Confessions Of A Black Morrissey Fan

By Guest Contributor Joshua Alston; originally published at Feminist Wire

smiths

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 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 sistah 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 Latin@—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 Latin@ 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.

 

  • happyappa

    “Chinese are a subspecies”? “…although I don’t have anything against people from other countries…” sounds pretty much like “I’m not a racist, but” and we all know how that turns out.

    How can someone listen to artists that are racist/homophobic/etc? This is not a rhetorical question but I am honestly wondering about it. The same can be said for authors (ex. Dr. Suess). Maybe it feels more intense with music because you hear the musicians are speaking to you.

    This article and maybe a few of the comments come across as actually defending him by trying to see the good in his racism. Or it’s just a shame he said it out loud. For me, every single one of that singer’s lyrics (as meaningful as anyone thinks they are) would be nullified by the type of person he is. One could be critical of Morrisey while enjoying the music itself I guess, but why are so many people defending him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

    As someone who was a Smiths fan from way back in the day, and who liked Morrissey’s solo stuff (as well as the funny,snarky stuff he made with the group, like “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, “Stop Me If You’re Heard This One Before”, and of,course their classic, “How Soon Is Now”) I have to admit Morrissey was something of an acquired taste for me/took time to grow on me. The first solo tune I ever heard from him was a song called “Ouija Board”, and I remember for some reason his pic on the album cover just turned me completely off–just something about him I couldn’t stand—never could quite pinpoint it,though. Anyway, I got more into his work and loved it in the early ’90′s ( the sad, mournful “Everyday Is Like Sunday” being one of my favorites) while also finding the Moz himself a unique,intreiging,and generally weird person in his own right—I pretty much lost track of him musically about a decade ago,particularly since his time as an alternative fave came and went after some years.

    I have read some of these racist things he’s said over the years, and he’s been called out on it in print each time. Having read/learned about how racism thrives in Britain, and the arrogant assumption of white privilege British white people seem to have pumped into them from birth, it’s not surprising that Morrissey’s finally showing his true colors (and apparently never bothered to consider that he might be offending the hell out of few fans of color he’s got) I do remember a column on this very site putting on blast about his racist comments a couple of years back.) Anyway, he’s not the first white musician I’ve had issues with concerning their racism (or possible racism) particularly being a black fan myself. Good to know other people have had struggles around these issues concerning their fave artists,though. One, question, however—if he hates diversity, why on earth did he move to L.A. (not sure if he still lives there or not,but just pointing out the obvious contradiction since L.A. is one of the most diverse cities in the country.)

  • kristincraiglai

    This is the same struggle I face with artists like Michelle Shocked (recently announced that God hates fags), Bikini Kill and Le Tigre (played the transphobic Michigan Women’s fest), and of course most punk music. Somehow I find it much harder when it’s coming from an artist that is usually politically conscious, feels like an act of betrayal.

  • http://twitter.com/lifepostepic Cade DeBois

    As a musicians myself (classical- and jazz-trained), I have to insist there’s a word of difference between a canned (record) music performance and a live one, but when it cmes to rock music (and make no mistake I’m a fan of rock as well), there is a different srt of difference: the difference from being able to listen to the music via a recording, in your own environment, and being put into that rock atmosphere with all its noise, ego, hubris, brainless fandom and general bulshit (my apologies for being so blunt about that) that comes with live rock perfromances. With rock music, I lean heavily toward sticking with recorded music. Many fans will insist the “experience” of the live show is epic or whatever, but I had been to many rock performances since the mid-80′s to the early ’00s, from small venue to hufe, sold-out arenas. I just can’t be bothered anymore. It ain’t all that.

    As for Morrissey, I like a lot of his work with the Smiths, largely due to the unique creative combo of him with Johnny Marr, but I’m not so terribly impressed with his solo work. But I get his appeal–he is one of the few rock musicians who can really articulate more personal emotional moods with any sense of authenticity–and I get his fans are terribly attached to his music. Obviously there’s a need for someone like Morrissey in this world. But I always found him repulsive to some degree, whether it’s some of his more banal pompous nonsense, or his bullshit vicitim complex, or his casual misogyny that peeks through his lyrics, or his “Meat is murder but Pakis need to go home” trippin’. The dude’s got problems and I don’t have the time of day to rationalize why I should put up with them.

    But his racist/xenophobic comments over the years merit some attention, as there’s a lot to be learned here. Is his a racist and a xenophobe? Yep. He said that crap, so he owns it. But at least since the 80′s he has helped put a face on this particularly British brand of racism and xenophobia, where it gets mixed with a kind of well-refined imperial white privilege that we white Americans have only begun to get the hang off. In this sense, Morrissey isn’t special–he is sadly very true to his environment. There are far too many Brits who think just like him and who say things just like him. He’s just been stupid and/or self-important enough to go out on stage or into interviews and say them where the whole world gets ear of it. Most white Brits would prefer the rest fo the world not know how terribly racist or xenophobic they are (althought their racial paranoia has been reaching a fever pitch in recent years, so they are getting pretty noisy about it). As an Clash fan I got to witness Joe Strummer’s and Mick Jones’ very-ahead-of-their-times confronting British xenophobia (and perhaps their own) toward Pan-African and Muslim societies in the late 70′s and early 80′s. For an American kid, it was an education in a way, on how the world really is. It taught me, among other things, that this vein runs deep in British society, which is why the racism and xenophobia of the Tories and even scarier BNP should not surprise us but likewise shouldn’t be ignored. Hell, Cameron just recently made a pledge to crack down on migrants who expect “something for nothing” from British society, ‘cos I guess doing all the Brits’ low-tier service sector jobs, from paving roads so MPs’ limos have something to cruise on to the street food vendors who keep British college students from dying prematurely from a beer-only diet, is “nothing”. We should be pretty bothered by that, you know? But this is exactly the minsdet Morrissey has shown us for decades now–if only his fat-mouthed buffoonery had been enough to shame the British people into being less reactionary and less fascist-y.

    • El DiabloGirl

      Wow, very well stated. I’m an African American woman studying and living in the UK. Your cultural observations regarding the shape and texture of the xenophobic and passively aggressive racist underbelly of British society are right on the money. I mean, dead on.