Culture

Morrissey: When Demagoguery Goes Pop

Morrissey (Photo: Shore Fire Media)
The Smiths’ former frontman changes protest music for better — and worse.

While Bruce Springsteen delivers his populist harangue on Broadway, Morrissey brought political complexity to his concert at Madison Square Garden last weekend. This contrast points up a change in pop music’s ongoing political discourse, which seems to have stalled, and reveals a new perspective that is desperately to be desired, if difficult to maintain.

Morrissey’s deviation from pop music’s liberal orthodoxy commends him to readers’ attention. That’s what makes his concert and new album Low in High School an eccentric landmark in contemporary political thinking. Springsteen embodies the archetypal pop-music liberal: a millionaire who writes songs full of working-class pretenses and who voices public support for Democratic political candidates, something Morrissey never has done. Despite maintaining the querulous temper of punk-based British rock, and giving it his own witty, adult spin, Morrissey’s disposition is to reprove authority figures and dominant institutions (though he always champions animal rights, which is a partisan cause only at its most extreme).

Although he has supported Brexit in interviews, Morrissey isn’t a conservative pop star. He sings to outsiders and has galvanized an audience similar to the traditionalist following of some country-music artists. But Morrissey pushes even rock “rebels” further out, moving them toward introspection and a worldview that questions casual social conventions (“You’re the One for Me, Fatty,” “The National Front Disco”).

Swinging between romance and polemics, the new album takes on politics as a reflection of personal need and anxiety. In form and substance, it is not neo-Broadway like Springsteen’s installing established protest pop into a companion pantheon. Instead, at a time when liberal sanctimony has laid claim to all styles of protest vernacular, Low in High School disrupts the status quo.

By the regular standards of protest pop, the album is a failure. But Morrissey never abides by those standards, and his album is confounding, thrilling, and original. In his previous album World Peace Is None of Your Business (2014), Morrissey discovered the limits of protest songwriting both aesthetically and socially: Argument leads only to more argument, in the era of polarization. This new album’s advance is, ironically, its retreat into passion-as-protest; both erotic and ideational passions are conveyed in songs that are an intense, even drastic reinterpretation of the old saw “the personal is political.” Low in High School makes the political sexual. Morrissey subverts the pieties and delusions of sexualized pop music by explicitly connecting sensuality to social frustration.

Critic John Demetry has cited it as “Morrissey’s Brecht album,” which perfectly describes the many tracks that evoke The Threepenny Opera, using aphorisms as political comment. My own first impression that the album’s “alienation effect” was non-commercial was mistaken; it is, in fact, full of hooks — not simply hooks as rhythmic and melodic pleasure, but hooks as dazzling, stimulating, deeply moving ideas.

Springsteen’s traditional notion of a “concept album” as conceived with “four corners” of obviously balanced themes and rhymes gets demolished here, in songs with repeated verses and abbreviated choruses—a radical return to blues rather than folk-song structure. It’s the music of marginalized consciousness: “All of my friends are in trouble / They’re sorry, they’re sick and they know / There’s no need to go into that now.” This is “The Girl from Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel,” which fits Middle East dilemma to a Mariachi texture — deliberately. Through the title character’s lament, Morrissey expresses his global awareness and then comes to a Brechtian salvo: “The land weeps oil.” It’s a brilliant, evocative line that transcends the political reality of international commerce and conflict, but it shifts contemporary feeling into a poetic realm.

Morrissey is not a political analyst, but “the land weeps oil” conjures Iraq War protest with global sorrow, alongside the tune’s dolorous Latino resignation. One could say that Morrissey oversimplifies the political troubles his songs touch on, but that would be off-base, because he’s doing something more artistically exciting than propaganda: He is not being merely topical but expressing himself poetically through an insistent stream of political consciousness.

Rare for a protest album, Low in High School virtually avoids taking or blaming sides except for when Morrissey zeroes in on the disaster of media influence.

This album points up the fundamental opposition raised by pop protest music: Conservatism is based on reason while liberalism is based on sentiment. Morrissey corrects one with the other. He does not take sides but looks at circumstances more fully.

In the album’s assorted scenarios — family sacrifices during war (the seven-minute centerpiece “I Bury the Living”); revolution (“Who Will Save Us from the Police?”); the public spectacle of a performer who cannot hide personal struggle (the half-comic “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on Stage”); the inescapable sense of global anomie (“Home Is a Question Mark”) — one hears a connecting motif of place names that are not simply geographical. Morrissey sings these designations (Venezuela, Tel Aviv, etc.) with the awe of just learning information and sudden discovery of feeling — it’s a new expression of empathy. Hearing supra-patriotic pleas such as “I hug the land but nothing more / Since I don’t have you” will, I’m certain, echo in a sensitive listener’s mind for years.

The intimate singing of place names leads to the final song’s personalized advice in “Israel,” that title being a name that evokes both a single person as love object and the cradle of Judeo-Christian belief and sectarian conflict. For the Mancunian artist who sang “Irish Blood, English Heart” and “I Have Forgiven Jesus,” “Israel” is a worldly personification of the outrage, despair, and hope described in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Morrissey’s global citizenry is flagless but with spiritual breadth. In “I Wish You Lonely,” he makes a case for finding consciousness based on an autonomous self that sees through a range of social distractions — military service, romance (“the same old glue”), and too-common defeat (“heroin, heroin, heroin, heroin”). These are concerns that Springsteen ignored in favor of divisiveness on his proto-Deplorables folk album Wrecking Ball (2012) .

Rare for a protest album, Low in High School virtually avoids taking or blaming sides except for when Morrissey zeroes in on the disaster of media influence. The opening track is a grand denunciation, advising parents, “Teach your kids to recognize and despise all the propaganda / Filtered down by the dead echelon’s mainstream media.” It is an anguished, wordy yet soaring plaint with a twisted pronunciation that cleverly turns “mainstream” into “mean-stream.” When performed live, the song and its shifting meters opened up into theatrical rock-’n’-roll bravado, a cynical yet impassioned anthem.

Alert to the media prevarications that control popular and private thought, Morrissey has recorded some of the finest anti-media songs (“Reader Meet Author,” “Journalists Who Lie”) since Elvis Costello’s heyday of “Radio, Radio,” “New Lace Sleeves,” and “King of Thieves.” This uncommon invective pinpoints the source of the most dangerous political manipulations of the past quarter-century. Pop music can also be part of this propaganda, especially if it deepens people’s belief in unexamined platitudes.

Morrissey can sometimes be politically facile. (Would he have dared sing the lyric “Presidents come and presidents go / And oh the damage they do” when Obama was in office?) His concert closed with an imprecise provocation: Against an image of his Years of Refusal album cover, where he posed cradling a baby in his right arm (with President Trump photoshopped as the infant), Morrissey unveiled a dull obvious sing-along called “Trumpshifters.” As if to court liberal approval, he went against his own intransigence. This finale distorted The Smiths’ stirring “Shoplifters of the World, Unite” (1987), his own unforgettable ode to revolution. That song, a musical round of dissatisfied social yearning, is a reverberating, ingenious ideological maze that you cannot find your way out of — which is why it is both funny and magnificent. But, here, in the concert’s one misguided, unfunny, patronizing perversion, Morrissey became Springsteen.

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