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By Joshua Alston
This week, Morrissey announced that he is canceling the remainder of his North American tour, due to an ongoing battle with a bleeding ulcer, Barrett’s esophagus, and a case of pneumonia in both of his lungs. I was disappointed to hear about the illnesses plaguing the singer, who since fronting the seminal rock band The Smiths in the ‘80s, has built a particularly cultish fan base of which I more-or-less consider myself a part. But there was also a rush of relief when I heard about the tour cancellation, because it relieved me of a quandary that presents itself every few years: whether or not to see Morrissey in concert.
A friend of mine texted me a few weeks back to tell me when Morrissey was scheduled to play Philadelphia and to ask if I planned on going. The question startled me. It shouldn’t have. Like most Morrissey fans, I’ll find a way to mention his work if you talk to me long enough, and I often find myself pleading with Morrissey agnostics to listen to his work, particularly those who know nothing except for the penchant for whiny navel-gazing that has earned him the pejorative honorific “The Pope of Mope.” It only makes sense that anyone who’s gotten close enough to see how important Morrissey’s work is to me would ask if I wanted to see him in concert. But it’s a far more complex decision than it seems on its face.
Morrissey doesn’t make himself easy to like, and has proved to be as deft at writing catchy, literate indie-pop songs as he is at erecting barriers that prevent the unqualified enjoyment of those songs. He’s egregiously precious and oversensitive, and has a tendency to come off in interviews as self-important, vain, and smug. He’s a vocal advocate for animal rights, but perhaps too vocal. His passion for protecting all God’s creatures is an admirable one, but the rigid, bratty way he tends to express that passion represents the type of myopic zealotry that stunts movements more often than it fortifies them.
I could accept all of this, though, if it weren’t for the fact that Morrissey is also probably racist. I say probably for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Morrissey is not at all shy about litigation where such accusations are concerned. Added to this, as with any damaging rumor that shadows a celebrity, Morrissey’s alleged racism is a conjecture built of equal parts fact, perception, and apocrypha. But in spite of his insistence that he isn’t racist, an assertion he’s repeated over the years, no one has done more to make the case that Morrissey is deeply racist and xenophobic than the man himself.
Take, for example, his 2010 interview with The Guardian, in which he mentioned his feelings about news reports detailing the treatment of animals in Chinese circuses and zoos: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies,” he said. That comment was so indefensible and so vile that the British anti-racism group Love Music Hate Racism announced it would no longer accept money from the singer, who in 2007 gave the organization a large cash donation to demonstrate his non-bigot bona fides after making similarly disturbing comments in an interview with NME. “With the issue of immigration, it’s very difficult because, although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears,” goes the NME quote.
Before these instances, Morrissey’s defenders had much more to work with. There was the argument that the questionable lyrics of his songs “Asian Rut” and “Bengali in Platforms” were merely examples of a body of songs that includes many skewed views of provocative characters, such as the congenitally deformed woman in “November Spawned a Monster” or the violent stepchild in “The Father Who Must Be Killed.” There’s also the fact that Morrissey was so offended by NME’s 2007 story, he alleged its writer had spliced quotes together and sued the magazine to clear his name, ultimately settling out of court after the magazine agreed to print an apology and retraction. “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,” said Morrissey in a statement related to the NME fracas. “Racism is beyond common sense and I believe it has no place in our society.”
As comforting a balm as statements such as these have been to Morrissey’s fan base over the years, it’s beyond my common sense to total all of the evidence and conclude that Morrissey is simply misunderstood. If I had to guess, I would say that Morrissey holds some absolutely repugnant views, and attempts to keep them hidden for fear of alienating his fan base and destroying his career. I also believe that’s partly the reason he’s notoriously press-shy; the ratio of interviews in which he’s made sickening comments to the relatively small number of interviews he’s done suggests that he probably says many indefensible things, and it’s just a matter of whether a tape recorder happens to be nearby to capture it.
In early 2010, I came within a hair’s breadth of securing a rare interview with Morrissey myself, but he ultimately backed out. It was disappointing, because I had planned to grill him on his pattern of behavior, to give him yet another opportunity to clarify or contextualize his statements, and most importantly, to ask him if there was any valid reason for a black man like me not to swear off him and his music. I never got to hear the answers to those questions, so now I’m stuck, as conscious, critical people often are, deciding whether to reject thorny art and artists entirely, or to search for items of value scattered throughout the wreckage.
It’s a challenge that crops up often for anyone who dares to look past artistic surfaces, who can’t help but consider a piece of art within the context of its origins, its agendas, its desired effects, and its unforeseen consequences. These conundrums present themselves often, for the feminist whose prurient side draws him to butt-shaking hip hop videos in spite of his consciously hating hip hop’s misogynistic bent, or for the woman who abhors domestic violence, but reserves the right to drop it like it’s hot when Rihanna and Chris Brown’s “Birthday Cake (Remix)” comes through the speakers. It’s a crazy-making process of rationalization and compartmentalization that never seems to get easier the more you do it, the arduous task of determining if it’s even possible to extricate an artist from her art, and whether trying to do so is worth the psychic toll.
The most interesting recent example of art making for strange, fitful bedfellows is the black community’s broad spectrum of reactions to Quentin Tarantino’s slave-narrative-cum-spaghetti-western Django Unchained, which based on my unscientific Facebook observations, ran the gamut from “Best movie ever” to “No, this white boy did NOT.” The conversation that surrounded Django was so fascinating because it was as much about the merits of the film as it was about the merits of the criticism against it, and the question of what degree Tarantino’s whiteness played both in the film’s creation and its reception. There was not only a variety of reactions, but there also seemed to be an abundance of certainty among Django fans and foes alike that there was a “correct” way to react to the film. Spike Lee wound up defending his criticism of Django, responding to allegations of haterism, many of which came from black folks who concluded, somehow, that criticizing a film about American slavery written and directed by a white man fell outside the jurisdiction of the preeminent black filmmaker of the last quarter-century. Many of us are united by our abhorrence of racism itself, but when it comes to a piece of art that may or may not be racist, depending on the experiential, identity-tinted lenses through which each person views it, the battle lines become jagged, perforated, and blurred.
My reaction to Django fell somewhere between the two poles, but I’ll admit some judgment on my part towards blacks who seemed overeager to defend the film. But I understand that this is because Django doesn’t matter much to me one way or another, just as many Django proponents who don’t care about Morrissey could be just as judgmental of my appreciation of music made by a man who has swerved perilously close to hate speech. But Morrissey’s music is important to me. He writes crystalline melodies and clever lyrics, and sings about alienation, infatuation, sexual frustration, and self-doubt with a degree of thoughtfulness and sensitivity not often seen in popular music.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have queasy bouts of listening to Morrissey’s music and wondering if the same thing I’m hearing is the same thing he was saying, and how horrified I might be if I was to learn the truth. But part of the beauty in art lies in its malleability, how it gets reshaped and recontextualized by its audience. And as a gay man who struggled to come to grips with his sexuality, I heard many of Morrissey’s lyrics as a rallying cry for me to confront that part of myself. I don’t know Morrissey’s motivation for writing the Smiths tune “Accept Yourself,” in which he sings “Anything is hard to find, when you will not open your eyes, when will you accept yourself?” I may never know what he intended when he wrote “Dial-a-Cliche,” but I know when I heard the lyric “You find that you’ve organized your feelings for people who didn’t like you then and don’t like you now,” it made me consider how, in remaining closeted, I was performing for an audience most of whom hadn’t paid a dime to get into the show.
The reason Morrissey has been able to build such a slavishly devoted fan base is because his fans read their own deeply affecting, deeply personal meanings into his lyrics as do I, and because he speaks to a subset of the population that often feels talked around rather than talked to: the others. The fatties, the darkies, the uglies, the queers, the tomboys, and the weirdos hear something special when, in the classic Smiths single “How Soon Is Now?,” Morrissey sings “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.” It’s these specific merits of the music that make the reality of Morrissey the man that much harder to stomach. It’s cruelly ironic that the same man who has arguably written more and better about navigating feelings of otherness than anyone in the pop music canon appears to harbor the same othering attitudes that serve to victimize the legions who worship him.
Still, the others flock to see Morrissey, according to a dispatch I received from an old friend of mine, a gorgeous sista named Rosenda who made it out to see him when he played L.A.’s Staples Center at the top of the month. She told me she only saw a couple of black folks in attendance, but that the audience was overwhelming Latino—at least 2/3 of the venue’s 20,000-seat capacity, she estimated. (Yet another complicating factor in the consideration of Morrissey and race is his enormous Latino following, a topic covered in the 2008 documentary “Passions Just Like Mine.”) Rosenda told me she’s never heard or read much about Morrissey’s racism, and has never been convinced of it. She raved about the show, during which she said he showed a short video clip of James Baldwin speaking in an interview about the importance of being true to one’s self.
In the interest of being true to myself, I’ve sworn off Morrissey live performances, and am glad on some level that the cancellation of his tour will allow me to maintain my principles without feeling like I’m missing out on something. It could be cogently argued that no real distinction exists between listening to Morrissey’s music and watching him onstage, and I’d be inclined to agree. But these are the types of contextual cages we place around art and artists with pretty mouths that conceal poisonous fangs, the type of mental construct that leads someone to deem Tyga’s “Rack City” perfectly appropriate for the treadmill, but all wrong once the belt stops. I actively do the work of untangling Morrissey from his music because I’ve deemed it worth the effort based on what that music has meant to my life. But I have to draw the admittedly arbitrary line at the genuflection of watching him bathed in lights on an elevated stage. To watch a hero’s welcome for a man who has said some of the repugnant things Morrissey has said, and to hear no one cry foul, well…that would make me feel like the ultimate other.