The city of Los Angeles proclaimed it Morrissey Day ahead of his two appearances at the Hollywood Bowl, which came a week before the release of a new solo album, Low In High School. But the weekend the record hit stores, a rare interview with the German outlet Spiegel Online caused the biggest backlash Morrissey has faced in years.
The sentiments he expresses within the chat (translated here from German into English) aren’t pretty. Calling it “ridiculous” that Kevin Spacey was replaced in a movie after sexual misconduct allegations came to light, Morrissey cast doubt on actor Anthony Rapp’s revelation that, as a 14-year-old, he was approached by Spacey. “You have to ask yourself whether that boy didn’t suspect what was going to happen,” Morrissey said. “I don’t know about you, but I never found myself in situations like these in my youth. Never. I was always aware of what could happen. When you find yourself in someone’s bedroom, you have to be aware of where it could lead.”
Later in the piece, he said “it saddens me that Berlin has become the rape capital” due to “open borders” and addressed his thoughts on multiculturalism. “I want Germany to be German,” he said. “I want France to be French. When you try to make everything multicultural, there won’t be any culture left.”
During his November 25 show in Chicago, Morrissey addressed the Spiegel interview and issued a roundabout denial for what he said: “That was the last print interview I will ever do. And unless you see the words form in my mouth—and then you see the words or hear the words come out of my mouth—please, if you don’t see that, I didn’t say them.”
To muddy the waters further, mere hours later, an extensive—and rather fascinating—print interview he did with the Sunday Times went online. He rails against the state of U.K. politics and also criticizes President Donald Trump, calling him an “international pest” and comparing him to “a two-year-old constantly reaching for something, damaging it and then moving on to something else and destroying it.”
However, in other places, Morrissey undermines his onstage denial. When the Sunday Times asked him about Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, he responded, “You must be careful as far as ‘sexual harassment’ is concerned, because often it can be just a pathetic attempt at courtship.”
Part and parcel of being a Morrissey fan is navigating the many (many) dodgy statements he’s made over the years—calling the Chinese a “subspecies” and the result of Brexit “magnificent,” weaponizing his vegetarianism (“I see no difference between eating animals and pedophilia. They are both rape, violence, murder”), likening the 2011 Norway massacre to animals being killed to fund fast food chain profits or alleging that a recent election was rigged against an Islamophobic candidate. Some (though not all) of his gripes have become more extreme in recent years; after all, Morrissey has been remarkably consistent about his hatred of the press and its biased coverage.
But the Spiegel interview and comments have seemed to represent a tipping point of sorts for fans. “If dogged fans were willfully sticking their fingers in their ears in the past, pretending they didn’t want to hear the truth, there is something different this time, particularly at a moment where consumers of culture — be it film, comedy or music — are not putting up with this type of shit anymore,” observes a new piece in Mic.
This might seem extreme, but Morrissey fans have been lamenting his stabs at controversy for a while now. As the Village Voice brilliantly put it in 2016, Morrissey has “morphed into Dumb Uncle Steve, the one you groaningly put up with at Thanksgiving because your dad tells you to grin and bear it.” A little over a year later, Morrissey is frighteningly close to resembling a more pernicious kind of uncle at the Thanksgiving table: the one whose brain has been so curdled by Fox News that he spends his days sharing grotesque anti-Hillary Facebook memes and spewing conspiracy theories about uranium and Benghazi.
To say this feels disappointing is a vast understatement. “The Smiths mean everything to me,” my friend Kate texted me, just after she’d traveled to Denver for a Morrissey concert. “I can’t defend him or apologize for him. But what does that mean for the art that means the world to me? The music that made me feel less alone when I was an alienated teenager?”
It’s a thorny question. The artists and art that soundtrack adolescence leave a permanent mark, because they were so often lifelines to survival. The scar might fade over time, but it’s always there to serve as a reminder of emotional struggles and triumphs. For many Morrissey fans, the imprint of his music lingers well into adulthood.
I’ve been a die-hard acolyte for well over two decades, and was the kind of teenager who had a Smiths-inspired email address and a Morrissey poster hanging on the wall over her bed. I’ve flown to Los Angeles specifically to see him perform and, in the last half-decade, I’ve dragged my husband to back-to-back, out-of-town weeknight shows. As a journalist, I’ve pitched and/or been commissioned many pieces about Morrissey and/or the Smiths, including an article written last week, before the Spiegel interview blew up. My EMP Pop Conference presentation earlier this year was even on Morrissey’s complicated history as a disability ally.
Part of my continued fasciation with Morrissey is admittedly rooted in nostalgia and comfort. The Smiths idealized melancholy, and made it so feeling gloomy wasn’t quite so isolating. Morrissey’s solo career has followed a similar trajectory: He approaches his miserable lot in life with humor (“The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”), pathos (“Let Me Kiss You”) and despair (“Tomorrow”). In either case, there’s a pact between Morrissey and fans that they were all in this together, aligned against depression and alienation—and stronger because they were bonded together in disaffection. Even today, meeting other Morrissey fans feels like you’ve met a kindred spirit who also knows the same secret handshake you do. His fans’ brains are just wired differently.
That’s one reason Morrissey’s increasingly divisive perspectives feel like such a painful betrayal. He’s promoting polarization, and pitting groups of people against one another. It’s not Morrissey and his acolytes against the cold, cruel world—the staid oppressors and the romantic rejecters—but him lamenting that persecutors aren’t being given a fair shake, or perpetuating falsehoods that reinforce rancid power dynamics. With these ideologies, he’s also vilifying the vulnerable and mistreated, two groups that, at least on the surface, he’s always protected and championed.
Writer Sean Nelson grappled with Morrissey’s complications in an eloquent 2016 MTV piece. “The internet didn’t invent hyperbole, though it did raise the noise floor to such a level that hyperbole became an acceptable inside voice for everyone, especially pop stars raging against their shrinking cultural currency,” he wrote. “For Morrissey, the willingness to use deplorable rhetoric in the service of advancing his aggressive but essentially rational liberal ideas wasn’t new; the misplacement of emphasis was new. The calculation wasn’t new; the miscalculation was. After more than 30 years behind the microphone, you’d think he’d have learned what his voice sounds like.”
It’s an excellent point—more and more, Morrissey has been misjudging the mood of the proverbial room. (Exhibit A: Earlier this year, he produced and then decided to pull a T-shirt featuring the visage of writer James Baldwin paired with the “Unloveable” lyric, “Black is how I feel on the inside.”) These latest Spiegel comments especially come within a climate of consequences. This isn’t trolling provocation in an environment where xenophobia and Islamophobia are universally criticized for being morally suspect; he’s barging into a global conversation that’s frequently dominated by leaders espousing these viewpoints.
For example, Morrissey is denouncing multiculturalism as the U.S. government has spent 2017 ramping up deportation and detention of undocumented citizens, and removed provisional legal residency of 60,000 Haitians displaced by a devastating earthquake. He’s railing against immigration and open borders during a time when studies have found that anti-Muslim sentiments are increasing in European countries. And he’s blaming victims of sexual assault for venturing into someone’s bedroom—even as, day after day, stories pour forth from people about ending up in these situations naively or against their will.
This time around, Morrissey’s comments aren’t abstract condemnations of, say, monoliths such as the queen or McDonald’s. He’s lashing out at concrete things that trickle down and affect people’s day-to-day lives. And, thanks to social media amplification and Morrissey’s stature, these inflammatory statements spread like wildfire. Recently, he was gleefully hailed as “the last true rock ‘n’ roll rebel” by a conservative-leaning U.K. newspaper.
People are complicated, of course—and so even as Morrissey puts out dog whistles to the right wing, he’s releasing an anti-police brutality song called “Who Will Protect Us From the Police?” on his latest album. Live, he tones down the defiance; in fact, in Denver, he doted on a dog someone had brought to the show. In the Spiegel section regarding whether he’s been following Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, he also rather vehemently said, “Rape is disgusting, physical assault is abhorrent.”
What’s frustrating is Morrissey’s vacillating moral compass. For starters, he conveniently always leaves out things that might disparage his massive Latinx—and, specifically, Mexican-American—fanbase. And, later in the piece, after his comments against multiculturalism, the Spiegel journalist responded, “But you are living in the USA, which, in their current form, came into existence through people who came from everywhere around the world.” Morrissey’s response sidestepped her point with circumspect vagueness: “Every single country has its own history of revolutions and liberation. Other countries don’t share your unique history. When people immigrate, they bring their religion and their customs and try to establish those. That’s where confusion starts.” When the journalist asked, “So you’re saying everyone should stay where they are?” Morrissey laughed and demurred. “No. But I think every country should preserve its identity.”
Artists can say anything they want; it’s their right and, judging by the conversation that erupted on one of the largest fan sites, Morrissey will still have plenty of supporters. But that doesn’t mean these comments are consequence-free—or that loyalists should excuse, mitigate or justify his comments. In 2017, staying silent in the face of vile viewpoints—no matter who’s behind them—feels like expressing complicit support. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But now more than ever, it feels important to loudly and clearly proclaim on which side of history you’re on. And I can say that it feels shameful to remain a Morrissey fan at this moment in 2017.
By extension, I have little interest in listening to Low In High School. I gave it a shot, but I made it about halfway through the album before my mind wandered elsewhere and I shut it off. It’s not the music, which is more vibrant and interesting than recent Morrissey solo records. I simply can’t devote the energy needed to reconcile his persona with the music. The album feels too much like artifice, an act of manipulation.
To my deep sadness, Morrissey’s commentary has dulled the affection I have for his previous solo work. I still love and appreciate older albums such as Your Arsenal, Vauxhall & I, and Southpaw Grammar, but I can’t see myself connecting with these records in the same way I used to. That’s partly due to age—I’m no longer the moony teenager scribbling Smiths lyrics on my shoes, of course—but also due to retroactive reflection. Carving out space for obstreperous Morrissey feels like diminishing returns. This would break the heart of 16-year-old me. But thirtysomething me knows I’m doing the right thing.