“We would all do the same as you if ever we had the nerve to” sang Morrissey in 1991 on one of his lesser regarded hit singles, “Pregnant for the Last Time”. The subject of this No 25 semi-smash is a woman who gleefully gets herself with child every time she alights on a new man. But these words are, I think, very appropriate for the peculiar position occupied by Morrissey and his detractors in politics and culture.
Recent events have coughed up a particularly prime example of Morrissey hitting a nerve years before anybody else in the pop sphere, getting castigated for it, and being justified in saying he told us so when it became horribly relevant.
Ten years ago he described footage of the treatment of animals in Chinese markets as “absolutely horrific” and that anybody who had seen it “could not possibly argue in favour of China as a caring nation. There are no animal protection laws in China and this results in the worst animal abuse and cruelty on the planet. It is indefensible.”
This statement was Morrissey’s reaction to the hullabaloo after an interview in The Guardian with the poet Simon Armitage in which he said, hotly, after watching animals being skinned alive: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.” In Morrissey’s view cruel treatment of animals makes you less than human, but this wording, robbed of its context and intent, was a gift to his many enemies.
That’s because Morrissey annoys people, and unlike most purportedly outspoken pop stars he often annoys the people pop stars aren’t supposed to annoy. What I’ve found fascinating is how many of the opinions he has expressed in his long career have become hot topics on the table of late. Immigration, animal rights, free speech, the denigration and demoralisation of the working class, the unhealthy news media. And with universal basic income sliding its legs ever further over the sill of the Overton Window, his famous declaration in song from 1983 “England is mine, it owes me a living” feels more apposite by the day.
In his own strange way, for how could it be other than strange, Morrissey was a post-liberal before anybody else really cottoned on, and this from someone regarded commonly as stuck in 1954.
Morrissey’s mind is unschooled. One might even call it deschooled. (Anybody in favour of the return of selective education should have a read of the section of his autobiography dedicated to his gruesome years at a secondary modern and take pause.) He left school at 16 almost completely unqualified, and didn’t get tipped into the academic funnel that increasing percentages of us have been strained through. His intelligence and learning is of the scattergun, autodidactic variety that sometimes lights on obvious things that we have been accustomed to ignore or to look at without seeing.
It’s also interesting, and often very funny, to see the reactions of former disciples of the posher, ‘indie fan’ variety, when he says something outrageous but which they don’t like, to the point they get huffy and disown him. His advocacy of terrorism for animal rights and his repeated death wish for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s — “the sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed” he said very soon after that happened — didn’t ruffle feathers because it coincided with their own bluff talk. But when Morrissey lamented in 2007 that “England is a memory now, the gates are flooded and anybody can join in” they fainted clean away over a stack of Belle & Sebastian CDs.
The double standard is gobsmacking. Fantasising in song about the public execution of the elected prime minister? Just a bit of harmless fun from a loveable old eccentric. Saying he was ‘excited’ by John Redwood? Burn him at the stake!
Why does Morrissey upset people so? His singing voice drives some instantly to distraction —my father couldn’t stomach more than ten seconds of it before shouting, in a broad Cardiff accent, “Oh, bloody hell, it’s the ghost of Jim Reeves” — but this is equally true of many other pop stars who merely get the occasional grumble for it.
A lot of the time it boils down to envy, and I’m as guilty of that as anybody else. Morrissey got to do things many millions of us dreamt of — mythologise our adolescence, inspire the adoration of perfect strangers in distant lands, say what we actually think — and it happened almost by accident. He can’t be accused of pandering, trend-chasing or compromising. He has the toxic combination of arrogance and self-pity that has fatally holed so many in a similar position, but he also possesses the humour and talent to leaven it. His lyrics are witty and smart, with an eye for life as it’s lived rather than the upbeat escapism and puppyish approval-seeking of most pop music. He keeps doing the same bloody thing and it keeps working, sailing over the heads and the power of critics. He has a ghastly habit of rising from the grave.
All this had to happen to somebody. But it’s a constant, maddening reminder that it didn’t happen to us.
There are things that drive me potty about him. He can’t do polemics — his most direct, unambiguous material (the songs “Meat Is Murder”, “America Is Not The World”, “World Peace Is None Of Your Business”) is his weakest. Fiction writing is not, let’s get this out of the way quick before the screaming starts, his strong suit. His horror of electronic instruments and any development in dance music after about October 1972 is just silly, like the ladies of Cranford boarding their first train.
But the problem with criticising Morrissey is that his entire schtick is criticising himself. People pointing out his faults seem not to realise that he got there 37 years before. Right from the off he has sung about his personal failings, of pushing people away, of being intense and unbearable. He knows exactly what he’s like and he’s not happy about it.
However, all this openness and honesty can lead to terrible, avoidable blunders if you haven’t thought everything through. The “now, I must be careful how I put this” reflex is not there in him. That lack is the source of his success, but also of his woes. Because if your thing is always saying what you think, people will take what you say seriously. Bashing in with his size nines with open support for Anne-Marie Waters’ For Britain party was serving himself up on a plate.
To Morrissey, it’s obvious that he’s not a racist. But to advocate a political party, and of the fringe right — in considered statements, not off-the-cuff interviews — was breathtakingly naive. What on earth did he think the reaction would be? Did he really think he was helping — himself or anyone else?
It was as daft as singing a song called “The National Front Disco”. Seen in the broad flow of his oeuvre the song is obviously about a rather sad loner in the 1970s who drifts into a hopeless cul de sac. The repeated phrase “England for the English” is delivered in weary and mournful quotation marks (by the republican child of Irish immigrants). But people often don’t have time to think beyond the obvious, and ambiguity can be a gift to those who want, for whatever reason, to destroy you.
Morrissey is more often, I think, right than he is wrong, and a sizeable chunk of the things he’s observed, some of it long ago, have reared up to bite us all on the bum. “The left has become right-wing and the right-wing has become left — a complete switch, and this is a very unhappy modern Britain,” he stated recently, which is a fair enough summary of where we find ourselves.
We are constantly being asked to view the most anodyne and conformist pop stars as challenging and controversial. But we’re not having this conversation about Ed Sheeran, and I suspect we probably never will. We should be grateful for, in our increasingly dull and frightened culture, this bizarre, awkward, contradictory, funny fellow.