Morrissey has finally released a covers album, long awaited by no one but me. In typical aggravating fashion the controversy overshadowed the music. Did he or didn’t he surreptitiously show his support for a right-wing political candidate on late night TV? I don’t know anything about the nuances of British politics and I don’t particularly care; lots of celebrities have supported shitty candidates and/or blurted out ignorant opinions and it doesn’t stop them selling records. Morrissey’s record probably would have earned better reviews without the reminder that he’s a twat in real life, but it sold well anyway. And frankly, I loved it. Morrissey may be a twat but he’s still one of our most inimitable vocal talents, and it’s great to hear him apply himself to something besides his own writing. The problem with Morrissey’s writing is that it hasn’t changed much since the 80’s and he still fundamentally sees himself as a set-upon loser with an achy-breaky heart, which was endearing in a frail youth but less so coming from a successful older man. There’s only so much you can feel sorry for yourself when you’ve been at the top of your profession for decades. One thing he does still have going for him, which I think is an underrated aspect of the Morrissey persona, is his knack for high camp. Morrissey has the camp instincts of a cabaret queen. It’s always been a part of his work, but it’s become more pronounced with age. You could say that his recent string of albums have been leaning into self-parody, and sometimes it’s unclear if that’s intentional. Here, with the writing clearly removed from the man, it’s very much intentional. I think this might be Morrissey’s gayest album yet.
Well, here I am asking myself if it’s wrong that I still enjoy Morrissey’s newer records. Morrissey once said that being his fan must be very hard, and ever since, he’s thrown down the gauntlet to make it even harder. Why does he keep saying all these nasty racist things? Is it because he’s a racist old white guy? The best I can say for him is that he has the very immature mentality that he should be allowed to say whatever he likes and not expect any pushback, and when he says dumb shit and earns negative pushback, he acts shocked and wounded. More to the point, I would say that he is an elderly man who has calcified, as people tend to do with age, into someone more ignorant, more conservative and more deeply out of touch than his younger self used to be. (Although his younger self was kind of a jerk too.) Can we just accept that most of our icons are scum? Most people are scum when you look at them closely enough, but especially if they’re white guys of a certain age and too much money in their pockets. That’s just demographically factual. Even the so-called good ones. They were all raised to believe that their shitty behavior is somehow ‘charming’ or symptomatic of inner depth or is negated by their talent, or whatever. And then we all collectively threw money at them and hung their picture up in a frame. Every day there’s another breathless news story about some old dude saying or doing or being accused of saying or doing some shitty stupid shit like they don’t understand that the entire culture has changed and people are no longer going to shrug and say “oh, you!” like a put-upon sitcom housewife. And lest you ask, female elder statesmen are in no way exempt from this; Brigitte Bardot, for example, is absolutely abhorrent in her politics, while the likes of Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand have decided that defending Michael Jackson (a man who did sex to little boys, on the scale of shitty things to have done) is the hill their reputations would die on. Does that mean that Morrissey is canceled, as the kids say? Well, no. If every shitty person’s art was canceled, there would be no art left, because we’re all shitty people and we all have done things we’d like to not have dredged up on Twitter. Even Michael Jackson is not canceled.
I can see Morrissey having an alternate career singing lounge jazz. If he had more musicality and less dysfunction, he could have made it on the cocktail lounge scene for sure. He would, of course, be a very a very campy lounge singer, perhaps the kind who specializes in warming up the crown before a drag show. Alternate universe. As it is, Morrissey turned out to be a campy old queen of a very different stripe, and he certainly made his mark with the choices he made. It’s his life to wreck in his own way, after all.
This is certainly the call to arms you need to hear while browsing at Hot Topic. Morrissey encourages you to stick it to the man in the quietest, most unobtrusive way possible. Meanwhile, I would not be surprised to find that ‘shoplifting’ is some obscure north of England palare for acts of a homosexual nature. “A listed crime” you say? Well, no doubt, stealing is a crime, and if you were to confess that you’ve got a sticky set of five fingers, that would be a fine double entendre too. You could be stealing some nice boy’s virtue. Yes, indeed, this is some of the most thinly coded gay agitprop to be seen on English television in Our Year of the Lord 1987 (very much not a good year for gay people.) I’m sure that it was, to those that got it, discreetly incendiary. I suspect that Morrissey’s swaying hips are still enough to set gay sadboys’ hearts aflutter with validation. I mean, it works well enough for those of us who are merely sad and romantically discombobulated without the extra burden of needing code words for it. Morrissey’s brand of bedsitter emo – miserabalism – knows no sexual boundaries (because his fans don’t have sex and when they do they hate it, haha) which may be why he’s never publicly committed to having a sexual orientation. When he quipped that genitalia is a cruel joke, his words rang true. But really, it’s the heart that is a cruel joke, and the genitals are just its unruly henchmen.
So somebody really likes Scandinavia a lot. This is Morrissey, who is not given to liking things a lot. It’s also a very melodramatic song, I would almost even say bombastic. Which are things late-stage Morrissey is very much given to. He likes being pompous is his old age. Frankly, I can understand if you no longer want to see or hear anything about him at this point. A lot of people think Morrissey stopped being relevant a very long time ago and needs to just go quietly already. I would agree except that he still finds time to write the occasional song that just speaks to me and my mental state. Or, failing to be emotionally on-point, he’s still frequently very funny. A lot of us keep coming back just for the wordplay. There’s just not enough articulate songwriting in the world, and nobody writes lines like Morrissey.
Some songs are composed on piano, some on guitar; this one was composed on a secondhand typewriter. That’s because Morrissey is not a musician and doesn’t play any instruments. He could, of course, just go around with a notepad like a normal-person, but in Morrissey’s world, it’s all about the aesthetics. And the image of the poet with his dry toast and his tea and his battered typewriter pretty much defines the aesthetic of The Smiths, and by extension, their fandom. Sad, but proud of it. Devoutly romantic but too socially useless to do anything about it. I too spent my teenage years clicking away on a thrift store typewriter. It’s wildly impractical, but the sound is very satisfying. It’s a great hobby for someone who spends too much time alone and really only sees other people as vague abstractions and doesn’t have any ambitions in life besides appearing poetic. My teenage self was not a Smiths fan. I just lived a Morrissey-approved lifestyle.
I love Morrissey’s references to boys with pretty white necks. It’s both sexy and self-consciously glib. And he has got quite a pretty white neck himself, which isn’t meant to be lost on anyone. The winking and nodding to pretty boys’ bodies – coming from a pretty boy who claimed that his pain is too grand for mere labels of sexual orientation – was naughty and subversive, and as telling as you wanted it to be. Morrissey will probably never ‘come out’ the way some people are still rooting for him to do, nor should he; the business of pinning down personal identity is dreadfully dreary when you don’t particularly care for any of the options. That does allow the singer to remain pliable and easy to project onto, hence the rabid devotion he still commands. The fact that he’s kind of a crappy person doesn’t matter very much to fans who’ve identified with the music for whatever reason. The singer may be a challenge to admire, but the songs remain impossible not to latch onto. We will probably forever be debating just how knowingly Morrissey’s music addresses depression-case gay boys, or romantic-pretender depression-case straight ones, or sad-sack wallflower girls. But there’s one thing that everybody in the fandom relates to: people who’ve learned about the world in cemeteries and libraries experience love differently, with sweaty palms and shaky knees, and being pretty is frankly no reprieve from it.