Tuesday 28 November 2017

We need to talk about Steven

It isn't easy being a Morrissey fan. It never has been, but it's harder in 2017 than ever. Allegations of racism have dogged him since the early 90s, when lyrics like "Life is hard enough when you belong here" (Bengali In Platforms) were seemingly open to (mis)interpretation, and when Moz took to the stage at Madstock to sing National Front Disco whilst waving a Union Flag around. A couple of years later, the flag was appropriated by everyone from Geri Halliwell to Noel Gallagher and the whole Cool Britannia thing, and no-one batted an eyelid - maybe Wannabe is less thought-provoking lyrical matter.

Perhaps it's just a case of mud sticking, or Britain's national trait of wanting to take someone successful down, but this issue has never really gone away. Maybe this is understandable, when people can interpret lyrics any way they choose. If only the man would offer up a categorical statement one way or the other on the subject? Something like this, maybe:

"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. Racism is beyond common sense and I believe it has no place in our society." [Source]

Now, for editorial balance, I should add that this statement was issued after the NME published an interview with the Pope of Mope, in which he said Britain had lost its identity and had been "flooded" with immigrants. Is it possible, you might reasonably wonder, to hold quite such an abhorrence of racism in all its forms, whilst believing the country has lost its identity in this way? And if it is possible, how valid is that view if held by someone who divides his time variously between numerous other countries but spends comparatively little time in the country he seems so concerned about? What did he actually say?

"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. If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won't hear an English accent. You'll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent." [Source]

Blimey. Doesn't have anything against people from other countries. Does have concerns about the British identity disappearing. At first glance, these two views don't correlate, do they, unless you're one of those people who say things like "I'm not racist but..." Except I don't have Morrissey down as that sort of person. You may think me naïve for this. That's okay. Maybe I am. I just think that if Steven had made a plain statement of fact, along the lines of "The introduction of other cultures into British culture by definition changes that culture from what it was", no-one would have batted an eyelid. But that's not Morrissey. He can't help himself. He wants to provide a quotable soundbite. He wants a headline. And most of all, as Rol argued brilliantly last week, he can't help but challenge us all to think about difficult issues, in a way few other social commentators do these days.

Three years later, he was seemingly at it again. Discussing China's animal welfare record, Moz opined:

"Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies." [Source]

At best, a spectacularly crass statement. But as interviewer Simon Armitage later commented, "I thought at the time it was a dangerous thing to say into a tape recorder. He must have known it would make waves, he's not daft. But he's provocative and theatrical, and it was one of dozens of dramatic pronouncements. I'm not an apologist for that kind of remark, and couldn't ignore it. But clearly, when it comes to animal rights and animal welfare, he's absolutely unshakable in his beliefs. In his view, if you treat an animal badly, you are less than human. I think that was his point." Which is interesting. If you or I try to make a dramatic pronouncement and it goes awry, however well intentioned, no-one cares. If someone like Morrissey does so, it makes headlines. And headlines sell. Does Morrissey genuinely believe the Chinese are a subspecies? I very much doubt it. Does he think there is a lot of inhuman treatment of animals in China? Certainly. Did his "dramatic pronouncement" get people talking about the issue? Most definitely. Moz himself, whilst not apologising, later clarified his view by describing the Chinese attitude towards animal welfare as "indefensible". Not many would have a problem with that, I'd imagine. But it wouldn't have made waves either.

And on it goes. Earlier this year, there was T-shirt-gate, when Moz - then manager-less, label-less and album-less - added a T-shirt featuring black civil rights activist James Baldwin to his merchandise offering. On the shirt, Baldwin was surrounded by lyrics from Unloveable, specifically: "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside." Cue a Twitter-storm of outrage, and the withdrawal of the t-shirt. And more recently, during a live broadcast for 6 Music, Morrissey offered up the opinion that the British media had rigged the UKIP leadership election. The reaction from the audience (mostly devoted fans who had entered a ballot to win precious tickets) was deafening silence.

I think the UKIP comment between songs is the most telling of all. "You didn't get it, did you?" were the next words out of Morrissey's mouth. In his mind, he'd just made some kind of joke. Was it about UKIP? Or about the British media? We'll never know, as he has been characteristically close-lipped about it all. But to me, this comparatively minor indiscretion is the perfect illustration of so many of Morrissey's problems: he thinks he's being clever, arch, pointed, witty, incisive, provocative. And yet, quite often, he's being gauche, clumsy, naïve, ill-judged... and yes, provocative. It's no surprise that most of his problems arise in interviews or in live, spontaneous settings, where he can't rehearse, revise and tweak his pronouncements. And when you're someone with fans around the world who hang on your every word, the temptation to make those pronouncements dramatic must be hard to resist. What you probably need in such situations is someone to rein you in, but I get the feeling that it's been a long time since anyone told Morrissey "no".

Most recently of all is Steven's alleged defence of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. An interview (again, see?) given to a German journalist, presumably in English, is translated into German for publication. Excerpts from that interview get translated back into English, apparently using Google Translate, and, unsurprisingly, something gets lost along the way. Whatever the circumstance, Der Spiegel quotes Morrissey as saying:

"One wonders where the boy’s parents were. One wonders if the boy did not know what would happen. I do not know about you, but in my youth I have never been in situations like this. Never. I was always aware of what could happen. When you are in somebody’s bedroom, you have to be aware of where that can lead to. That’s why it does not sound very credible to me. It seems to me that Spacey has been attacked unnecessarily." [Source]

Which probably wouldn't have raised too many eyebrows without that coda; I'm sure a lot of people have wondered (to themselves, not to a German news agency) where the boy's parents were. Not sure too many have come to the conclusion that Spacey has been attacked unnecessarily. So, pretty bad, eh Moz?

Except, at a gig earlier this week, Morrissey offered up a pronouncement that was, perhaps, more rehearsed than most. Between songs at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre on Saturday, Moz appeared to deny that he had made those comments about Spacey, telling the crowd:

"I did an interview a couple of weeks ago for a German newspaper and, of course, let me just say this: that was the last print interview I will ever do. Unless you see the words form in my mouth and then you see or hear the words come out of my mouth... please, if you don’t see that, I didn’t say them." [Source]

And the irony of all this recent controversy, and the resurrection of the whole "is Morrissey racist?" debate is that it comes as he releases the most outward-looking, cosmopolitan, global album of his career, singing with passion and feeling about the Arab Spring, Tel-Aviv, Israel, Venezuela, fake news, Brexit and a propagandising mainstream media. He's not just singing about his life any more, but the wider world, more than ever. Introspective, insular old Moz got empathy, on a global scale.

Of course, Steven doesn't help himself. In the pixelated world we all live in these days, when someone says something social media disapproves of, the keyboard warriors of the world expect the Sacco model of public shaming to play out; they demand contrition, apologies and ruination. But Moz does not comply. He's neither contrite nor apologetic, he only ever explains or clarifies. And far from ruination, he continues to sell plenty of records, and sell out concert venues around the globe. I fear this just makes some amongst the professionally outraged more determined to "get him" next time. Luckily for them, there will almost certainly be a next time.

I know there are some who have had enough of Morrissey, including bloggers I very much admire and respect, and musicians I love (notably Martin Rossiter). And I'm very much aware that I sound like the biggest Morrissey apologist imaginable. So let me add this. Do I agree with everything Morrissey says? No, of course not. As I hope I've shown, he's often gauche, ill-judged, misinformed, naïve and more than a bit crass. I'm certainly not one of those fans who hangs on his every word either. Do some of the sentiments he expresses make me uncomfortable? Yes, absolutely, especially those that cannot be explained away with rational scrutiny. In fact, do I think Moz is a bit of a berk sometimes? Yes. But do I think he's a racist? No, I don't. I think he strives to be profound, relevant, wise and/or funny, in making pronouncements about serious or topical issues, but whilst the thoughts are clear in his head, I believe he struggles to articulate them in a clear and unambiguous way. Or maybe I'm being too kind - maybe that ambiguity is deliberate, fuelling the Morrissey myth which, if you've lived within it for 35 years, must be tempting to keep burning. Either way, as the t-shirt once said, "It's Morrissey's world, we just live in it." Live in it we may do, but we just don't get it, do we?

Maybe one day the scales will fall from my eyes, and I'll have had enough of Steven too. But for now, I am content to continue my appreciation of the man and his music. Low In High School (complete with the "axe the monarchy" cover that has so upset certain UK retailers) is my album of the year, without question, and I am very excited to have a ticket to see the man in person at a gig in the Spring. I appreciate you may have a different view, and that's fine too. I didn't write this to change anyone's mind. Unlike Rol's brilliant post from last week, I don't seem to have reached a conclusion or summarised a cogent argument either. Never mind. Maybe I'd better just end with Morrissey doing what he's always done best - delivering a song.


  1. Really enjoyed this, Martin, so brilliantly articulated and so many excellent points well made, a really satisfying read. My response to this is much the same as I said re. Rol's post - I'm in agreement with you both about some of the crass things that have come out of Morrissey's mouth (or allegedly so?) and that he is often flawed in his judgement but I don't believe he could ever be truly racist or misogynist. The only time I remember seeing him being interviewed on TV he seemed really nervous, childlike almost, certainly uncomfortable, and I can easily imagine that his gaucheness and naivete are symptomatic of that. (To be honest it's how I've heard myself sometimes too in situations where there's high expectation - nerves and embarrassment making words come out of my mouth that I didn't expect to, sometimes just the stupidest things, whilst the thoughts or opinions I did want to express so carefully just evaporate! One of the many difficult aspects to being shy. Thank god I'm not famous, I'd never cope!)
    As you say, Morrissey's natural tendency towards the dramatic and theatrical certainly add to the problem - the unfortunate trade-off for his poetic accentuation which works so well lyrically.
    Anyway I think you've put your points across so well; no need for me to say any more - as with Rol's piece I got an awful lot of out of reading this, so thank you.

    1. Thanks, C, I appreciate that. I was a little worried about this post (which is partly why I buried its publication late last night, knowing that other bloggers' morning posts would push me down the metaphorical blogroll). Not least because there is now more anti-Moz feeling in the blogosphere than ever. This feels like putting my head up above the parapet (although regular readers can be in no doubt, surely, as to my opinion of the man). I also worried that I just seemed to be excusing Moz, rather than making a counter argument, much like you'd excuse an elderly but beloved relative who clings to the Daily Mail. What also worried me (I'm such a worrier) is that there were other incidents I didn't touch on, like Morrissey's response to the Manchester Arena bomb, and others. I also started to sidetrack into a speculation that Morrissey may have Asperger's, but I'm not a fan of remote diagnosis and I can't evidence that theory, nor did I want to conflate Asperger's with crass pronouncements, so I back-pedalled. But having finally gotten around to watching the Chris Packham documentary, I do wonder if Moz is somewhere on the same spectrum.

    2. I'm glad you published it and put forward a counter-argument for consideration; regardless of whether or not it changes anyone's opinion completely or partly, it adds balance and we need that. With the way things are online, people closing ranks and worrying about being seen to be something they're not, it's easier to keep quiet and just appear to go with the flow but that's exactly the problem....
      Very interesting that you mentioned Chris Packham - he having been vilified and created controvery so many times for things he's expressed. I hadn't even thought of the similarities before but I think there's definitely something there - where the sentiment makes some sense, when looked at as part of a much bigger picture, but the wording sounds awful when it just comes out as a headline and everyone goes nuts...e.g. "there are too many cats in the UK" and "..we should stop chasing cures for cancer..."
      But again, it gets people thinking and talking and we need some dissenting voices to help us look at life through different lenses, turn things on their head, etc. when it feels like we've all been conditioned to believe there is only one version of 'good' and of 'bad'.

    3. He certainly meets the need for a dissenting voice!

  2. His response to the arena bombing was very poor- among many other pronouncements. I do find it difficult to give him any time at the moment. And its increasingly difficult to reconcile the empathetic, outside voice of the Smiths songs with the views he's whipped out recently. Ill judged at best I think. At worst...

    1. I hear you, Adam, and agree that it's increasingly difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. It irks me that he is almost wilfully unclear, as if he doesn't care if observers understand him or not. I'd welcome a few more unequivocal statements from him, for sure.

  3. Interesting about his response to the interview, I hadn't heard that. It ties in with what he claims, repeatedly, in his autobiography that he is often misquoted by the press for their own ends. I know this could partly be Moz-paranoia, but I think there's truth in it too. As I said, if you get a Morrissey interview and you don't get him to say something contentious (even when you ask him pointed questions about topically controversial subjects that really HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM), you would surely be the laughing stock of the 4th estate. It's like going upstairs with someone at a party and nothing happening. The temptation to embellish the details to your mates is great.

    I agree with your summary of the racist argument completely though. I always thought that line in Bengali In Platforms was Morrissey trying to identify with the outsider by using the insults that are thrown against them in their defence. But such a crafty use of language is far too clever for a lot of people. (I do also agree though that he's not half as clever as he thinks he is a lot of the time, and this is where he comes a bit unstuck.)

    1. I think there's some truth in the media exploitation angle too.

      Lyrical issues like Bengali are tricky. Everyone loves a clever Morrissey lyric, everyone. But when, like you say, he's not quite as clever as he likes to think he is, those same admirers are quick to jump in and stir the pot.

  4. I think my biggest objection to Morrissey these days may be his reluctance to keep his shirt buttoned (or, indeed, wear one in the first place). Men of a certain age should keep it under wraps.

    1. Ha, yes, especially in this new video for Jacky...