Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Is it Okay to Like Morrissey?

Not long ago, Morrissey said he couldn't listen to Smiths songs any more. Following his endorsement of Anne Marie Waters, For Britain, and defence of Tommy Robinson, a lot of fans will be thinking the same. And this is not the first time Morrissey has expressed racist sentiments either.

Never a massive fan, but as a 90s indie kid I paid my respects. The Smiths put out great songs in their day and after they split up, Morrissey went through a purple patch (especially Every Day Is Like Sunday) which, in my opinion, he didn't reach again until 2004's You Are The Quarry. His material is as tuneful as it is well studied, coruscating, and appealing. How then can someone sensitive to nuance, someone who is an astute observer of the human condition regurgitate the kind of bobbins indistinguishable from a Daily Mail editorial? That one is easy. Different disciplines have different areas of competence. Match AC Grayling's noted oeuvre on moral philosophy with the cretinism of his Brexit pronouncements. JK Rowling and her Harry Potter preaching of tolerance versus her dreary transphobia. Accomplishments in one sphere don't automatically cross over into another, even if it is nearby. You'd think people like Grayling, Rowling and Morrissey would be better when it comes to politics because, after all, we are talking about human beings and relationships. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Does it then follow that the behaviour of an artist or a scholar can sully and invalidate their work?

The answer can never be clear cut. Consider a recent case. In the realm of green political theory and radical citizenship you will come across the valuable contributions of Andrew Dobson, ex of Keele University. But because of the nature of his crime, he is understandably persona non grata. Similarly, Simon Jarvis and his contributions to 21st century poetry were trainwrecked by a child sex abuse imagery conviction. Both men were noted and important, and have inspired and encouraged the work of many others. Then again, you could equally say the same for Gary Glitter.

Art and theory runs away from its author. Just look at the monstrous uses to which Marx and Nietzsche have been put. Art and theory offer ways of looking, listening, learning, and have lives of their own. As social actors, we know how what we say and do can be misconstrued, and will in turn reflect on us well and poorly independent of our intentions and subsequent actions. We are less authors and more co-authors of our reputations. But as a rule, throughout our lives this tends to not have much of an impact beyond a small number of social circles local to is. When you produce something - a book, a piece of music, clothing - there is a possibility of it circulating beyond your immediate social environs. Already through the creative process it is imbued with a multiplicity of influences, and out there in the wider world, as it is (if it is) caught by other minds there is a possibility of it becoming all kinds of things: a diagnosis, an inspiration, an influence, a pleasure, a pastime. It is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as 'becoming other' as it is conjoined with other ideas, other perceptions. Everything tossed into the social commons escapes intentionality. It can make creators notable people, but in these instances become monstrous and turn against their creators. The logic of the ideas Marx and Engels developed condemns the common or garden sexism and racism of their letters. The life affirming philosophy of Nietzsche rebels against his unashamed elitism and scorn for the herd. The boy wizard critiques his creator, and Morrissey's lyricism cast him the sort of miserable and pathetic character he might otherwise have sung about.

Art and theory can make new connections away from their parent, combine, recombine, and become something else entirely. On one level, their work remains all the things they were before their foibles, mistakes, utterances, and crimes also assumed life, were amplified and chased down past productions with their contemporary taint. Except, we know they don't. They are transformed. Carrying on as a Morrissey fan, or citing Jarvis favourably invariably signals something about you, a being okay with or indifferent to crude racism because the tunes are good, or finding the concepts and verse dandy and the sex abuse stuff irrelevant. Work can escape, but it never entirely escapes, and its taint can become your taint, something reflective of your character. Such are the ways of moral economies. It is recognising the social cost of stubbornness in the face of the unacceptable.

Should work be allowed to escape the author? There is and can be no one answer, though the passage of time tends to rehabilitate artists and thinkers, despite what they became. Does anyone boycott Ezra Pound because he was fash? Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt because they were literal Nazis? Is Louis Althusser off-limits thanks to murdering Hélène Rytmann, his wife? You'd be hard-pressed to find them ignored thanks to moral opprobrium, though there are plenty of other reasons some pass over their works. In the case of Morrissey, it's really up to those who like his stuff. If you want to listen but without conferring him royalties, remember, this is the 21st century and we're in the age of infinite reproducibility. And if you want to carry on as if his behaviour doesn't matter, well, just be prepared to - rightfully - get tarred with the same brush.


Speedy said...

"And if you want to carry on as if his behaviour doesn't matter, well, just be prepared to - rightfully - get tarred with the same brush."

What does that mean? That it's okay to like the music or not? I am waiting for your permission.

It seems to me, having developed your argument in one way, with this last sentence you try to have it both. Personally, I think Morrissey's a twat (and has clearly always been) but that doesn't take away, as you say, that he (was - pretty shit now) a great songwriter. But I had a spat with some PC twat who said all his music was shit because his opinions were. If only I had had your article to hand - except not.

You forgot Celine by the way, perhaps the exemplar of this phenomenon. I think that in the case of right-wing politics, there is also the class dimension - both Celine and Morrissey came from working-class backgrounds and simply expressed the prejudices of their time. You can take the man out of... etc.

Jim Denham said...

I'm no great fan of AC Grayling, but would be interested to know why you consider his stance on Brexit to be "cretinism"? I mean, he at least avoids the most cretinous position of all, which is to *support* it.

Phil said...

Unfair to Rowling - she's a drearily liberal centrist, of the A.C. Grayling/Eddie Marsan/Robert Webb school, who also happens not to be a trans ally; that faint trace of radical feminism is the only radical thing about her.

Nobody boycotts Pound, but equally nobody celebrates him wholeheartedly; there's a big difference between being "a great poet (who was also a Fascist)" and being a Great Poet. That's the thing with Morrissey; he was never pitching to be recognised as one songwriter among others ("his best songs artfully filter the self-lacerating emotionality of Marc Almond through the cool restraint of Howard Devoto, together with an acerbic wit reminiscent of Elvis Costello", said no one ever). He was Morrissey - the one, the only Morrissey, with a direct line to our hearts and our teenage bedrooms ("do you love me like you used to...?"). It's that that's gone now, for anyone who's not prepared to follow him out to the fringes of Fascism. Nice songs, but that's it.

richard yot said...

Human beings are multi-dimensional, and so are capable of producing great art while still holding views the majority disagree with. In fact when it comes to ideas we expect artists to be iconoclasts and radicals, but on the left of course...

But there are far more extreme examples than Morrissey, consider Bertrand Cantat from the French rock band Noir Desir. He murdered his wife Marie Trintignant in 2003. Does that make his most famous song, Le Vent Nous Portera, any less beautiful?

Here is the song covered by Sophie Hunger:

The same person who created an undeniably beautiful work of art was also capable of an act of lethal violence on the woman he supposedly loved. The one does not negate the other, they both exist, and the same person was responsible for both.

Ben Philliskirk said...

I think the change came when Morrissey got rich and famous yet at the same time didn't want to 'conform' and become mainstream. As such, he went from a frustrated but gentle and powerless outsider who appealed to similar personalities, to a wealthy celebrity who had to try much harder to achieve his 'outsider' status. Thus he tended to embrace and try to rehabilitate transgressive and 'misunderstood' types such as gangsters, delinquents, football hooligans and fascists, deliberately seeking shock value. In the circumstances, it's not hard to see how desperately maintaining an out-of-date image of yourself leads to becoming a general pain in the arse.

Dialectician1 said...

Why on earth should we expect cocaine-addled rock stars, best-selling novelists or Premier League footballers to produce good social theory? Probably the nearest thing to any resemblance of hard-edged socio-historical critique is Elvis Costello's Oliver's Army. Mind you, in his youth, Chris Hughton (Manager of Brighton) wrote regularly for the WRP rag.

Anonymous said...

Morrissey - the indie Richard Wagner?

It's not so much his incompetence/offensiveness re. politics; rather that he can't write about 'issues' (compare, say, Billy Bragg). That's why 'Meat Is Murder' is the ur-text of Morrissey's later pronouncements, lyrics and (ahem) 'provocations' when he writes about something other than the human heart.*

*NB: This is not a comment on vegetarianism/veganism per se, btw.

asquith said...

Well we can debate what to do with good artists who are bad people, but Morrissey isn't a good musician, so that's easily resolved.

Listen to The Cure instead, Robert is a better musician and has got Morrissey's card marked.

"Morrissey’s so depressing, if he doesn’t kill himself soon, I probably will."

"If Morrissey says not to eat meat, then I’m going to eat meat; that’s how much I hate Morrissey."

Jim Denham said...

I know little of Morrisey and his music , but from what little I do know and have heard, he's both an unpleasant individual and a crap, self-indulgent, thoroughly depressing "musician".

The old argument about bad people producing good art (Wagner, Pound, TS Eliot being the obvious examples) is well summarised here:

Ken said...

It’s a good job Adolf wasn’t a decent artist.

Anonymous said...

I played the Smiths and early Morrissey albums over and over again because they were what my heart needed to hear. It will always be great music for some people.

I never idolised him or entered fandom, because by the time I heard them I was already a solitary listener and in my twenties not using music as a social sorting hat, I never wanted to be him, so his non-musical opinions and actions have no relevance to my response to his music then or would if I felt the same response now - any more than I now want to be or would like to have been Bach.

Anonymous said...

Morrisey's music has always been as lumpen and predictable as his descent into alt-right attention seeking.