 

It’s an especially pertinent question in the era of #Metoo and the Age of Trump. In the past five years, it’s one we’ve all had to ask not only of our musical heroes and other public figures, but of our friends and acquaintances as well. In some cases it has meant ending friendships and abandoning artists and entertainers who have taken a side that is unconscionable. 

But I can live very easily without the artistic contributions of Scott BaioPat Boone, and Ted Nugent. I will miss listening to The Queen Is Dead a lot more. 

Lots of artists are shitty people. What consequences they ought to pay for that is highly subjective, a matter of degree and timing and context, and perhaps best handled on a case by case basis. Are we judging a long deceased historical figure who lived and worked under the standards of a very different era, or a contemporary individual who is still alive and active and operating under the current rules of engagement? How bad was their offensive behavior, and was it isolated or part of a longstanding pattern? And how integral is their person to their work?

With some of these folks, the art and the artist are fairly distinct and don’t overlap much, making bifurcation easier. I will always love watching Dennis Quaid in Breaking Away, or The Right Stuff, or Postcards from the Edge, even if it saddens and disgusts me to know that he’s now a Trump supporter. I don’t want to watch anything new he does, but I can appreciate his performances from the distant past, because they are so distinct from his politics. (His brother Randy is a slightly different matter, mental illness wise.) It’s a bit like the way I can appreciate the skill of the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin while ignoring his open admiration for Vladimir Putin. But it doesn’t make me want to root for him. 

The issue becomes thornier, however, when the individual’s work is directly connected to his or her vile views. 

In “Pretend It’s a City,” her new Netflix collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz describes how she once refused an invitation to attend a private dinner for Leni Riefenstahl. (In fact, she says she was livid that anyone thought she would ever accept.) In that case, the empirical aesthetic beauty of Riefenstahl’s film work is impossible to separate from the hateful ideology it celebrated and served. 

Would it be different when it comes to, say, Leni’s still photography of Nuba people in Sudan in the 1970s? Ask Fran. 

Sometimes the issue is positively byzantine. Wagner is permanently stained by his posthumous association with the Third Reich, even though he’d been dead for fifty years before Hitler came to power. That certainly makes him harder to listen to, but he would have a better case for absolution if not for his own virulent anti-Semitism, such that it makes him feel like a willing co-conspirator before the fact. Yet none of that has stopped contemporary orchestras and opera companies from performing his work. (Not often in Israel though.)

Indeed, if anti-Semitism was a dealbreaker, whole centuries of artists would be canceled. I love Roald Dahl’s stories, but I read them now with the knowledge that he was a vicious Jew hater. Even Shakespeare has taken his lumps for Shylock. Is it fair to judge these people by the standards of the present day? Sometimes it is. From there it is not a big leap to questions about Thomas Jefferson and some other Founding Fathers, who, contrary to the rationalizations of some folks in the current moment, knew very well that owning other human beings was deeply wrong, even way back in the 18th century.

Jumping ahead two hundred years, I’m a fan of NWA, but how do we reckon with the abhorrent anti-Semitism—and even more so, homophobia—of a song like Ice Cube’s solo hit “No Vaseline” (1991)? And I choose that at near-random from the hip hop canon, which is rife with that stuff—as is rock & roll—to say nothing of misogyny. Hell, if we start scrutinizing dodgy lyrics and bad behavior in pop music, not many musicians would be left standing except Cliff Richard

Lately we have seen the once-great Van Morrison, another of my adolescent musical heroes, trashing his legacy with a series of bitter new songs railing against the COVID-19 lockdownTeaming with him on some of those tracks was Eric Clapton, a former junkie who now blames the vaccine, rather than years of heroin use, for his health problems. Clapton, of course, is lugging around some even more rancid albatrosses, going back to his praise for Enoch Powell and an eyepopping racist outburst at a concert in Birmingham in 1976, and repeated equivocation about those remarks in the decades since. 

LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?

Which brings us back to Morrissey.

Answering a question posed on Twitter about whether it is possible to divorce the man from the music, Billy Braggtweeted, “No. There was a light but it has now gone out.” Nick Cave, like Bragg, a man well-known for his humanity and integrity, was slightly more philosophical in answer to a similar question posed by a fan, defending Morrissey’s right to his political views even as he expressed staunch opposition to the views themselves.

But no one is disputing Morrissey’s right to his opinion, nor his right to state it publicly (except Morrissey himself, with specious Fox News-style screeching about “censorship”). By the same token, we are under no obligation to endorse his views by giving him our dollars or attention. That is not “censorship”: it is our right to freedom of expression ourselves, as fans and as consumers.

Per above, Cave argues that an artist’s “views and behavior are separate issues”:

Whatever inanities (Morrissey) may postulate, we cannot overlook the fact that he has written a vast and extraordinary catalogue, which has enhanced the lives of his many fans beyond recognition. This is no small thing. He has created original and distinctive works of unparalleled beauty, that will long outlast his offending political alliances.

Perhaps it is better to simply let Morrissey have his views, challenge them when and wherever possible, but allow his music to live on, bearing in mind we are all conflicted individuals—messy, flawed and prone to lunacies. We should thank God that there are some among us that create works of beauty beyond anything most of us can barely imagine, even as some of those same people fall prey to regressive and dangerous belief systems.

But this is not a matter of Ovechkin’s puckhandling, which is wholly separate from his politics. Given that his songs frequently function as social commentary, Morrissey’s views are inextricably tied up with his words and music. This isn’t Thin White Duke-era Bowie making a stupid, outlier comment admiring of British fascism and calling Hitler “one of the first rock stars.” This is a relentless and ongoing pattern that is impossible to ignore or compartmentalize from the music itself, which it increasingly overshadows.

As Rustamova writes, “We need to vote with our ears and call Morrissey out. We can’t separate art from the artist when the art sings ‘England for the English.’”

Whether he is displaying some mid-to-late life reactionary transformation, or expressing long held beliefs, or merely playing the provocateur, Morrissey’s perverse turn to the right is—to put it mildly—both odious and sad for all parties. In overlooking and excusing his actions over the years, we have all been complicit: the fans, the record labels, the music press. Everyone. 

But while we don’t have to have a debate about free will here, in the end Moz has no one but himself to answer for it. As for the responsibility of pop stars for their actions, let me throw his words back at him:

You could have said no 
If you’d wanted to 
You could have walked away 
Couldn’t you?

When it comes to choosing my pop stars according to their decency as human beings and the admirability of their politics, I think I’ll listen to some Billy Bragg.

*********

Photo: Morrissey wearing “For Britain” badge on “The Tonight Show,” May 2019. NBC/Getty Images.

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