“Refusing to take the path of least resistance when it comes to his career, Morrissey is the antithesis of the cookie-cutter ‘artists’ favored and propped up by the modern music industry.”
orrissey’s You Are the Quarry album turns 20 this year. It was also the first record I ever heard by the iconic singer from Manchester, whose haunting vocal melodies and witty, introspective lyrics have captured the imagination of generations of fans. “Here is somebody who is able to encapsulate a lot of deep thought, gloss it with irony, and then repackage it with emotion,” the writer Will Self once said about the legendary recording artist.
After hearing You Are the Quarry for the first time, I soon found out that “Moz,” as he is known to his fans, first appeared on the music scene in 1982 with his seminal proto-indie outfit, The Smiths. As a solo artist, he had three number one albums in England in three different decades. I also quickly discovered that Morrissey was no stranger to controversy. The outspoken frontman survived multiple cancellation attempts throughout his career. And he never apologized.
Morrissey has always been a contrarian. Album titles such as Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead and songs like “Margaret on the Guillotine” set him apart from his pop contemporaries in the 1980s. A staunch anti-Royalist, anti-Thatcherite, and animal rights advocate, he quickly became something of a darling of the left-leaning music press in England. But the moment he offended progressive sensitivities, he faced accusations of racism and fascism.
The first such incident stemmed from a song on Morrissey’s 1988 solo debut, Viva Hate. (Attempts to smear The Smiths’ 1986 hit “Panic” as racist because the lyric “Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ” allegedly attacked dance music and, therefore black people, never gained traction.) In “Bengali in Platforms,” the lyrical speaker tells the eponymous immigrant to “shelve [his] Western plans and understand that life is hard enough when you belong here.” But while the lyrics ostensibly speak to the difficulties of cultural assimilation, they are better understood in the context of being an outsider, a theme that looms large in Morrissey’s oeuvre. In the words of literary scholar Gavin Hobbs, “there is more of Morrissey on the side of the Bengali than on the side of the speaker.” To interpret the song as racist is more than a stretch.
“Bengali in Platforms,” however, was only the beginning. In 1992, the New Musical Express (NME) launched an all-out attack on Morrissey for flying the Union Jack during a festival performance at London’s Finsbury Park. The British national flag was associated with far-right extremism, and so Morrissey was accused of “fanning the flames of race-hatred.” His only crime, however, was that he was ahead of his time: “Within a couple of years,” argues Morrissey/The Smiths encyclopedist Simon Goddard, “the same flag would be embraced by the UK music industry in celebration of Britpop.” Some critics also foolishly confused the subject matter of the song “The National Front Disco” from 1992’s Your Arsenal with an endorsement. “Not everybody is absolutely stupid,” the singer remarked a decade after the Finsbury Park incident. “Why on Earth would I be racist? What would I be trying to achieve?”
More recent “racist” incidents include a poorly translated and heavily-edited 2017 interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, in which Morrissey lamented European countries’ loss of cultural identity due to mass immigration and multiculturalism (listen to the original audio here), and his support for anti-Islamist activist Anne Marie Waters’s For Britain party in 2018: “I despise racism. I despise fascism. I would do anything for my Muslim friends, and I know they would do anything for me. In view of this, there is only one British political party that can safeguard our security. That party is For Britain.” Morrissey doubled down by appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon wearing a For Britain badge in 2019. The clip was quickly memory-holed.
Back in England, railway operator Merseyrail reacted by removing posters advertising Morrissey’s California Son album from its services and stations after a commuter had complained. Apparently, the singer’s controversial views did not align with “the organisation’s values”: “We apologise for any offence the publication of these posters may have caused.” The adverts, however, were free of political content. In fact, being a cover album, 2019’s California Son did not even contain any lyrics written by Morrissey. And who made Merseyrail the arbiter of acceptable political opinion? Surely, public transport providers ought to be ideologically unbiased, seeing that they serve people from across the political spectrum. Their focus should be on punctuality, reliability, and passenger safety and not ideology.
The idea that only artists with impeccable left-wing credentials, who toe the progressive party line at every turn, deserve a place in the public realm borders on the totalitarian. Shortly after Merseyrail’s decision, Morrissey stated, “With voice extended to breaking point, I call for the prosperity of free speech; the eradication of totalitarian control; I call for diversity of opinion.” We do not have to agree with everything Morrissey says or does to appreciate this sentiment and value the fact that he is not afraid to voice unpopular opinions. To quote the writer Fiona Dodwell, “any artists of the future who have something real to say, will only have a voice to do so because of trailblazers who have fought and paved the way.”
Refusing to take the path of least resistance when it comes to his career, Morrissey is the antithesis of the cookie-cutter “artists” favored and propped up by the modern music industry. As he put it in You Are the Quarry’s “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,”
“…it’s just more lock-jawed pop stars
Thicker than pig-shit
Nothing to convey
So scared to show intelligence
It might smear their lovely career”
A recent case in point is the title track of the unreleased Bonfire of Teenagers. The melancholic ballad addresses the Manchester Arena bombing, which killed 22 people and injured 1,017 at the Ariana Grande concert on May 22, 2017. Morrissey, who was in town celebrating his 58th birthday that night, took to Facebook the next day to vent his anger, in particular over the political establishment’s failure to call a spade a spade: “Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says the attack is the work of an ‘extremist.’ An extreme what? An extreme rabbit?” The suicide bomber’s Muslim background and Islamist ideology were swept under the rug in favor of reassuring platitudes. These are some of the lyrics to “Bonfire of Teenagers”:
“Bonfire of teenagers
Which is so high in May north-west sky
Oh, you should’ve seen her leave for the arena
On the way, she turned and waved and smiled, ‘Goodbye’
And the silly people sing, ‘Don’t look back in anger’
And the morons sing and sway, ‘Don’t look back in anger’
I can assure you I will look back in anger ‘till the day I die”
The song’s subject matter may have been a reason why Capitol Records decided to shelve the eagerly awaited album, depriving legions of fans of Morrissey’s latest offering. We now live in a world in which self-appointed gatekeepers have made it their business to shield the public not only from offensive content but also from art created by people with disfavored views. But as the singer and songwriter Nick Cave has rightly pointed out, “we cannot overlook the fact that [Morrissey] has written a vast and extraordinary catalogue, which has enhanced the lives of his many fans beyond recognition…He has created original and distinctive works of unparalleled beauty, that will long outlast his offending political alliances.”
Despite numerous attempts to suppress Morrissey’s art on ideological grounds, the unapologetic music legend still sells out concert halls around the globe and continues to touch lives every day. Rather than defer to and appease the mob, those facing cancelation today would be well advised to take a page out of the book of Moz.
Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch