Is it possible to challenge Morrissey’s views and still love the music?
Theater of the Clouds, Portland, OR
(Photo: Jeremy Petersen)
Morrissey stopped his Portland show two songs in, pausing after muscular versions of “You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side” and “Alma Matters,” to admonish a protester holding two signs, one that read “Big Mouth Indeed” and the other with a crossed-out symbol of the anti-Islam For Britain party. For a tense minute, Morrissey shouted at the woman until she took a bow and then was ushered from the arena. Here is a transcript of what Morrissey had to say:
“Let’s be quite frank. When you with the sign are removed, I will continue. Otherwise, get out. Now. Go, go, go, go, go, go. Max, the lights. Go, go, yes, go. We don’t need you. We don’t need you. Goodbye. Go. Go. Go. We don’t need you. We don’t need you. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.” Meanwhile, some of the fans in the crowd began chanting along with him. Once the woman left, he played “Hairdresser on Fire.”
The video of the confrontation has gone viral, adding more ammunition to the outrage that followed the former Smiths frontman’s open support of the For Britain political party. He later tried to claim that he is not a racist by stupidly saying, “everyone prefers their own race.”
If this smacks of something Trumpian, that’s because for that strained moment the concert was about the music no longer. Morrissey used his position of power, from the glaring lights of the stage, to toss out someone who did not subscribe to his worldview, a perspective that is becoming undeniably more and more dreadful as he ages. And therein lies the problem. Intolerance breeds more intolerance.
It still doesn’t make sense. How the hell can there be a racist vegan? Is the same man who kicked out the protester the one who appears as a cartoon surrounded by animals on a PETA flyer that reads: “Morrissey Says Don’t Eat Your Friends.” Remember, this is the guy who didn’t play shows in Canada for 15 years in protest against the country’s refusal to ban the harvesting of baby seals.
Morrissey’s support of the far right has afforded him more attention than his records have in recent years. Pundits on the web gleefully point out his terrible ticket sales, the boycotting and banning of his LPs in certain stores and the artists who have come out against his politics, claiming they will never listen to Morrissey or even the Smiths again. So, in a town like Portland that loves to pat itself on the back for its progressive politics, is it crossing the line to want to see Morrissey play? Who even goes to see him?
From my observation, the show was well-attended but by no means full. The $113 face value on the ticket was likely a pretty huge deterrent in itself. The line at the merch booth was robust but what does wearing a Morrissey shirt in 2019 even mean anymore? I stand with fascists? Don’t eat meat? Or, could it mean more simply: I like Morrissey’s music? Is it even possible for such a stigma not to exist?
But who was really there? Plenty of aging white dudes with a suedehead haircut. Goths. Families. A good many people of color, including a large Hispanic contingent. There was a black dude in a PiL T-shirt. None of this is justification for Morrissey’s objectionable politics. It is simply fact. There were also plenty of empty seats. Maybe it’s time for Morrissey to admit that he is no longer an arena act. But eating humble pie has never been his specialty. Look at the tantrum he threw over a simple sign.
When I spoke to people about this conundrum, undying love for an artist who has become something quite unlovable, I got the same look: eyes askance, slightly embarrassed. Some claimed (or feigned) ignorance. Others were defiantly aware.
“Morrissey has always been a dick.”
“Well, do you still listen to Michael Jackson?”
“What? A racist. Really. Man…”
“I don’t care. I still love his music.”
If you look at any place where people leave comments, like the ad on Facebook proceeding the show, they are riddled with remarks about fascism and Morrissey’s current status as persona non grata. They also ridicule his self-pitying retractions and mopey repartee. A lot are mean-spirited, gleefully fantasizing about cooking meat so the singer can smell it. These people simply don’t want to mute out Morrissey. They take pleasure in canceling him. These supposedly open-minded folks have become the ringleaders of the tormented.
And even here, this review which is supposed to be about the music has been hijacked by politics. I never had the chance to say, objectively speaking, that Morrissey put on a great show filled with many deep, uncompromising cuts and even a few Smiths rarities (“Girl Afraid”). I didn’t get to mention that Morrissey did seem somewhat cowed when he thanked Portland for always supporting him and thanking us for “returning.” I never had the chance to say that his voice sounded great and that “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself” was beautiful and “I Wish You Lonely” is a great song and “Jack the Ripper,” which he performed under a cloud of smoke, was menacing. Or that amazing photo of James Baldwin dancing that appeared on the screens behind the band between each and every song. Or just how ridiculous it was that he ripped off his shirt superhero style after “How Soon is Now? and tossed it into the crowd. Or the guy who leapt onto the stage to hug his idol but only got a handshake and bow instead. Or how he played covers of songs by the Pretenders and Melanie and others. Or that Interpol opened the show.
It’s because we’ve lost sight of the music. And it’s Morrissey’s fault for being a fucking racist and it’s the internet’s fault for making an issue out of it and it’s our fault for becoming a society where discourse is frowned upon and difference is frowned on and it’s my fault for succumbing to all the bullshit – mine, yours, Morrissey’s and having to write this review in the first place.
Billy Bragg says he will turn off a Smiths song when it comes on the radio. It wounds him that much. He isn’t doing it to fuck Morrissey. He is doing it because it hurts him. That’s Bragg’s choice. That’s a good choice.
But Nick Cave said it best.
“Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song. It has been offered up to my audience and they, if they care to, take possession of that song and become its custodian. The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist, but with the listener.”
But even more importantly:
“I still believe that despite how upsetting Morrissey’s views may be to the marginalised and dispossessed members of society, or anyone else for that matter, he still should have the freedom to express his views, just as others should have the freedom to challenge them—even if just to know in what guise their enemy may appear.”
Morrissey should not have kicked that woman out of the show. Is it possible to challenge Morrissey’s views and still love the music? I think so, though it doesn’t seem Morrissey even feels that way. If you disagree with his politics, protest with your wallet and don’t go to his shows. (Or go to his shows and protest in person.) The closing of doors on friends who want to listen to songs that have meant the world to them for many decades and the screaming on social media does no one any good. Neither does tuning someone out you don’t agree with. Have a conversation. Find some sort of common ground. Choose to disagree. Choose understanding rather than hatred. If someone is wearing a Morrissey shirt or listening to a Smiths LP, are they a bad person? No. Explore this conundrum, the tearing at your heart when an artist you love suddenly stands for something you hate. Can you give back the music? Can you give back the years of comfort and the ripping of the heart?