Morrissey, We're Through

Cameron Cook

In the wake of Moz's James Baldwin T-shirt debacle, this long-term Smiths fan wonders if it's finally time to break up with his hero.

Myself and three of my closest friends have a Whatsapp group where we constantly riff on music, pop culture, and politics. All of us are black, and throughout our friendship we have adopted certain slang and reference points that color our daily conversations. One of the most prominent is "blipster," a phrase we started using after passing around an obtuse and unintentionally hilarious 2007 NY Times profile on the rise of the "black hipster," African Americans who—imagine it!—listened to indie rock, wore Converse, and hung out in music venues on the Lower East Side. We found the piece sarcastically funny; black people, or any other minority for that matter, aren't defined by how we consume culture or how we are perceived within that culture. My friends and I were completely bemused that a white journalist could construct a subdivision of our community based on something as random as our shared admiration for Nirvana.

The truth is, indie music has always been overwhelmingly white, and like most overwhelmingly white spaces, people of color always have to check both ourselves and other participants when operating within them. Race isn't something you turn off simply because you're shoulder deep in a mosh pit or wading through the mud at a festival. At one period of my life I was going to a few shows a week in New York City, one of the most diverse places on the planet, and there were points where I could go to several events without encountering another black person in the crowd, let alone on stage. When confronted with such a dearth of diversity, it's completely normal to become hyper-aware of any racial transgression or discrimination, down to the slightest remark. In order to have fun, to not be discarded, labeled a "blipster" or worse, you develop a no-tolerance policy as a matter of survival, even with your favorite artists.

Which brings me to Morrissey.

The first time I saw Morrissey, I was immediately charmed. I had just gotten MTV2 on the tiny TV in my teenage bedroom, back when the channel had little actual programming and would televise old episodes of 120 Minutes and Alt Nation. One afternoon, the video for "The Boy With a Thorn in His Side"–—not even The Smiths' best or most popular song—came on and I was utterly transfixed by this strange, yet also somehow everyday character. Morrissey stood in all his coy, gyrating glory, wearing not one, but two unbuttoned purple shirts while whimpering to the camera about youthful bodies pierced by organic foreign objects. It was as if he had been scientifically engineered to appeal to gay 16-year-old boys. Two things were happening simultaneously for me during that period: firstly, I was extraordinarily bookish, and a pop idol that threw around big words and quoted Oscar Wilde as if he were scripture was something I didn't know existed and was in desperate need of. Secondly, I was searching, through my love of music, to anchor myself in my budding sexuality, and anything that registered as camp and weird, that I could adopt and emulate, scored big points. For a lot of gay kids, it was Bowie, or Queen, or Broadway musicals—for better or for worse, for me, it was Morrissey.

Within weeks I had gone from novice to superfan, saving up my money to buy every Smiths and Morrissey record I could find, down to the most obscure Japanese import CD singles. I began to amass a sizeable T-shirt collection, first from eBay, and then at his shows, after I attended the first night of his 2004 comeback tour (I was still an intern at a record label, and skipped lunch for a week to buy orchestra seats). There was a point where I would meet up with total strangers at shows because they had heard I'd be "the black kid in the Morrissey shirt"—and that is in no way an exaggeration. My obsession preceded me.

Last week, Morrissey debuted a new T-shirt design on this official website, to be sold on his upcoming US tour (it has since been pulled from his online store). The shirt featured a portrait of the revered African American (and homosexual) writer and activist James Baldwin, his stern face encircled by the lyric "I Wear Black On the Outside, 'Cause Black Is How I Feel on the Inside" from the Smiths song "Unloveable." Baldwin's withering stare, peering from the T-shirt in a state of severe exasperation, is ironically àpropos. He's an iconic figure of a struggle that is painfully still very relevant today, and a white man coopting his image for commercial gain is, however you cut it, plainly offensive. Also, the chosen lyric couldn't possibly be more dense. "Unloveable" is a song about the maudlin, teenage self-deprecation Morrissey has embodied since the beginning of his career, and equating Baldwin's tireless civil rights campaigning to being a little bit goth is preposterous to the extreme. Baldwin doesn't wear black on the outside, he is black on the outside, and the color of his skin was the central tenet of his work and identity in an era where black people were being routinely harassed, assaulted, and killed because of their race. The whole ordeal was just in flabbergasting poor taste, and left me, a lifelong fan, with a simple question: Why am I still putting up with this shit?

As every Morrissey die-hard knows, this is far from his first brush with controversy, specifically when it comes to race. Despite a few statements of denial on his part (more on those later), there exists a laundry list of offenses that range from mild to outrageous, all centered around the bizarre relationship he has with his perception of racial minorities, and it has long since passed the threshold of acceptability. My first real inkling that there was something fairly wrong was while reading Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, an unofficial biography written in the early 90s, a few years after the Smiths split up and Morrissey had positioned himself as a solo star. Well-known to fans, the book is full of explosive quotes of indeterminate origin (to the point that Morrissey himself once said the he hoped the author, Johnny Rogan, "ends his days very soon in an M3 pile-up"). One passage purports that a teenage Morrissey once declared, "I don't hate Pakistanis, but I dislike them immensely." There's the 1984 quote from a British music magazine that follows him around to this day: "All reggae is vile." (So far, the only official statement I can find from Morrissey on that matter is from a 2012 Brazilian interview where he states the comment was in jest). Conscientious Morrissey fans are constantly playing this game of rhetorical whack-a-mole, trying to find ways to refute comments that are casually ignorant at best, deliberately harmful at worst.

There was the infamous set opening for Madness in 1992, when Morrissey waved a Union Jack around the stage—an image that would have been perfectly acceptable a few years later during the heyday of Britpop, but was relatively tone-deaf when Madness' skinhead fans were taken into account. Morrissey has made careless and questionable remarks not only in passing interviews, but in his songs as well, which for such a deft lyricist seems extra condemning. Many of his lyrics rely on ambiguity, and unfortunately, when it comes to a subject as delicate as race, it's best to be as clear as possible. The most egregious example that is routinely brought up is "Bengali in Platforms," a track from his first solo album, Viva Hate. The song describes an Indian man who has emigrated to Britain and finds himself alone and isolated, unsuccessfully trying to assimilate to the foreign environment. Much like the Baldwin shirt, its the projection of Morrissey's personal emotional quandaries onto the real lived experiences of racial minorities that is the most troubling. When he sings "Shelve your Western plans, and understand / That life is hard enough when you belong here," the implication is either that the Bengali doesn't belong in England, or that Morrissey is equating his own plight of rejection and general Morrissey-ness to that of a struggling immigrant. Neither is particularly compassionate.

As I learned more and more about these transgressions, a pit began to widen in my chest whenever I would seriously consider my appreciation for my favorite artist. Viscerally, his music still filled me with joy, but as someone who makes a point to call out racist behavior when I see it, the growing sense of unease was becoming unbearable. Sadly, I experienced one of Morrissey's backhanded quips firsthand during a show at Radio City Music Hall in 2012, when he cynically relayed an anecdote to the audience about having finally found a cab driver in New York who "speaks English". A stunned groan rose from the entire crowd, like the opposite of the wave at a soccer game. Sitting in the mezzanine with a few friends, I was gutted. I could no longer pretend that my idol was irrefutably on my side, that all his songs I had quoted and sang along to and doodled in the margins of my high school notebooks were mine. After the concert, I texted one of my friends who had been there to make sure Morrissey's comment had really meant what we all thought it meant, even though I knew the answer. "Yeah," he replied. "It was horrible."

In the spirit of fairness, Morrissey's relationship with race hasn't been completely shambolic from start to finish. He has a well-documented bond with Mexico, and Mexican-Americans: not only is there an an all-Mexican cover band called Mexrrisey, who sing his songs in Spanish, but there's also Jose Maldonado, dubbed the Mexican Morrissey, who fronts The Smiths tribute band Sweet and Tender Hooligans. If his Mexican fans are taking umbrage with his views, they're keeping schtum. In 2007, Morrissey penned an op-ed for The Guardian in response to an NME interview where he claimed his words regarding British immigration had been taken out of context (the magazine apologized when threatened with a libel suit). In the op-ed, Morrissey says, "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." He also reportedly donated £28,000 to the charity Love Music Hate Racism off the back of the controversy. Which is all well and good, but in the thirtysomething years that this particular dispute has been plaguing his career, this is more or less the only surefire, quantifiable example of an explicitly anti-racist stance Morrissey has taken publicly.

We live in an age where artists and celebrities are being held accountable, in minute detail, to the things they do and say. With social media backlash and 24-hour news cycles, there's a vigorous incentive to be on the progressive side of social issues, and in my view, these are welcome restrictions. None of us can really put into words why the art we enjoy touches us the way that it does, and in the same way, we can't always explain why a certain experience makes us fall out of love with an artist. Some people can no longer appreciate Annie Hall without being disgusted by Woody Allen's alleged child molestation charges. Others don't listen to R. Kelly, can't sit through a Roman Polanski film, or won't get down to the newest Chris Brown track. And why should they? If these are issues that are dear to our hearts and matter in our lives, are we engaging in some sort of shameful compromise if we don't cut these artists out of our lives for good?

And yet, even after everything I've detailed above, I still can't quit Morrissey cold turkey. Maybe I've just listened to his songs so often, during so many difficult times in my life that they've somehow become a part of my emotional DNA. Where my once unconditional love for Morrissey has definitely waned since my teenage years, I can't unequivocally say that I will never listen to The Queen Is Dead or leave the house in one of my many tour T-shirts.
Instead of a volcanic breakup, it's more of a slow, glacial divorce—not buying his most recent album when a decade ago I would have been the first in line; not spending that extra hundred bucks on concert tickets for an artist that may or may not share some of my most deep-rooted ideals. It could be that, now on the other side of 30, my interest in Morrissey would have wilted somewhat anyway, but the Baldwin incident feels like yet another nail in a coffin it may be time to finally bury.

I saw Morrissey two more times after the Radio City concert, once at Madison Square Garden, and once at Fuck Yeah Fest in Los Angeles, both in 2015 (although, full disclosure, I didn't pay for either show). At MSG, when he was firing on all cylinders, performing hits like "Everyday Is Like Sunday," the entire place lit up like a million fireworks—one of those incredible live concert moments where every member of the audience is singing and breathing in unison. It reminded me of why I had been such a huge fan in the first place. Morrissey's songs are so popular and special because, at their best, they tap into that universal sense of alienation, self-doubt, and pain that we all experience during the most vulnerable times in our lives. But during both of those shows, those transcendent moments were fleeting. More often than not, they were muddled with obscure album tracks and lackluster sing-alongs from an increasingly unfocused crowd. Before the end of the MSG show, a few people were heckling, pleading for a the solid string of favorites Morrissey could easily provide if he felt so inclined. Even though I was disappointed, I still stood in line and bought a T-shirt for my collection. When the friend who had taken me to the show and I left the venue, it was dumping rain. As we crossed 7th Avenue, I turned to her and said, "I think I'm done." She nodded.

Life is hard enough when you belong here.

Follow Cameron Cook on Twitter.

Illustratration by Efi Chalikopoulou.