Morrissey, the game-changing British pop star, has just released a record so timely it could be called reportorial. “World Peace Is None of Your Business” takes sarcastic assessment of current global conditions, peaking with a right-now litany that name-checks Brazil, Bahrain, Egypt, and Ukraine. Sung in Morrissey’s identifiable plaintive, romantic style (formerly heard in his 1980s group The Smiths), it’s an anti-anthem — not meant to promote sides in a conflict or inspire allegiance, but intended to rouse skepticism about politics and authority.
This indeed changes the game played by most pop-music artists who profess political consciousness. The customary pattern is to sing cause- or issue-related screeds, typically from a left-liberal perspective (Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas,” U2’s “In the Name of Love,” et al.) that rallies hoary sentiments about “justice,” “equality,” or “pacifism.” But Morrissey abandons that moralistic folkie mode.
Morrissey has become one of the few iconic pop artists to sing about ideology. He targets the unconscious suppositions people share as “common sense.” This wily, personally principled approach has unnerved Morrissey’s critics since the beginning of his singer-songwriter career when The Smiths put out records that deliberately queered the conventions of love songs (“This Charming Man”) and dance tunes (“How Soon is Now”).
The protest song is what Morrissey transforms in “World Peace.” He laments the modern-day futility of protest (Occupy as herd mentality), which is a specific advance from his regular reproof of ideological self-righteousness. No anarchist he, Morrissey is cautionary. “World Peace” pities the “poor little fool” who “sweetly pays taxes never asking what for” and warns the electorate who dutifully, unthinkingly “supports the process.” His point is disillusionment and his art, that sensitive yet persuasive croon — a croon that yearns — makes the loss of faith palpable. Politics, the song implies, has become the scheme of others more brutal than you.
To dull ears, that might seem cynical. But listen. Morrissey doesn’t sound cynical. “World Peace” is a plaint connecting geopolitical circumstances and private-citizen helplessness — the humane part of citizenship that feels and regrets its ineffectual reality. This realization is significant precisely because it goes neither left or right. Conservatives may think Margaret Thatcher–bashing Morrissey has nothing to say to them, but his exacting, revelatory art completes or perfects important parts of their own social argument, including impatience with glib liberal sentimentality. Above all, Morrissey seizes upon the illusion politicians and protesters insistently misuse to manipulate expectations, as in Patti Smith’s sincere but fanciful “People Have the Power.” Morrissey’s song goes deep beneath doctrinal enthusiasm to reject rabble-rousing folly and political vanity — opiates that current cruel inhumanity has disproved.
Responding to recent events in Brazil, Bahrain, Egypt, and Ukraine, he observes “so many people in pain.” Rulers might consider this ineffectual, but Morrissey’s position has a thoughtful and sympathetic core. Rather than encourage people to inanely “get involved” in political busyness that either fails or exacts a painful cost, his track ends artfully, with a grinding, rhythmic musical impression of martial movement and pyrotechnic explosion — sounds of militarism (or rioting) that intrude on peace more convincingly than mere rhetorical lyrics ever could. We hear the result of political venality, the foolhardy, all-too-human ineptitude that Morrissey dares rebuke. It makes for a song of powerful irony and grief. Its opposite number, “Earth Is the Loneliest Planet of All,” could be a great James Bond title (or theme song), but its illustration of the unkindness in the world pleads against incivility (it explains, at long last, the drive behind Morrissey’s artistry and the puzzling, sardonic title of his first solo release, 1988’s Viva Hate.)
The audacious “World Peace” — title track of Morrissey’s pointed new album — recalls two previous career-defining provocations. With The Smiths in 1986, Morrissey and his co-writer, guitarist Johnny Marr, responded to the Chernobyl disaster with the single “Panic,” a riposte to pop music that “says nothing to me about my life.” And in 2004, Morrissey waged a solo comeback with an album-opening track called “America Is Not the World.” Accustomed to controversy — and unafraid of it — Morrissey woos listeners by always challenging them. (No wonder dim critics revile him.) His song “America” (reflecting his relocation from the U.K. to Los Angeles residency in Clark Gable’s old mansion) decried “where the President is never Black, Female or Gay / And until that day / You’ve got nothing to say to me / To help me believe.”
Time has, in turn, queered Morrissey America-baiting. The media has heralded the election of a “Black” president and there are strong prospects for the next being Female or Gay, which doesn’t mean Morrissey’s provocation was mistimed; it just needed devious (“bi-racial”) perception. Most pop singers, whether conservative or liberal. endeavor to win popular approval by simplifying their political messages — even country artists who more commonly celebrate patriotic fealty — but Morrissey’s method is always to complicate. His interest in paradoxical reasoning and ambivalent emotion gives his music uncommon maturity and richness. “America Is Not the World” begins scolding, yet ends “but I love you, I love you, I love you,” sung gently and persuasively. The point isn’t mere political loyalty but the complex thinking-through of beliefs, principles, realities — the same search for understanding that observes the chaos of Brazil, Bahrain, Egypt, and Ukraine then detaches enough to foreground the reality of suffering and dissatisfaction — not images of dead or injured children but the humane work that remains to be done even though nebulous pop-music politics rarely, if ever, acknowledge it. If pop music is ever to be taken seriously, it needs the sense of humor Morrissey dares.
Because even progressive politics can go wrong or wanting, or else can fail to satisfy or empower, it is the combination of sarcasm and passionate concern that has made Morrissey a singularly pertinent artist for the past quarter-century. World Peace gets to the heart of modern dissatisfaction — which sets the terms for the entire album and in effect sets new levels to which all forthcoming political pop music must aspire.
But it won’t be easy. Recent flare-ups in Iraq and Israel make Morrissey’s proposition newly relevant. If we cannot, individually, directly effect what goes on across the world, it’s yet crucial to understand our own relationship to the political system. Morrissey’s method has always been to use the enticements of pop to shock people out of their complacency. This is a Punk esthetic but it importantly differs from folk-rock’s intimidating conceit that its audience all share a republic’s beliefs and ambitions — ideology undefined and unexamined. Morrissey’s tender sarcasm forces a listener’s self-examination. Depending on your temperament, this can be fascinating or enraging.
Most pop critics, pledged to the cliché of youth revolution, sooner or later reveal their belief in a facile, juvenile rebellion that ultimately benefits their own social advantages and privileges. American critics particularly resisted the Smiths through narrow-mindedness — a deep-seated homophobia. After imbibing the heterosexual dynamism of R&B, the Rolling Stones and their ilk, many rock critics could not raise themselves above that vicarious experience and adolescent thrill. They were discomforted by the political basis of The Smiths’ (Morrissey’s) rebellion. Now reviewers chide Morrissey’s satire of power; castigating his egotism without understanding that power is the political motive that Morrissey means to dissect.
His insistence on political awareness about either sentimental bohemianism (“Neal Cassady Drops Dead”), the universality of distraught parents (“Istanbul”), the Irish troubles (“Mountjoy”), masculine ethos (“I’m Not a Man”) — a truly splendid range of social perspicacity/alertness — amounts to a troubled confrontation with everyday hegemony. It matters that each track is a memorable, hummable tune and matters especially that the hooks and melodies imprint Morrissey’s by-no-means-conventional inquiry into personal politics.
The “Neal Cassady” song name-drops Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, an implicit Bob Dylan connection, but it also rejects the mystique and the unquestioned hegemony that has hung about Dylan as an albatross, forcing particular political (bohemian, left) sentiments upon the practice of rock-and-roll. The song projects that hipster myth (“Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ becomes a growl”) into the abysmal, unethical present where “Everyone has babies, babies full of rabies . . . ” a wittily horrific description of the millennial populace, the Beat generation’s offspring. Morrissey’s disgust matches Johnny Rotten’s anti-abortion revulsion in The Sex Pistols’ “Bodies”– the paradoxical jeremiad that many rock critics still can’t face. Morrissey’s complaint ends posing a choice: “Victim or life’s adventurer / Which of the two are you?”
Independent thinking is Morrissey’s challenge to the culture. Although Morrissey witnessed the anti-royalist fervor of 1970s punk, he has been reluctant to rubber-stamp pop politics (other than animal rights and veganism), which was the lesson of his boldest, most striking album, 1992’s Your Arsenal, where he memorably sang the skeptical plebiscite assessment “‘We won’t vote Conservative / Because we never have’ / Everyone lies”); that album also featured the controversial “The National Front Disco,” a song whose complex understanding of British politics is astonishing to this day.
The new album track most disruptive to critics’ complacency is “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle,” a challenge to new ideas on marriage, uncovering the weakest subconscious motivations of brides and grooms and testing facile assumptions that attend Marriage Equality. Through the lore of traditional habits and amusements, we rarely question the social facts (dependencies and regrets) of such a cultural institution. (This track could also be called “The Old Ball-and-Chain.”) It’s hilarious to read rock critics, 37 years after the Punk breakthrough, attack Morrissey as “snide” for devising a lyric as playfully daring as “Look at that cow / In the field / It knows more than your bride knows now.”
The knowing is the key to “World Peace Is None of Your Business.” Of course one must feel for the tragedies that occur around the globe both today and historically but in a culture accustomed to allowing others to speak for us — whether politicians, media celebrities or rock stars — it is necessary to recognize the first step of this moral defeat. Morrissey’s outsider status has always allowed him to develop beyond British Punk’s most explicit political expressions and it is his alienation and opposition that confound those who insist on orthodox pop preachments. Morrissey’s new album is not about wrestling power from those who lord it over us (leave those teenage antics to Rage Against the Machine), but the basic, meaningful act of defying ordinary aggression and control.
This need goes deep. “Staircase at the University” is one of Morrissey’s suicide-as-defiance songs (like the great “The Father Who Must Be Killed” on 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors album) that tells the story of a girl crushed by the pressure to achieve high grades; it obliquely addresses how ambition is inculcated through our competitive social ethic. There’s no better proof of Morrissey’s sanity-saving sense of humor than the blazing, infectious guitar solo that climaxes this amazing song. Morrissey’s mournful extended melisma leads into a hand-clapping flamenco — tribute to Morrissey’s enormous Latin American following and further evidence of the album’s internationalist sympathies, its global largesse.
Morrissey’s got nerve, that’s how he dares foist “The Bullfighter Dies” upon fans who may not belong to PETA yet can’t resist his pith and savvy. But because he is a pop star and not a demagogue, Morrissey always turns his political inspection to introspection. The album’s finale, “Oboe Concerto,” is as unexpectedly non-rock as a closing track can be. (Morrissey fans may delight in how the song’s title relates to the famous story of how Richard Strauss composed an oboe concerto at the request of an American soldier at the end of WWII.) Its melody repeats the melancholy of the Smiths song ”Death of a Disco Dancer” but this is Morrissey’s assessment of pop trends passing by him that yet make an impression: “There’s a song I can’t stand / And it’s stuck in my head.” Yes, this, too, is political. We abide by social developments that don’t sit well; still we tolerate them and recognize that our control is temporal and our political impact is limited. Morrissey just turned 55, and “World Peace Is None of Your Business” demonstrates the wisdom of being youthful at heart but not fooled by the delusions of progress advanced by a few.
Nothing could be more timely than opposing today’s media-led complacency. That means making a pop album that responds to the horror of ideological conformity through political alertness, musical wit, and bold compassion. When Elvis Costello, a comparable British pop wit, made his most overtly political album, Armed Forces (1979), he ended it with “What’s So Funny (about Peace, Love and Understanding)?” offering clever, maybe too-conventional, rocking-out purgation. Without ever receiving Costello’s mainstream éclat — and, in fact, defying it, along with discouraging the worship that limits comprehension of pop oracles — Morrissey twists Costello’s platitudinous irony to find pop music’s rarely cheered personal ethic. World Peace Is None of Your Business turns out to be an irresistible and undeniable ultimatum.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.