Morrissey (as an artist and public figure) has always had the uncanny ability to charm and repel at the same time. His staunch animal rights activism, his hatred of the throne, his A.E. Housmanesque gift for misanthropy, his refusal to adhere to any of the tenets of accepted celebrity behaviour have often landed him in hot water. But what's wrong with a little hot water when today's music and music industry are so depressingly tepid?
In the last couple of weeks, Morrissey has railed against Beyonce, Jimmy Kimmel, the Royals,Justin Bieber, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Victoria and David Beckham, and too many more to mention. And, yes, just in the last couple of weeks. It's all very entertaining and it's all usually in the name of animal rights, or anti-monarchism or anti-consumer culture. But it is also entirely in the name of Morrissey. I wouldn't want it any other way.
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Activism and individualism are the engines that drive Morrissey. He never shies away from the incendiary moment. And it would be wrong of me to give him a free pass. He makes some dreadful missteps. He frequently compares the slaughter of animals to the holocaust, he makes villains out of entire populations for the actions of their governments, he even calls for the assassinations of those who don't meet his artistic standards: "Bring me the head of Elton John... which is one instance in which meat would not be murder, if it were served on a plate." But seriously, anyone who takes these proclamations as not ironic or not hyperbolic is probably too stupid to help. I will concede that when he's at his worst, his claims are embarrassingly ineffective. Sometimes he's guilty of tipping his hand. Sometimes when he whines about Madonna or Justin Bieber, there's a tinge of jealousy in the tone. Morrissey has never been embraced by the people who run the Grammys, BRIT awards, etc. And you can tell that it eats away at him. After all, he's a man obsessed with his own old fashioned notion of the charts and he's (without a doubt) inspired countless recipients of such awards.
When he gets it right though, it's a thing of rare beauty. His criticism of the London Olympics was, in my opinion, not entirely spot-on but very much needed, and while Billy Bragg, John Lydon and other so-called "punks" caved in to the pressure of British nationalism, Morrissey stood resolute and launched this missive: "I am unable to watch the Olympics due to the blustering jingoism that drenches the event. Has England ever been quite so foul with patriotism? The 'dazzling royals' have, quite naturally, hi-jacked [sic] the Olympics for their own empirical needs, and no oppositional voice is allowed in the free press. It is lethal to witness."
Morrissey recently proclaimed: "The rhino is now more or less extinct, and it's not because of global warming or shrinking habitats. It's because of Beyonce's handbags." And I'm glad he said it. Beyonce and her husband, Jay-Z are part of a disgusting trend of wearing extreme cruelty. They are both avid wearers of the skins of elephant, crocodile, stingray, ostrich, cow, anaconda, alligator, boa, python, and lizard. It's barbaric behaviour. And no public figure other than Morrissey seems to have the guts to speak out against it. And when he forced the Staples Center in Los Angeles to not sell meat during his show (a feat even Paul McCartney could not accomplish), I'm equally glad. Activism is about action. If it's within your power to take action and change something on a large scale for the sake of the cause, then any activist worth her/his salt must take that action. We've learned in recent years, that action is Morrissey's middle name. I would also argue though that it's his fierce defiance that also leads to the best moments of Morrissey: songs like "Meat Is Murder" and "Scandinavia."
It seems that it's been this way from the start. He has recently been revealed as the author of the world's most biting teenage pen pal letters. And when stardom inevitably happened to/for him, he found that he could reach another octave of wit. In the '80s, when George Michael was sharing wisdom like "You'll never find peace of mind until you listen to your heart," Morrissey quipped "Sex is a waste of batteries." And these days, when Jay-Z offers up pseudo-wisdom: "I think relationships are broken up because of the media," Morrissey refuses to disappoint: "I have found that the best way to avoid ending your life an embittered wreck is to start out as one."
We need public figures who are individuals and understand what it means to be individualistic. I would go so far as to say that we are in desperate need of eccentrics. Clearly, eccentricity trumps compliance. Morrissey is Oscar Wilde + Gertrude Stein with the added bonus of a crooner's voice; he's the most sexualized "celibate" of our time; and the most infuriatingly provocative public persona imaginable. And it's because he acutely understands what it means to be enigmatic and what it means to be a fan. From his early days being a devoted fan of The New York Dolls, Shelagh Delaney, John Betjeman, and David Bowie, Morrissey understood the powerful, heartbreaking, and intimate intricacies of fandom and art. If we are clever enough to look, we will find some sense of hope with the few artists he holds in high regard today. We need more Patti Smith and less Will Smith. We need more Jeff Beck and less David Beckham. We need Morrissey for the simple reason that he is the best example of an artist and public figure whose individualism cannot be bought or sold.