The Case Against Morrissey

In Opinion on September 4, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Before anyone accuses me of absolute ‘heresy’ (more later), I do like some of The Smiths’ songs; the breezy ‘Charming Man’, the urgency of ‘How Soon is Now?’ and the romance of ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. As such, most of what I write is directed as Morrissey and his solo output. To me, the vast majority of his music post-Smiths canon is mediocre indie music, vastly overrated due to the almost godly reputation accrued during the Smiths. Admittedly, Morrissey’s music largely bypassed me for much of my life as I have either been too unborn, young or engrossed in chart R&B/dance to hear them at the time. Thus, I perhaps judge it more harshly for ‘coming second’ to music he probably actually influenced. Similarly, I don’t worship at the feet of The Libertines or The Strokes like many do. This hasn’t stopped me loving other much-loved and imitated oldies though (The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin to name a few).

So, detached from any particular cultural or personal significance (no to mention the technical genius of Johnny Marr), Morrissey’s music just seems drab. It’s asking a lot for fans to put themselves in this position, but do try it. For me, the majority his solo oeuvre is just depressing; the lyrics and their delivery self-important, posturing and fatally narcissistic and the instrumentation plodding, unvaried, mid-tempo fare. His trademark unrhythmic, out-of-kilter singing, as if he’s largely too good to get embroiled in piffling considerations such as melodies and harmonies, also irks. In a word, I think it’s dirge. As hinted at, if he were to make music now devoid of his reputation and influence (hypothethical, I know), I feel he would be far more labelled as ‘mediocre’ and ‘generic’. Even some of his fans claimed that many albums were ‘plagued’ by a Morrissey ‘uni-song’, as fan and critic Douglas Coupland put it.

Many a ‘Mozzaholic’ (‘Mozzie’? ‘Moz’turbator’?) will claim that this is ‘common misinterpretation’ of Mozza’s work (note not a different interpretation, but just plain wrong). Many claim his oeuvre in fact encompasses the whole gamut of human emotion and/or there is actually a lot of hope in his despair, especially in the sharing of this with fans who believe to be or are in similar situations. All I really hear is moaning though. See the song titles: People Are the Same Everywhere, Life is a Pigsty, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Everyday is Like Sunday, We Hate it When our Friends Become Successful, You Have Killed Me and Satan Rejected My Soul. Viewing the lyrics plain, there is some arguable optimism. Though, for me, even this is strangled out by the drab instrumentation, Morrissey’s humourless delivery and his seemingly pathological desire to see dark in any light. Take To Me You Are a Work of Art, in which Mozza sees someone who can “soothe” him in a world that “makes (him) puke”: “To me you are a work of art, And I would give you my heart, But that’s if I had one”. At times, it appears he actively cultivates this ‘moaning’ image and sound (I picture him trying overcome writer’s block with exhortations to “EMOTE!”).

The most striking example of this is How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel.   (if you are short on time, for this paragraph, read: ‘Morrissey needs to lighten up and enjoy his great life’). I suppose he’s technically not wrong with the title as his extreme emotional landscape certainly makes him unique, arguably ‘emotionally incontinent’, but it’s the spiteful, self-importance that gets me. He claims a woman “must be insane” for telling him she loved him and “their judgement is crazy” for saying “they respect him”. He claims to dislike having his “face dragged in fifteen miles of shit”, but his pithy spurning of close one’s love and respect personally leaves little sympathy and even suggests a kind of artistic sell-flagellation. Also, in Panic, he calls for the burning down of the disco and the hanging of the DJ for merely playing music that says nothing about to him about his life. Bit much, no? Morrissey’s music doesn’t speak to me, but I’m not calling for his head. Now I understand artistic licence and know these are just two songs, but I feel they’re symptomatic of his oeuvre of (generally) self-absorbed misery, which personally runs contrary to his moneyed and adored status. I recognise these are not the be all and end all for personal happiness, but I have little sympathy for those who intentionally reject the love/support of others and outcast themselves in personal woes, as I feel Morrissey does.

An argument that a Mozzaholic may advance at this point is that people such as myself must then just prefer asinine, vacuous, ‘untaxing’ music, often by definition of disliking Morrissey. I do like my fair share of music typically fitting this bill, but also much which is commonly labelled ‘depressing’/’taxing’, such as Arcade Fire, Radiohead and Muse. So I don’t think it’s fair to tar to with this brush.

While I think, when read properly, his comments on immigration causing a loss of British identity aren’t ‘racist’ as they are often derided, I do disagree with many of his personal views, or at least the way he expresses them. Most notably his forthright views on animal rights, which are frequently expressed with great insensitivity. There’s his belief in violent activism, his labelling of the Chinese as a ‘subspecies’ for their animal treatment and most recently his comments on the Norway deaths being ‘nothing’ compared to the daily actions of McDonalds and ‘Kentucky Fried Shit’. I don’t really agree with his views, but my main issue with them is the insensitivity. I am not denying his right to say it, but personally it show him in a very unfavourable light that he is willing to essentially hijack a tragedy which still burns very raw to advance his own ethical views.

I’m also not saying that you have to share similar interests or personality traits in order to like someone’s music, because for me that’s the point of music; to figuratively take you to different places, emotional or conceptual. Since you’re kind of inviting the band/artists into your ear, though, I do think they need to be the kind of people you’d happily invite to a party. A bit of a weird analogy, granted, but it works for all the bands/artists I like that I’ve it applied to (from the impression I get of them). I wouldn’t want Morrissey at my party because I feel that he’d just moan about his problems, yet downright scorn any consolatory, empathetic gestures, and then hog the dance floor for a few songs with his trademark swinging arms.

So, it’s fair to say that I don’t care much for Morrissey as a singer, nor much as a person from the impression I get. But this makes him no different from other bands/artists that I hate. What differentiates my disdain for Mozza is his, or probably more accurately many of his fans’, humourless objection to any criticism in what is a particularly free medium in a democratic society. This is what I was angrily met with in the aforementioned argument when I had the…’temerity’, I suppose to criticise Morrissey. With some, it’s not just the disparate views, but the very fact that they are expressed;’ blasphemy’ essentially. The most ridiculous and baffling with me was the assertion that my dislike of Morrissey necessarily meant ‘I did not love music’. This is analogous to telling your mate that he does not really love that girl because she is ‘ugly’ and ‘nasty’. The person saying it may never love that girl or understand why their friend does, but, in an ironically Morrissey-esque way, they’re his emotions so he can’t be wrong. This vicious objection is a trait typical of Morrissey fandom which I find second only to that other ‘muso’ cliché – ‘the Bob Dylan fan’.  It’s not just a personal thing either because, doing some research, I stumbled on a whole academic paper devoted to examining the phenomenon: ‘Morrissey-solo or Morrissey “So Low”? Exploring the Rhetoric of Hate in Defense of the One They Love’. This claims in its synopsis: ‘the suggestion that the admired (Morrissey) might be humanly fallible is met with vitriol’.

This annoys me far more as a general philosophical point. One of the most important principles for prosperous societies is democracy; founded upon oft-quoted (summarised) Voltaire quote: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Yes, at least on the surface, slagging off a musician on the internet is far less important than this, but I don’t see why the same principles shouldn’t be applied.

This is especially due to the idea held by myself and many others that music is a very subjective art; nothing like mathematics where 2+2 absolutely equals 4. I think music can’t be viewed in a vacuum whereby it is judged purely on its technical form (quality of the playing, lyrics etc); for me it is so much about the political, emotional context in which it was written and received and the connection it has with the listeners. This means that while I think the majority of Morrissey’s solo output is ‘dull’, I don’t have what I see as the intellectual/cultural arrogance to say those who interpret it differently necessarily have defective ears. There is a huge diversity of musical tastes in the world. Is everyone who interprets a song differently or disagrees with another objectively wrong and not a music lover?! I don’t think so.

This assertion doesn’t solely work for artists I dislike either. I generally like Kanye West, but was irked by his disclaimer on his new video stating ‘it shall not be interpreted as derogatory to any peoples in any way’. My mental reaction to this was: ’well, Kanye, it’s art which you have put out there for public consumption, so I will interpret how I wish, thank you very much’ (for the record, I didn’t actually find it too derogatory). Also, I love Arcade Fire and Radiohead, but can understand the ‘whiny, self-indulgent’ tag; like the Pipettes and much ‘pop’, but understand the ‘shallow’ tag; love The Arctic Monkeys, but understand the ‘generic’ tag etc. etc.  There are problems with this subjectivist/relativist view, but I think it’s generally far more plausible than the opposite, at least when it comes to music.

Essentially, I think Morrissey’s music is dull and the man dislikable, but what I object more to is the idea held by some fans (directly or indirectly) that I have no right to say this. I do and I just have.

Joel Durston

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