The Politics of Morrissey

Now is the time to listen to the bard of mopery.

When the New York Times slagged Morrissey’s songwriting in 1987 with the epithet “Mope Rock,” the paper gave rock cognoscenti and musical conservatives everywhere an excuse not to take him seriously *. Yet, millions of record buyers and concertgoers resisted that middle-class, middlebrow snub. They continue to support Morrissey with vehement devotion, relishing his refusal of pop’s facile, idiotic optimism. Now, after 9/11, when moping is a global condition, the tragicomic observations on his new album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, should infuriate and delight you. After 22 years of fascinating, idiosyncratic work, Morrissey’s latest is not just a gorgeous example of the wry lyricism, personal confession, and social invective that only he has combined and perfected. It’s also a radical and rich consideration of the current political mood—a summary rock CD such as mainstream pundits expect from their anointed heroes and frequently delude themselves into praising. Anyone remember Time Out of Mind?

Because Morrissey has few champions among those mainstream American pop critics preoccupied with business-as-usual routines by Pink, T.I., Beth Orton, and the Arctic Monkeys, the millennial vision and excitement—the progress—of Ringleader has been overlooked. Here’s a pop album that helps one get a handle on how we live today. Each song traces unique emotional turmoil—from distorted family legacies (“The Youngest Was the Most Loved”) to social isolation (“On the Streets I Ran”). At age 47, Morrissey maintains a commitment to rock—not folk—proffers an incongruously adult sense of the world. Having moved past the bed-sit miserabilism of the Smiths, he now shows a wider social consciousness in his unsatisfied yearnings.

That doesn’t mean he’s made a political record in the conventional sense. Morrissey, too clever for Bono’s po-faced sincerity, eschews the self-congratulatory earnestness of the maudlin sloganeers and the peacenik righteousness of Vietnam-era pop musicians. Instead, Ringleader is aggrieved—candidly personal yet vividly reportorial. The songs are full of the mixed emotions that characterize our conflicted allegiances. Whatever one’s position on Iraq, Gitmo, or that mosque down the street, Morrissey’s perspicacity fits the mood through his indulgence of complex, contradictory feelings.

The album leads off with luxurious worry: “I Will See You in Far Off Places.” The initial declaration of existential anxiety (“Nobody knows what human life is/ Why we come/ Why we go”) is supplanted with a lover’s jocular promise. It’s a signature Morrissey power ballad, addressing the ineffable like so many of his other opening album tracks, but here he alludes to world conditions that effect his individual unease. (“If your God bestows protection upon you/ And if the U.S.A. doesn’t bomb you … .”) The tempo rises and soars toward resolution through powerful repetitive murmurs. Morrissey affects the sound of a Middle Eastern muezzin, a deliberate orientalism so unexpected—and natural-sounding—that it lends shocking implications to the final lyric: “I will see you somewhere safe/ Looking to the camera/ Messing around and pulling faces.” Insurrectionists and suicide bombers—of all stripes—fondly embraced.

Only pop’s greatest malcontent would dare such extreme humanist-verging-on-seditious solidarity. Everyone else in the pop world lags far behind Morrissey’s willingness to identify with the unpopular. We’re used to pop music that brazens predictable positions on topical grievances (“They paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge”), but Morrissey has often dared to court disreputable figures (criminals, skinheads) as a way of pulling discontents back into the human fold. His method insists that we recognize the unmanageable part of ourselves in our aberrant, felonious, and forsaken brethren.

Ringleader is a vindication of the bold, discomforting social insight that Morrissey-haters have always denied. By preferring to ignore the provocation of Morrissey’s gender-confounding love songs (“Girlfriend in a Coma”) and the obstreperousness of his rhyming social critiques (“Shoplifters of the World, Unite”), reviewers persist in encouraging conventional, even restrictive, pop attitudes. (His bad reviews carry the whiff of rock homophobia.) This is quite a setback given rock’s patented rebel stance and following the supposed anarchic inroads that punk rock made in the mind-set of American teen culture. Morrissey has held on to punk’s audacity, even while expressing extravagant romanticism. Ringleader follows his Islamic farewell to arms with one of his most trenchant odes to desire, “Dear God, Please Help Me,” a deliberately contradictory Christian plaint.

Segueing from politics to sex, in “Dear God, Please Help Me,” Morrissey cruises a foreign city, unnerved by the “explosive kegs between my legs.” This image comes from the Irish rebellion bio-pic Borstal Boy, about poet Brendan Behan, which mixes social subversion with erotic compulsion. It is a more ironic stance than pop normally offers, yet it is perfectly suited for the pomp and swaggering effrontery of the glam-rock performers (T-Rex, New York Dolls) that Morrissey frequently references. Such rhetorical abundance—rock, movies, politics—is what has made Morrissey a towering figure in pop culture. Outside rap, he has been the most influential pop artist of the last 20 years, even though the mainstream media, hostile to Morrissey’s perverse temper, intentionally refuse acknowledgement. American music critics have always ignored Morrissey’s political side in favor of the facile panderings of Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, and the musings of ‘70s traditionalists Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.

Always the Wildean wit, Morrissey chooses cover art for Ringleader that pictures him in a mock-Paganini pose, violin impishly tucked under his chin, and the bow pointing up-yours. For a rock album, it has bumptious humor (satirizing the Deustche Grammophon logo). But flip the CD booklet, and the inside art shows Morrissey poised before the graffiti scrawl SMASH BUSH. It’s not what you think. Climbing aboard the impeachment train would be too obvious for a pop star this sly. Morrissey lives to challenge. The mainstream never gives him credit: He put “Margaret [Thatcher] on the Guillotine”before Elvis Costello urged his listeners to “Tramp the Dirt Down.” Here, Morrissey unnerves the anti-Bush legions by becoming himself an irritant in the clamshell, provoking his audience to reflect upon both hero worship and politician-bashing as fickle pursuits. As the poet Geoffrey Jacques recently wrote, “This is a democracy/ We choose our tormentors.” Morrissey knows this is as true of a plebiscite as of the music charts. (On 1992’s Your Arsenal, Morrissey noted, “We won’t vote Conservative/ Everyone lies.”) 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?” It cuts through social naiveté with a devastating, worldly huff—followed by the heartbroken resolution, “I’m falling in love again.”

Morrissey once teased about, “Telling you all that you never wanted to know/ Showing you what you didn’t want shown.” In Ringleader, smashing Bush comes with Morrissey’s awareness that some would like to smash him, too (the most unsettling political awakening anyone can have). But before you do, hear him out.

Correction, May 2, 2006: This article originally identified the focus of the critique as being Morrissey’s debut album. Return to the corrected sentence.