Thursday, July 28, 2011

Morrissey's Big Mouth Strikes Yet Again

Morrissey says he's not racist, but...
In a way it's just as well that 'Morrissey' and 'controversy' almost rhyme, because those words have long swirled around each other, like a pair of butterflies in a field. He once told an interviewer that “I've never intended to be controversial but it's very easy to be controversial in pop music because nobody ever is”, but there's far more to it than that.

The Mancunian began his career as a somewhat reluctant oppositional figure, who was anti-establishment just because he refused to conform to the norms of the day. Nowadays, his controversy has almost become an act - the only thing he can think of doing to make the headlines.

Morrissey's controversy can be divided into quite a few sections. Firstly, there was Morrissey just being Morrissey in the early to mid-eighties. A working class poet with a Wildean talent for the one-liner, he showed a generation of adolescent boys that it was alright to read books, ride bikes and prance about with gladioli. Though Morrissey was far too self-deprecating to be 'proud' of who he was, he was still something of a trailblazer. For example, at a time when the Thatcher government was seemingly at war with homosexuality - particularly over Section 28 - Morrissey's wistful lyrics hinted that love of any kind was worth yearning after.

Then there's the anti-monarchy controversy. Quite a few Morrissey lyrics make fun of the royal family, most conspicuously in The Queen Is Dead, with its "Dear Charles, don't you ever crave/To appear on the front of the Daily Mail/Dressed in your mother's bridal veil?", and its "Her Very Lowness with a head in a sling. I'm truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing".

Yet despite this, and the fact that he is descended from Irish immigrants, Morrissey has always had an ambiguous relationship with 'Englishness', and a certain pre-occupation with 'what it means to be English?' This has led him down some very dodgy paths, and lost him more than a few fans. Songs such as Bengali In Platforms, Asian Rut and The National Front Disco did little to dispel accusations of racism, and neither have the occasions when he has draped himself in the Union Jack, or worn the English flag. In more recent years he has sought to make amends, signing the Unite Against Fascism founding statement and financially supporting Love Music Hate Racism, when a withdrawal of sponsorship for a Victoria Park gig left the organisation struggling to make ends meet. On 2004's Irish Blood, English Heart, he longed for the day when he would be "standing by the flag not feeling shameful/Racist or partial".

That song and that album also showed Morrissey's disgust with the invasion of Iraq, and the reigns of George Bush in the USA and Tony Blair in the UK. But now a resident of Los Angeles, he pulled his lyrical punches significantly, and the results were disappointing to say the least. America Is Not The World seemed critical of the nation's imperial and global hegemonic role, but apparently only because "the president is never black, female or gay". When Bush was succeeded by the even more right-wing but black Barack Obama, Morrissey was more than just taken in, going so far as to model a campaign T-shirt on stage.

Back when his music was good, Meat Is Murder led many to consider vegetarianism, with its evocative combination of lyrical challenges and heart-rending sound effects. These days, as his actual music gets increasingly turgid, Morrissey gets most of his headlines from making inflammatory pronouncements on animal welfare, which perhaps reached its apogee with last Sunday's statement that “We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown, with 97 dead [sic]. Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried shit every day.”

Whereas Morrissey was once concerned with all that is human, he now seems to have withdrawn into a materially comfortable middle age, and his music has suffered for it. The only way for such a boring man to remain in the public eye is to make provocative claims about the suffering of animals. Though he once labelled the Chinese "a subspecies" for their treatment of animals, we will almost certainly wait in vain for his position on China's sweatshops - where humans suffer agonies, or even what life is like for ordinary people back in Manchester. There's being controversial, and then there's being relevant to the lives of those who might want to listen.
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