Notes On "The Politics Of Morrissey"

Worm

Taste the diffidence
I want to warn everyone who has clicked on this post that what I have written below is probably going to be tedious. In fact, I'm sure it will elicit some jeers. This post is probably going to seem vicious, pedantic, and overbearing.

You know what? It might be.

But since reading Armond White's piece in Slate the other day, I've had it rattling around in my head, and as time passed, I realized that I couldn't let a number of White's blunders pass unremarked.

I responded to the general ideas already. But I was still slightly put out by it. So I took out a scalpel and went to work. And what I found was that White's essay is so poorly thought-out and so badly written that it saddens me to think that uninitiated readers who chance across his essay will most likely not give ROTT a chance.

I actually struggled with my decision to go after White's work. After all, any of my posts could be torn apart just as easily. I decided to write this because he's published on Slate-- and writing a book on Morrissey-- which makes him fair game.

Now, I don't know, maybe White was beating a deadline. He seems like a decent person. If anything, maybe his crime is that he's coming to Morrissey a little late in the game to write a review like the one he did. So I feel a little guilty getting all peevish about it.

I'd post this on Slate's message board but I don't want to propagate the myth of the bitchy Morrissey fan. Which, y'know-- obviously I am.

But enough of the preface. If you read "The Politics of Morrissey" on Slate and have the stomach to read a ranting response, I, a bitchy Morrissey fan, offer you the following...

NOTES ON "THE POLITICS OF MORRISSEY"

The Slate editor was too kind in offering only one correction to White. Here are some questions and general remarks which, I hope, might lead to some corrections. Yes, I readily concede that these are just my subjective opinions and that all interpretations are valid. (Yawn.)

[This is a line-by-line response to his essay. I don't think you need the essay in front of you, but it would help to have read it.]

1. Does anyone in 2006 believe moping is “a global condition”? Did 9/11 make anyone mope? Would you describe the world that way even loosely, figuratively? I see a world full of angry, edgy people. And if the world has become "mopey", then how much praise does Morrissey's new album deserve? He seems luckier, in that case, that the public's taste has swung around to appreciate his voice than he does artistic or thoughtful. This is the "stopped clock is right twice a day" type of critical appreciation, apparently. I suppose that when the world is happy again Morrissey's muse will have abandoned him.

2. “Mope Rock” is not a "middlebrow" swipe from the middle classes, it is a swipe at the middle classes, just as music for “students” is reviled in England.

3. The New York Times did not get Americans off to a bad start with Morrissey and The Smiths. That honor belongs to Kurt Loder, who, in the pages of Rolling Stone in 1984, labeled Morrissey as a homosexual in a review of “The Smiths”. Politics played no part.

4. Each song on “Ringleader” is about “unique emotional turmoil”, yet describes “how we live now”?

5. Similarly, how can "unique" songs Morrissey wrote about himself be “consideration(s) of the current political mood”?

6. How is Morrissey’s “commitment to rock”—a phrase Morrissey himself would revile—in any way worthy of praise, when every year the ranks (and bellies) of middle-aged rockers swell? How is Morrissey different in his commitment to rock than, say, Springsteen or Neil Young?

7. “Social isolation”: redundant.

8. White himself calls The Smiths “bed-sit miserablism”, yet chides the New York Times for calling The Smiths “Mope Rock”.

9. “Bono’s po-faced sincerity”: the same Bono who has spent the last sixteen years openly, obnoxiously at times, tearing down that image? The sincerity is still there. But "po-faced"?

10. “Candidly personal yet vividly reportorial”: reportorial of what? Is any “personal” lyric ever not “candid”?

11. Can’t “candidly personal” songs that attempt an “indulgence of complex, contradictory feelings” be seen as reflecting any and all political viewpoints-- to the point of approaching apathy or solipsism rather than commitment to one side?

12. What does “luxurious worry” mean, and can a record documenting someone's "luxurious worry" ever unsettle anyone?

13. Does the “ineffability” of his opening tracks sound like the subject matter of “Reel Around The Fountain”, “The Headmaster Ritual”, “The Queen Is Dead”, “Alsatian Cousin”, “Our Frank”, “You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side”, “Now My Heart Is Full”, “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils”, “Maladjusted”, or “America Is Not The World”? Pretty specific, tangible targets in those songs, no?

14. I am impressed indeed that a critic can be wowed by “powerful repetitive murmurs”.

15. “Insurrectionists and suicide bombers—of all stripes—fondly embraced” is one of the most irresponsible, reprehensible, and above all groundless interpretations of Morrissey’s songs I have ever read. Worse even than the racism charges. Are murderous thugs hiding in caves the only ones who end up mugging for cameras? Has Osama ever “pulled a face”? The point is to emphasize distance—Morrissey is watching these people from afar, on TV, showing solidarity with people who, as he is, are subject to the warlike caprices of the powerful. Has White given a second thought to what it means when he implies in his review that the use of a Muslim sound effect automatically refers to terrorists?

16. “Only pop's greatest malcontent”: I thought Morrissey insisted on rock. The meaning of “pop” and “rock” often shade together, true, but White has specifically pointed out Morrissey’s “rock” loyalty as opposed to “folk”—which, too, is often interchangeable with “pop”.

17. “Pop music that brazens predictable positions”: I thought we were talking about rock? Because there are hordes of examples of rock taking unpredictable turns. So Morrissey is pop now?

18. “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge” is a line in Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”, a song that isn't "pop"-- it's one of the first hip-hop hits, and as such it was, in fact, anything but “brazenly predictable” for its time. Indeed, hip-hop was for years deeply unsettling to the establishment. Does White, a music critic, not know this?

19. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of Morrissey’s songs in The Smiths and his solo career knows that he has long had a passion for “the romance of crime”—a simple affection or fascination, not an ironic way of bringing anyone back into the fold. Indeed, as we note in songs like “Piccadilly Palare” and “Ambitious Outsiders”, there is a homoerotic texture to the crime-themed lyrics. Fusing homosexuality and criminality—not surprising from a man who is a professed admirer of Oscar Wilde. (Mark Simpson has also written of the connection to Genet, whose fiction offers more striking examples of the type.) These are not outsiders waiting to be brought into the fold. Morrissey’s position, for the most part, has been to celebrate their independence and freedom from the breeder population. Perversity-- maladjustment-- is a curse and a virtue all at once. “No Dad, I won’t be home tomorrow”.

20. “Ringleader is a vindication of the bold, discomforting social insight that Morrissey-haters have always denied”: looking for Morrissey in that slop? So am I.

21. There is absolutely no reading of “Girlfriend In A Coma” that I am aware of which could allow for the tweaking of gender in that song. At most, you can say that Morrissey is singing from a genderless point of view, so he could be a lesbian (and has considered it, no doubt), but in any case there is no blurring of gender-- er, sorry, "gender-confounding".

22. Ever seen a gender confounded, by the way? Or tried to confound one? (Okay, technically accurate-- but Christ does it sound awful.)

23. There are twenty other gender-bending songs in his work which spring to mind much faster than “Girlfriend In A Coma”, anyway. How about “Sheila Take A Bow” as a painfully easy one? “You’re a girl and I’m a boy” followed by “You’re a boy and I’m a girl”. Shall I mention the Candy Darling picture sleeve?

24. “Girlfriend In A Coma” is not a love song. The cleverness White claims to recognize in Morrissey’s lyrics is lost on him here. The song is about a man (or, okay, a woman) who is secretly pleased his (or her) lover has gone veggie in a bad way. The speaker's tender affection is a put-on for the doctor whom he addresses with his questions. I mean, brilliant song but we're not exactly puzzling out "Finnegan's Wake" here.

25. “Obstreperousness of his rhyming social critiques”. Okay. First of all, I don’t find any “obstreperous” rhymes in “Shoplifters Of The World Unite”, do you? Ways/Always, Crime/mind, War/Four. Secondly, the way the sentence reads, we are inexplicably led to see that Morrissey trafficks in...“rhyming social critiques”? I want to cry.

(continued)
 
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Worm

Taste the diffidence
Notes on "The Politics of Morrissey" II

26. “Reviewers persist in encouraging conventional, even restrictive, pop attitudes”: there is no evidence of this whatsoever in a world where, over the years, the majority of critics who panned Morrissey also loved Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, and Marilyn Manson, and regularly looked back with fondness on Lou Reed and David Bowie.

27. “The whiff of rock homophobia”: would this be something like failing to mention obvious and important parallels between criminality and homosexuality in his lyrics? (See above.)

28. “Extravagant romanticism” is probably the worst single description of Morrissey’s aesthetics I can possibly imagine. It runs counter to every ideal Morrissey himself declared he wanted to uphold when he arrived on the scene in 1983. His songs aren’t devoid of “romanticism”, true, but there are so many other prominent elements—many of which are explicitly opposed to romanticism—that it’s pointless to label the songs as such. Does no one remember the hearing aids, the tattered Levi’s, the insistence on “life as it is lived”, the love of British kitchen-sink dramas, the grim Northern imagery coupled with the (early in his career, at least) hostility to London?

29. “A deliberately contradictory Christian plaint”: eh? How is a song about the tension between the flesh and the spirit—in Rome—a remarkable foray into “unique emotional turmoil”? Couldn’t...oh, say, every single Catholic who ever lived relate? A great song, sure, but we’re to give credit to Morrissey for expressing anxiety that his yearning for the sins of the flesh might make God disinvite him to the annual office party?

30. “Segueing from politics to sex”: I see, we’re going to discuss “Dear God Please Help Me”, a song about sex, which comes right after our discussion of...”Dear God Please Help Me”, a song about sex?

31. “[Explosive kegs...] This image comes from the Irish rebellion bio-pic Borstal Boy, about poet Brendan Behan, which mixes social subversion with erotic compulsion”. Whether or not this is actually true-- I haven't seen the movie, I admit-- a more obvious answer ought to be teabagging White's critical nose. Let me put it another way. I hate to get personal, but any critic who needs to namecheck a movie about the Irish rebellion to explain “explosive kegs between my legs” has apparently never had an erection.

32. I don’t have the patience at this point to do it, but I have little doubt that one could produce about 27,332 instances of rock lyrics in which a man’s penis and/or a male-dominated sexual act is likened to an explosively powerful object or occurrence—I would venture that this is probably the most overused cliche in rock history and hardly “ironic” or subversive.

33. “Rhetorical abundance”? Did White mean something like-- oh, I don't know, “promiscuous allusiveness”? Because this phrase doesn’t work the way he wants it to.

34. “A towering figure in pop culture” despite the fact that White begins by telling us the critical tastemakers have denied and sought to marginalize him and his “discomforting social insight”, on the one hand, and that Morrissey has obstinately refused to pander to the pop charts, on the other? If he's a towering figure, why are we reading an essay attempting to bring him out of the shadows?

35. “Outside rap, he has been the most influential pop artist of the last 20 years”: this lunacy is especially funny. Rather than drum up a list, I’ll just offer up one name: Nirvana. (And there we go again with “pop” artist.)

36. “Intentionally refused”: reader, have you ever unintentionally refused anything? Maybe, if you count the offer for cheap Viagra you batch-deleted from your inbox a few minutes ago.

37. American critics “ignored Morrissey's political side”: could that be because his most outspoken political songs were about the queen and Margaret Thatcher? That American critics were pretty much unanimous—and correct, by the way—in calling songs by Morrissey and The Smiths heavily, at times prohibitively English for most American listeners?

38. How an ‘up-yours’ gesture could be described as ‘Wildean’, in light of the fact that Wilde relied on a punctilious sense of taste in order to make his satire work, is beyond me. I hate to break this to the legion of critics who can’t resist this lazy description, but Morrissey’s admiration for Oscar Wilde does not make his own words “Wildean”. The next perfectly turned paradox Morrissey utters will be his first.

39. “For a rock album”: oh, it’s “rock” again? I thought he was going for the “folk” angle finally.

40. “Morrissey poised before the graffiti scrawl SMASH BUSH. It's not what you think.” Right. Because you choose to pose next to a slogan painted on the wall hoping to impart a subtle message. Wait—Michael Jackson had the word “Bad” spraypainted on his album cover...yet in the lingo of the kids, “bad” is really “good”...wow, White may be on to something. (Psst. No, he isn't. We all have 20 pictures of Morrissey posing with a message written on a wall, square of flesh, piece of paper, etc. A standard-- and direct-- mode of communication he has.)

41. “Climbing aboard the impeachment train would be too obvious for a pop star this sly. Morrissey lives to challenge”. It’s true, readers. Just two years ago Morrissey challenged us with a tease: he backed Jon Stewart for president before dropping his clever ruse and throwing in with Kerry. And when he said he wished Bush would have died instead of Reagan? Sure enough, no talk of impeachment there!

42. He calls Morrissey “sly” and in the next sentence—the next sentence—he applauds Morrissey for putting “Margaret On The Guillotine”.

43. “Morrissey, do you really want to use this ‘SMASH BUSH’ photo in the CD booklet?” “Absolutely. I think it will unnerve the anti-Bush legions immensely”. “Morrissey, you are indeed a genius”. “Pshaw. ‘Tis nothing. Have another...hey! Lane, why aren’t there any cucumber sandwiches?”.

44. “Morrissey knows this is as true of a plebiscite as of the music charts”. Yes. Democracy and the music charts. I guess White missed all 568 interviews in which Morrissey claims the music charts and radio stations are rigged. Oh, and "plebiscite"? Come on now.

45. “He makes listeners question their moral presumptions through songs like Ringleader's centerpiece, 'Life Is a Pigsty,' which asks, 'If you don't know this/Then WHAT do you know?'" Right, right, an update of Socrates' classic trick-- we’re always in the mood to carefully question our moral presumptions after being told by a petulant pop star that those who don’t see his side of things may as well know nothing.

46. He misquotes a lyric, omitting the second of a group of three lines in ‘Glamorous Glue”. The full lyric is “We won’t vote conservative/Because we never have/Everyone lies”. The song begins by flatly saying “Everyone lies” in the second line, so conservatives aren’t the only liars around, making White’s point about Morrissey badmouthing conservatives problematic at best. (And the line reading changes further when you consider that 'We won't vote conservative', had it been printed on the sleeve, might well have been italicized or in quotation marks, i.e. not spoken by Morrissey.)

47. Assuming my note in 46 is wrong, is the line “We won’t vote conservative” an example of Morrissey’s “sly”, “clever” politics? Is he unnerving the anti-Bushies/anit-Thatcherites again?

48. “Heartbroken resolution ’I'm falling in love again.’”. I’m going to give you one, and only one guess, as to what’s wrong with White’s statement. Read it again if you’d like. I’ll wait.

49. “Smashing Bush comes with Morrissey's awareness that some would like to smash him, too”. This is not a new awareness of Morrissey’s. Nor is it profound to anyone. It is not even an “awakening”. It does not even resemble an “awakening” of the sort where you snap to attention after almost falling asleep during “The Bridges of Madison County”. However, with a sprinkling of random wingdings it may qualify as spam.

50. If Morrissey has undergone a “political awakening” on ROTT, how exactly is that he has fashioned a long and distinguished career out of writing defiant political songs?

[/bitchy rant]

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veradicere

Senior Member
Wow

I hope you plan to send this to the author. You should've written the article ;)
 

dazzak

New Member
Worm said:
In fact, I'm sure it will elicit some jeers.
You expect too much.

What I don't understand is why you would spend this much time critiquing a badly written article that doesn't really matter that much. And you worry about uninitiated readers, yet post this review on a board full of Morrissey fans so your effort goes to waste. Doesn't that seem to defeat it's purpose?

Please answer in 1000 words or less.
 

Worm

Taste the diffidence
Heh. 1000 words or less...I know, my posts are long.

First, I don't think the effort is wasted. We're talking about a critic who not only called Morrissey a terrorist sympathizer-- on Slate!-- but made it the focal point of his review. That does matter. I think that deserved a response. It's enough to know it's on the web, even if most people ignore it (and believe me, in a perverse way, I'm glad people *can" ignore it). Why here, and not on Slate's board? Hmm.

Second, a combination of elements: I write quickly, had an unusual amount of time to kill, and had recently downed large quantities of coffee.
 
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Seasick

Member
My yard needs to be cut. You could hop in a car and drive from New York to my home state of South Carolina, cut my lawn and be back in New York in less time it took me to read that. Good gawd, get it off your chest next time. :p
 

mozmic_dancer

One of the Good Guys
Ok, Worm we get the point.

The article is not perfect. Your notes on the essay however was pretty entertaining, thank you for taking the time. You pointed out some humorous examples of White's awkward use of phrasing as well as some innaccuracies which may or may not really matter in understanding Morrissey.

I would like to throw a proverbial bone to White for at least being one of the few writers to acknowledge Morrissey as a serious and complex artist (most American critics "don't get him" therefore dismiss him as a fraud.) I understand your concern that this essay may turn people off to hearing the album. Most people that I know of either have a problem with Morrissey's music or with Morrissey. This essay addressed both. Whether the facts are accurate or not, I believe those who either remember Morrissey from the Smiths or early solo career and have lost interest may after reading this article and listening to the little song samples, may revisit their interest and give ROTT a try.

Incidently, does Kurt Loder really get the dubious honor in being the first to label Morrissey as a homosexual? According to The Arcane Old Wardrobe site, I found an article written by James Henke for Rolling Stone, June 7, 1984 that I always attributed as the first to have done this.
 

Worm

Taste the diffidence
Mozmic, you don't care about the facts even when a casual Slate reader is going to read about a singer who-- so he is told-- openly embraces car bombers?

I don't blame anyone for rolling their eyes at my overkill, 50 point take-down of White, but surely a few people who read the original Slate essay ought to be a little upset by his slanderous charge, no?

The AOW includes the Rolling Stone review of "The Smiths", a quick-hitter written by Kurt Loder (I obtained an old copy of the original issue and remember figuring this out, as there is no by-line), in which the gay label is applied. Loder was a critic for RS at that time.

Henke says "Morrissey admits he's gay" in his story, so maybe he got there first. The important points were the year (1984) and the publication (RS, highly influential tastemakers introducing Morrissey to U.S. readers).

Anyway, thanks for pointing that out.
 

mozmic_dancer

One of the Good Guys
Worm said:
Mozmic, you don't care about the facts even when a casual Slate reader is going to read about a singer who-- so he is told-- openly embraces car bombers?

No, I am not bothered. First of all, I don't think White came to the conclusion that just because the song has a middle-eastern muzzlin sound, that Morrissey must obviously be conversing with a terrorist. It may have been the "smiling at the camera...pulling faces" line. That particular line is intrigueing. Sometimes you see that in news reports usually kids holding guns doing that. I never bought the Osama Theory some have concluded here at this forum. If you are concerned about repercussions looming as a result of this, don't bother. It's too hard around here to find enough Morrissey's albums to make a huge enough bonfire. People just don't get too excited anymore about song lyrics. The song's meaning is just too opaque.

Or perhaps, White may have simply come to his conclusion by what Morrissey has done in the past. What if Morrissey really was addressing a suicide bomber? Morrissey is not endorsing or "embrasing" suicide bombers by doing this, only what he has always done by using them as an example of human frailty. This is nothing new for Morrissey. Think of a song like "The Boy With The Thorn in His Side/Beneath the hatred there lies/a murderous desire for love".

I believe the Slate reader will see this because after this statement, White goes on to say how "everyone else in the pop world lags far behide Morrissey's willingness to identify with the unpopular...His method insists that we recognize the unmanageable part of ourselves in our aberrant, felonious , and forsaken brethern." You pointed out yourself in your post about Morrissey's facination with malcontents: the skinheads, the gangsters, etc. Why should suicide bombers be excluded?
 

Worm

Taste the diffidence
I'd be the first to agree with you that Morrissey has shown affection for criminals and deviants, and that he has done so in ways that are dangerously close to sounding non-judgmental, or perhaps even approving. In "Bengali In Platforms" and "National Front Disco", to name two that jump out at me, there is, admittedly, not a whole lot to indicate that he does not hold the racist view. (For the record I think he is not a racist.)

The line that bothers me most is "insurrectionists and suicide bombers—of all stripes—fondly embraced". Fondly embraced. There is no excuse for that line. Remember, this is a critical appraisal of Morrissey's work within a review of his new album. White is attempting to introduce Morrissey to a wider audience (see the New Order story in today's Slate, too-- must be "Back To The Eighties" week). If-- and it's a big, whopping if-- if you could convincingly argue that Morrissey "fondly embraces" racists, thugs, and terrorists as part of a complex, poetic vision of life, that argument belongs in a longer essay or book; maybe White wrote the review cribbing from his own book, in which case it's possible he didn't have enough space to confidently and carefully articulate his larger thesis.

Even if that's the case, it doesn't excuse what he actually published. "I Will See You In Far Off Places" is opaque only because Morrissey is vague about "far off places"-- is he talking about the afterlife? But everything else is pretty clear, I think. He's empathizing with people in the Middle East, Iraq most likely. The Islamic stuff in the music and the line about "bombs" sort of narrows it down. Sure, the song is open-ended insofar as the people he's addressing in the lyrics. It is certainly possible he is talking to car bombers and other terrorists, among others. But precisely because it is open-ended you shouldn't write a review of the album and use the words "fondly embraces". Far better not to touch the issue, or if you do, say something like "Morrissey's lyrics have always been written not to exclude anyone, which makes a song like IWSYIFOP problematic".

In my first posting on White's article, I tried to make this point: Morrissey's politics are too difficult to unravel and lay out as if there's a unifying artistic method behind them. In Morrissey's lyrics, all those rich, rewarding ambiguities jostle with startlingly unironic convictions. To properly understand the mitigating irony and contradictions contained in "Asian Rut", "National Front Disco", "Bengali In Platforms", and the rest, you sort of have to know everything about Morrissey and The Smiths. White wasn't wrong, but it was a too-superficial reading of Morrissey's words. He didn't go deep enough. You and I know that Morrissey's lyrics can sometimes verge on the genuinely dangerous-- that he is perhaps not "just flirting" with these ideas-- but will White's readers?

White's article is thus, in my opinion, so damning when you scratch the surface of his words that it almost reads like a carefully written attack. Think of Stephen Colbert's speech. With friends like these...
 

mozmic_dancer

One of the Good Guys
Wrestling With White

Worm said:
It is certainly possible he is talking to car bombers and other terrorists, among others. But precisely because it is open-ended you shouldn't write a review of the album and use the words "fondly embraces". Far better not to touch the issue, or if you do, say something like "Morrissey's lyrics have always been written not to exclude anyone, which makes a song like IWSYIFOP problematic".

That's a good point. He should have provided more background about Morrissey's songwriting style to the casual Slate reader; ie that Morrissey sometimes take on characters, like a novelist. He did briefly refer to IWSYIFOP as a lover's jocular promise to another. However the "fondly embraced" remark does make it sound odd. Is White refering to the two friends/lovers are "fondly embraced" by each other or is Morrissey fondly embracing "insurrectionist and suicide bombers?"

White has a funny way of phrasing as you illustrated in your previous posts. I hope people in the end won't mistake that it is Morrissey "embracing" suicide bombers any more that people mistaking Morrissey is really an evil stepfather in "The Father Who Must Be Killed." You pointed out that ugly racist flap from years ago (I remember that well) but that was a deliberate smear. I don't believe White is intentionally out to destroy Morrissey with his poison pen. It probably is no more than an earnest attempt at trying to fit an encyclopedia of ideas he has about Morrissey within the limited attention span of the average Slate reader and thereby ommitting what is essential in understanding the Man.

Enjoy your coffee.
 

Worm

Taste the diffidence
I don't think White intentionally sabotaged Morrissey. That's a paranoid fantasy out of...well, a Moz song. Just wanted to illustrate that he's probably doing more harm than good. Anyway there are plenty of other objections to his piece.

mozmic_dancer said:
Enjoy your coffee.

Given that no one on this site-- or on Slate-- seems to be in the slightest bit upset about White's article, I'm, uh, thinking it might be healthier to lay off the coffee for awhile. [insert smiley face]

Thanks for jabbering with me.
 
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