How Morrissey Ruined Morrissey

Morrissey's shift from patron saint of outcasts to reprehensible figure might seem shocking - but his decline was entirely predictable.

Morrissey photo

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In late 2008, I was living in Coventry, a dismal part of the United Kingdom and the city most bombed by the Nazis during World War Two. I was miserable.

I had a tiny room in a freezing house that I never used. Instead, I sat out the back in a greenhouse, where I was free to smoke, stare at the wall, and wonder how my life had ended up this way. During the day, I worked in a cafe with people who hated me, and in the evenings I walked the streets, standing in front of the city’s one tourist attraction, Coventry Cathedral, and then pacing the length of a ringroad.

For the most part, I couldn’t read; I couldn’t watch movies. My attention span was shot. The only art that I felt capable of consuming was the music of Morrissey. I’d loved The Smiths since I was a teenager, drawn to their ennui and their flamboyant sense of the artificial. But Morrissey clicked with me in a new way as I walked the streets of a town that seemed in the process of actively rejecting me.

No matter that Morrissey wasn’t singing directly for me. I felt a kinship with him at a time where I needed kinship most.

In his words, I found solace. Everyday was like Sunday; my life was silent, and it was gray. No matter that Morrissey wasn’t singing directly for me, or my exact lived experience. I felt a kinship with him at a time where I needed kinship most.

This is not an extraordinary relationship to have with Morrissey. Many hundreds of thousands of his fans have felt similarly seen by his music; by the amusingly pointed, sometimes cruel edge to his words, and his seemingly infinite wellsprings of feeling. Which also means that many hundreds of thousands of his fans have had the same experience as me — watching as a one-time hero curdled and transformed into a venomous, right-wing brat. And more than that. I, like so many others, also have come to realise that these problems run deep; that even the music of Morrissey’s early career contains the spite that he would spit in interviews as an aging UKIP supporter.

So no, Morrissey’s transformation is not, at the end of the day, particularly surprising. But that only makes it more sad. It is akin to the experience of realising that someone you once loved was never who they presented themselves as; that sudden realisation of a gap between yourself, and the person you dedicated hours of your life to.

The Slow, Hateful Pickling of a Poet

The gradual decline of Morrissey became most noticeable in the early 2010s. The musician had always been outspoken on a range of topics related to animal welfare — he is, of course, the famous vegan behind Meat is Murder. But as the years went on, his defence of animal rights came to take on an insidiously nationalist character. “Did you see the thing on the news about [China’s] treatment of animals and animal welfare?” Morrissey said back in 2010. “Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”

By 2018, Morrissey’s vicious public statements took up a large part of his public life. On a website he treated like a right-wing conspiracy blog, the singer railed against immigration. “London is debased,” he wrote. A frequent target of his attacks was London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who he saw as responsible for making his country less like his country, and for encouraging the “rapes and terror attacks which have resulted from mass immigration.” Khan couldn’t “speak properly”, Morrissey wrote.

Around that time, Morrissey began to align himself with political parties that shared his reprehensible views. In 2019, while appearing on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, Morrissey tacked a “For Britain” pin to his lapel. That political party, led by Anne Marie Waters, espouses the widely debunked “great replacement theory”, and argues “non-European peoples” are taking over once traditionally “white” countries like the United Kingdom.

As time went on, Morrissey’s defences of his political positions also grew increasingly muddled. “As far as racism goes, the modern Loony Left seem to forget that Hitler was Left wing,” the singer wrote on his website in a confused, extremely long rant. “But of course, we are all called racist now, and the word is actually meaningless.”

The transformation was complete. Morrissey had become indistinguishable from a host of right-wing theorists online, all of them bemoaning “cancel culture” and a new shift towards diversity. One of the most extraordinary singers on the planet had become a deeply ordinary and toxic man.

Nationalism Has Always Been Part of the Morrissey Story

Although Morrissey only spoke out explicitly about his reprehensible views in the two thousands, he had been courting the attention of racists since the early ’90s. According to a biography of the singer written by journalist Johnny Rogan, Morrissey was only a teenager when he stated, “I don’t hate Pakistanis, but I dislike them immensely.”

Such views made their way into Morrissey’s music and stage persona early, albeit veiled behind an artificial sense of ambiguity. From 1992 onwards, the performer emerged onstage draped in the Union Jack; around the same time, he welcomed the “skinheads” that had become part of his fanbase.

Most egregious was the release of ‘The National Front Disco’. Following a young man’s slow radicalisation, the song contains the lyric “England for the English” and is pointedly neutral on whether or not the adoption of racist views is something to be decried. “You’re going to the National Front disco,” Morrissey sings over swirling guitars. “Because you want the day to come sooner, when you’ve settled the score.

At the time, it was possible to make some desperate defences of Morrissey. The Union Jack has been embraced by more than just racists, his defenders said; loving England doesn’t necessarily lead to the holding of racist views. Those who wanted to keep their beloved poet in their heart noted that he had once signed up for an anti-Apartheid rally — one that he never actually played — and had written the song ‘Asian Rut’, supposedly a rallying cry against racist violence. And Morrissey himself tried to wash himself clean of the accusations: “If I am racist then the Pope is female,” he once stated.

Of course, now such defences seem laughably weak. In hindsight, Morrissey knew what he was doing, adopting “characters” in order to give voice to his most reprehensible opinions and adopting a position of neutrality in order to spotlight views that he now openly praises. Years after Morrissey has come clean, listening to his early discography is like listening to one long dog-whistle.

Art Versus Artist

Ours is an age dominated both by the ideology of individualism and the special insights gained by social media. We are trained to praise and decry individuals, rather than structures, and apps like Twitter and Facebook allow us to glare closer at the objects of our attention closer than ever before. As a result, most of us come to believe in the strong connection between art and artist. We believe that we deeply know these people that we love or hate from afar; we hear their unfiltered thoughts online, and we match those thoughts up with the art.

But these dominant myths are just that: myths. It’s not possible to learn the sum total of someone’s capacity through their social media timeline; they cannot be reduced to tweets. Nor should we buy so heavily into the auteurist theory of the individual. Art is made by many hands, more than just the ones pushed out to the front of the stage by PR agents and record labels.

For the most part, we can and should accept that we can never know the artist; only ever the art. And with that division made clean, we can enjoy products made by even those who we vehemently disagree with.

Of course, there are material concerns to consider — we do not have to give money or attention to those who hold reprehensible views. But there are ways to enjoy the content of such people without giving them a dime. Piracy isn’t dead; it just has a new purpose now.

But it is for these reasons, not in spite of them, that I reject the music of Morrissey. I don’t have to say a thing about the artist — all I have to say can be localised to the art. For many years now, Morrissey has openly flirted with racist ideology in his songs. Once, that was ignored. Now, it can’t be. It’s right there, captured in the chorus of ‘Bengali in Platforms.’ “Bengali, Bengali,” Morrissey croons. “Oh, shelve your Western plans/And understand/That life is hard enough when you belong here.”

You don’t need another racist interview to realise what those words mean.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee.

Photo Credit: Clare Muller/Redferns