Nothing at New York’s “Homecoming” vaccination concerts this weekend will match the March 17, 2020, jest where Morrissey began his London concert with an a capella rendition of the Skeeter Davis hit “End of the World.” He crooned the timely lament — then sneezed. At that point, the backdrop projection flashed a mock album cover photo of Morrissey wearing a COVID mask alongside a satirical title “You Are the Quarantined” (riffing on Morrissey’s 2004 comeback album You Are the Quarry).
Morrissey’s effrontery contrasts with the compliance of the “Homecoming” performers Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Patti Smith, Journey, LL Cool J. They don’t share Morrissey’s iconoclastic pith. All those former rock-and-roll rebels enlisted for Mayor de Blasio’s Bread and Circuses event demonstrate their support for the new political compliance — somehow their participation conflates New York citizenship with their personal millionaire comfort, the easy life achieved through success and detachment from mundane subsistence.
The excuse that these stars celebrate New York City’s “return to normalcy” doesn’t jibe with Morrissey’s awareness of political threat and passive submission to ruling-class commands. Instead, de Blasio’s stars use their celebrity to convince the common folk to follow political fiat.
Springsteen, Simon, Smith, et al. backpedal from their former artistic stances on individual freedom — a quantifiably different approach from Morrissey’s belief in personal, idiosyncratic freedom. That “You Are the Vaccinated” joke parallels with You Are the Quarry as a warning against totalitarian efforts by insensitive, heartless citizens and egotistic politicians who would force their dictates upon you.
Bloomberg News reported that de Blasio’s event was planned to corral 60,000 people in Central Park for a stick-and-carrot vaccine inducement. Where Morrissey cajoled audiences to think for themselves, de Blasio’s pop stars participate in a reeducation concert — Bloomberg News also noted that “the celebratory tone contrasts with a harsher scolding.” De Blasio added, “We are doing this in an intentional way to keep creating more positive pressure for vaccinations. It is purposefully moving steps aggressively one after another.” Do the vaunted liberals Bruce, Paul, Patti, et al. agree with pressure? Are they secretly fond of aristocratic coercion? They turn their success into opportunities to lull listeners into partisan politics. Politicizing their fans’ affection is nothing less than a betrayal of trust and good will.
De Blasio’s music-for-the-masses project comes terribly close to other progressive notions for making American life more socialist; urging people to think of themselves as masses is simple bread and circuses. New York City’s municipal ability to quickly pull together events of public persuasion — from Juneteenth to the Canyon of Heroes parade for the seditious female Olympic soccer team to the parade for the COVID first responders during the current economic stress — smacks of tyrannical mass brainwashing. It exploits culture to reward obedience while pretending to celebrate humanity.
But the phrase “bread and circuses,” coined by Juvenal in the first century a.d. (from the Latin panis et circenses), described how politicians use diversion and distraction to satisfy a docile populace. Morrissey’s sneeze comes from his political-artistic soul, giving us back our humanity along with our vulnerability and our unique, if not always “common,” sensibilities.
Morrissey is the pop artist with the strongest record of opposing fascist presumptions (despite controversies wrought by journalists who misunderstand his complex observation of politics and society, whether in such superb recordings as “Bengali in Platforms” and “The National Front Disco” or in provocative interview statements).
By choosing “End of the World” (the epitome of pop music simple and deep enough to crush the childhood innocence of Morrissey’s generation), Morrissey half-kidded about civilization’s collapse in response to political plagues and government overreach. As a segue to the Smiths’ song “London,” Morrissey swiftly moved from nostalgic sentiment to full-on alarm about present-day fears. Howling at the end of “London” to match its rollicking terror about violent life change and the rupture of social, familial, and cultural ties, Morrissey laid out the large question: “Do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?”
Morrissey’s complex nose-thumbing jest reminds us of the liberating virtue that most pop stars have forsaken — defiance against repressive limitation on instinct and love and interconnection. Springsteen, Simon, and Smith have forgotten those freedoms. Rock stars used to look fearless and act downright rude; now, Bruce, Paul, and Patti are as polite and devious as blue-haired poll watchers.
Backdrop to the Future: At long last, the You Are the Quarry cover I never liked (in which Morrissey posed as a Roaring Twenties–style gangster) finally makes sense. Dressing his private dread in cultural mockery now has undeniable contemporary context: The image of a mask-wearing authoritarian pointing a tommy gun at first looks like irresistible kitsch but now seems disturbingly accurate for the COVID apocalypse. This is the single best nose-thumbing pop act since the great days of Public Enemy and the Sex Pistols. Surely the liberating wit of Morrissey’s sneeze can be understood around the world, but not everyone is listening.