Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A thorn in his side

When Morrissey filed suit against NME this past week for defamation, I was only mildly interested. After all, it's an entirely plausible scenario from both sides: Magazine distorts contents of interview with Musician to spark controversy and increase sales. Or, Musician makes provocative comments to Magazine (possibly with the intention of flirting with controversy and getting attention) but regrets it and seeks the moral high ground in an attempt to recover.

What was more interesting was my discovery of the history of racist controversy that Morrissey has accumulated over the past fifteen years or more. I consider myself to be a Smiths fan, and a more casual solo Morrissey fan, but in both cases I've pretty much stuck to the music, and not followed them or him as celebrities, so these controversies have escaped me.

I'd certainly noticed that Morrissey's nationalism runs deep. His songs mostly fall in one of two categories: maudlin love poems or social commentary; British identity, particularly the working class British experience, is a favorite examination in the latter. Of course there is a dangerous grey area between nationalistic pride and racism, as history repeatedly demonstrates.

I'd realized that 'Suedehead' was a skinhead reference, but since that song falls into the maudlin love poem category, I'd chalked it up to another of Morrissey's regular themes: homoeroticism. And lyrics like 'we are the last truly British people you'll ever know' from 'We'll let you know' have intrigued me at times, but I didn't find them offensive.

I have trouble feeling like I know enough to label Morrissey racist. I can't locate the original, but there is a quote attributed to him (oddly, by NME in 1992) from an interview in Q Magazine back in 1991: "I don't want to sound horrible or pessimistic but I don't really think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other. I don't really think they ever will. The French will never like the English. That tunnel will collapse." That statement dances somewhere between social observation and passive oppression, and, disclaimer or not, it's definitely pessimistic. But I also know that this is a man who cultivates a mysterious and sometimes provocative persona, celibate and faux-hearing-impaired, so is a statement like that enough to pass judgment?

I don't think this is a similar situation to Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, who has made black and white political statements with which I disagree, and whom I would feel principled in boycotting if I had ever bought anything of his in the first place. I think it's much more like that infamous photo of David Bowie at Victoria Station, May 1976, when he was caught mid-gesture in what may or may not have been a Nazi salute. Bowie is another artist who sought edginess and occasionally missed the mark. Because of that personality trait, people expected and interpreted him to be edgy even when he didn't intend to be.

I'm not going to condemn or defend Morrissey; I'm satisfied that his music doesn't cross into the territory that I consider to be racist, and I haven't seen anything from him that disturbs me as much as endorsing a fatwa on Salman Rushdie. I would say that if NME had a stronger since of journalistic responsibility, they might have sought to reconfirm what they thought were inflammatory remarks before they bandied them about. But that's a bit much to ask of most publications, it seems.

I would also say to Morrissey, I hope you take an excessively conscientious approach to this subject in the future, realizing that you are a lightning rod. If you need to learn more about people who are different from you, you're no different from the rest of us, except we don't give interviews quite as often.

And I would also say to people who are seeking to build a case against him, you'd better come up with more substantial evidence than what I've seen so far. If you seek to write seriously about a serious matter, it is your responsibility to make a clear and well-supported case, or else you are doing a grave disservice to your subject, your readers, and the profile of discourse on the internet.

Morrissey official website