Being a devoted fan of an artist will often follow the arc of falling in and out of romantic love with a partner. You’re usually aware of their flaws, but you convince yourself to overlook them for as long as you can because everything else about them makes it worth it. Over time, though, entropy tends to have its way, and things fall apart. You open your eyes, as Steven Morrissey once sang, and you see someone you physically despise.
It’s a bitter irony that this all sounds like the subject matter of one of Morrissey’s songs because it speaks to an ongoing, dysfunctional relationship he has with his die-hard fans. That tension came to the fore recently when, while doing press for his new album (the recently released Low in High School), Morrissey held forth on the sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. It’s safe to say it did not go how his fans might have wished, even grading on the curve for Morrissey’s typically fraught press cycles.
In an interview with the German publication Der Spiegel, which Stereogum said was translated via Google Translate, Morrissey engaged in, among other things, an odious sort of victim blaming. Where were the parents of one of Spacey’s young accusers, he reportedly asked. “When you are in somebody’s bedroom, you have to be aware of where that can lead to,” he said. “That’s why it does not sound very credible to me.” Regarding the Weinstein allegations, Morrissey said he abhors rape and physical violence, but… and the very existence of that “but” immediately lets you know there’s a problem.
“People know exactly what happens,” he said. “And they play along. Afterward, they feel embarrassed, or they do not like it. And then they turn it around and say, ‘I was attacked, I was surprised, I was dragged into the room.’ But if everything had gone well and had it given them a great career, they would not talk about it.”
Cue an exasperated falsetto yelp. This is nowhere near the first time the iconic singer and erstwhile frontman for the Smiths has given cause to question their allegiance. (And, to be perfectly clear, the feelings of the fans of an artist — abuser, apologist or otherwise — are always irrelevant when compared to the actual alleged victims in stories like the ones involving Spacey and Weinstein.) When it comes to Morrissey, many have long since abandoned ship after any number of xenophobic, racist and downright repugnant, reactionary statements (about, say, Chinese people or immigrants in the U.K.), or remarks comparing mass murders of people to fast-food production.
If dogged fans were willfully sticking their fingers in their ears in the past, pretending they didn’t want to hear the truth, there is something different this time, particularly at a moment where consumers of culture — be it film, comedy or music — are not putting up with this type of shit anymore.
The difficulty in separating the art from the artist, or perhaps the irresponsibility of it, is something the culture at large has been wrestling with for years, with conversations involving the likes of Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Mel Gibson, to name a few. But in this post-Weinstein era, it seems to have reached a tipping point, judging from the fallout of accusations against Louis C.K., Al Franken, Jesse Lacey of Brand New (the latter of whom is perhaps one of the most famous Morrissey acolytes around) and many more. For those, like myself, who have long soundtracked their lives to the music of the Smiths and Morrissey, this latest imbroglio is a bridge too far.
“He’s a dick. And this latest round of dickishness hurts more than usual.” — Lisa McColgan, a conflicted Morrissey fan
Reactions among the couple of dozen longtime fans I heard from over the past few days, after posting a query on Facebook and Twitter, fall along a broad spectrum. Some have long since made their peace with the idea that Morrissey the man is despicable, and say that won’t change their opinion on the music. Some say this is where they draw the line. Some, at least on the feverishly fanatical corners of the web, like on the Morrissey Solo forums, think it’s much ado about nothing. There’s a chilling, almost Trumpian echo in some of the more vocal defenders pointing the finger at the press, or political correctness, or overzealous feminism at play.
As an adult man, I’m aware that expecting your heroes, or even celebrities you admire, to be paragons of virtue, ideological or otherwise, is ridiculous and absurd. But we wouldn’t be Morrissey fans in the first place if we didn’t go in for a bit of self-deluded romanticism, now would we? And this isn’t just a minor misstep, it’s a pattern of them. Imagine, if you will, that Piers Morgan were responsible for five or six of the most heartbreaking and lyrical albums in rock history. You’d reasonably have a hard time reconciling that.
“Usually I am a vocal proponent for separating the artist from the art, but a couple years ago I just gave up on Morrissey,” Rick Webb, a fan in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said in a Facebook message. “I suppose it’s partially because I don’t really care for his later solo work, or what I’ve bothered with. I can occasionally find it in me to like a Smiths song again, but it is rare. His personality has tainted it.”
For some, it’s harder to make sense of.
“He’s a dick,” Lisa McColgan of Boston said on Facebook. “And this latest round of dickishness hurts more than usual. When that voice accompanied your darkest adolescent hours, it’s a betrayal to have the owner of the voice say something like that. Will it taint ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’? I don’t know. It’s hard to give up something that metaphorically sustained you.”
Jessica Sun Lee, a fan from Oakland, California, shared a similar sentiment in a private message.
“It’s tough,” she said. “I think it’s tainted and will never be quite the same. But the memories his music contributed to won’t be tainted. And I’m grateful for what his music made me feel in the past.”
It’s particularly troubling to some fans precisely because Morrissey has sung so often about, and in fact has built his entire persona around, the complicated issues of desire. On top of that, it’s simply hard to square one of the most empathetic observers of the human condition of our time with such irresponsible comments, particularly one whose early music — songs like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Handsome Devil” — seems to allude to childhood abuse he suffered, or at least witnessed. But fatal fame can play hideous tricks on the brain, as he once sang. The transformation from poet to bore makes one question whether any of that sensitivity was real in the first place.
“He’s just gotten more and more intolerable with age, and his views on certain things have essentially done the same.” — Bobby Peru, another conflicted Morrissey fan
“It makes me wonder if he meant any of it, or if time just hardened him,” McColgan added.
“It’s not the final straw, but I’m distancing myself in a way I haven’t up to this point,” William Kennedy, from Eugene, Oregon, said on Facebook. “He’s done a ton up to this point to make the world a more inclusive place and I’m not ready to completely throw that out. But I’m a cisgendered straight white Northwestern male that’s comfortable. If it’s the final straw for a lot of fans, then I respect that. He’s going to have to reckon with this stuff sooner or later.”
It may be the final straw for Jim Shahen, a devoted fan from Albany, New York, who wrote me in a private message on Twitter.
“At least with [songs like] ‘National Front Disco’ and ‘Bengali in Platforms,’ you could make an argument he was just discussing racism and wasn’t actually a racist himself. His comments over the last few years pretty much nuked that theory. … I guess this media tour has stopped me from buying the new album, and I don’t foresee paying for it any time soon. It’ll be the first one since [1995’s] Southpaw Grammar I don’t own.”
Neither Shahen, nor Bobby Peru, of Long Island, New York, or myself for that matter, will ever be able to completely disengage with the old music. It just has to take a back seat for a while. Don’t forget the songs that made you smile, and the songs that made you cry, you might say.
“He’s just gotten more and more intolerable with age, and his views on certain things have essentially done the same,” Peru said on Twitter. “I’ll still have those tunes from that period that didn’t make him seem like a misanthropic asshole without a bone of compassion in his body.”