That joke isn’t funny anymore
How eternal misfit Morrissey became a man of our times.
Morrissey, in case you hadn’t noticed, is back. His first album in seven years, You Are The Quarry, has been accompanied by the kind of publicity that would make David Beckham envious.
He has been fawned over in the broadsheets and music monthlies, interviewed on Jonathan Ross’ Friday night chat show on BBC 1, and is curator of this year’s Meltdown Festival at London’s prestigious South Bank. Five years ago it was a very different story. No record company would touch Morrissey, and accusations of racism still lingered uneasily. Today, public goodwill for Morrissey hasn’t been this high since the heyday of The Smiths some 20 years ago. So what’s the appeal of Morrissey, and is he still relevant?
The Smiths were undoubtedly one of the best pop bands of the 1980s. Guitarist Johnny Marr’s dazzling ability and agile melodies alone would make any band appealing. But it was Morrissey’s persona that made the group stand out. Aside from being a masterful lyricist (as much high mirth as low miserablism), Morrissey was a pop stylist of striking originality. Everything from his clothing accessories and interviews to The Smiths’ album sleeves seemed like statements of bold artistic intent.
Above all, Morrissey championed the idea of bookish intelligence even when he said dumb things himself. You didn’t necessarily agree with his advocacy of celibacy, but you did admire a pop star more fascinated with provocative ideas than just music.
In the 1980s Morrissey certainly was provocative. His lyrics probed such matters as child murderers, hanging Radio One djs and the Queen, and even advocated shoplifting – not normally the stuff of pop music. But for many teenagers, Morrissey’s main appeal was that he articulated the melodramatic woes of adolescence. He connected with thousands of young people who fancied themselves as ‘misunderstood’ and ‘outsiders’. During the 1980s this was perhaps understandable. A substantial section of society was indeed looked upon as outsiders, or ‘the enemy within’, by the powers-that-be. Morrissey’s alienated worldview seemed to make sense for those who didn’t fit in with Thatcher’s Britain.
But where Morrissey’s dejected persona once railed against the mainstream, today his adolescent poses are the mainstream – not just with huge selling pop acts like Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrissette and Radiohead, but in the more serious arena of public life.
After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, UK prime minister Tony Blair seemed to cultivate an air of Morrissey-style vulnerability and emotionalism that now embody New Britain’s values. Blair’s personal interest in anti-bullying campaigns echoed the concerns of Smiths songs such as ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ and ‘Rusholme Ruffians’. Indeed, the pervasiveness of counselling today treats grown-ups as if they are 16-year-old Smiths fans.
Elsewhere, Morrissey’s misanthropic leanings find greater resonance in contemporary society; so too does his fear of intimacy and his childish sentimentality towards animals. Clearly, Morrissey is a man of the times.
But it’s precisely because he has become so ‘relevant’ and so fully connected to the mainstream that he has also become so tame, bland and uninteresting. Morrissey returned as a 45-year-old to say exactly the same things he said in his twenties. Surely the best pop stars acts as agent provocateurs, saying the unsayable and challenging society’s deep-seated conventions? That’s harder to do so when your once-distinct outlook has become so conventional.
If Morrissey is so deeply boring and predictable, why are so many thirtysomething journalists wetting themselves at his return? It can’t be because his new album, with its over-strained anthems and dated wrappings, is any good. Rather, Morrissey represents a time when pop music was seen as merely a gateway to more demanding cultures. In the 1980s, pop musicians’ reading preferences and their political views were seen by many as being more important than their music. By proxy pop culture could pass itself off as artful and meaningful, too.
In a culture dominated by Pop Idol, Travis and Keane, it’s impossible for music journalists to smear on a veneer of gravitas. Lionising Morrissey is a forlorn bid to remind us that pop culture was once edgy and interesting. Unfortunately this time, they’ve chosen the wrong saviour.
Neil Davenport is a freelance writer and social science lecturer at Barnet College.
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