Morrissey and the Red-State Music of My Youth

As race politics evolves, how do I listen to the songs that shaped me?

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Photo: Charlie Llewellin/flickr

What he said

A sampler of Morrissey’s recent utterances that are making me rethink more than three decades of fandom (thanks to The Week for putting them in one place):

“Racism is at its most abhorrent in relation to eating animals. If you eat animals, isn’t it a display of hatred for a certain species? And what gives you the right to eat another species or race? Would you eat people from Sri Lanka?”

Do these sound like the words of a “King,” as The Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers controversially deemed Morrissey during an NME interview before The Killers’ June 29 Glastonbury set, or a barking mad racist? The most recent declaration of the so-called “King,” in defense of his support of the anti-Muslim group For Britain (made in an echo-chamber April interview with his 35-year-old nephew, which the singer posted last month on his Morrissey Central website):

Is it 2019 or 1954?

Spoken like a segregationist bigot in 1950s America — or a member of the Ku Klux Klan. “To each his or her own” is the very foundation of racism, and 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education was such a pivotal moment in civil-rights history because it was the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling to challenge Jim Crow tradition. How dare Morrissey pin the narrow-minded thinking that used to relegate blacks and whites to supposedly “separate but equal” bathrooms on “everyone”!

To “cancel” or not to “cancel”

OK, so Morrissey would rather hold court with white fans than black ones. Where does that leave his music and me? Is it time to banish him from my Spotify playlists and from my life?

If we applied our high moral standards to all creative people, past and present, we’d have precious little music to listen to, TV and movies to watch, and art to admire. Some of us might even have to boycott ourselves.

In the age of #MeToo, when every word, every social media post, every breathlessly delivered celebrity story is held up to a microscope, it’s become increasingly hard to separate art and artist, but I try. It’s important to understand that Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual misconduct doesn’t make his performances in Seven, The Usual Suspects, and American Beauty any less brilliant.

A lifetime of excuses

I overlooked a lot of questionable lyrical content when I was younger because I lacked consciousness and awareness. I knew there was something not quite black-friendly about the the lines “I’m a grandson of the Southland, an heir to the Confederacy” in The Bellamy Brothers’ “You Ain’t Just A Whistlin’ Dixie” and the staunch Southern pride of Don Williams’s “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight,” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “Dixie on My Mind,” but it barely registered while I was singing along.

Creative listening

It helps when I think of my beloved Morrissey and Smiths songs as being frozen in a time when he wasn’t constantly making such egregiously offensive statements in public, back when I could pretend he might be a pretty decent guy in person. It’s a good thing I haven’t listened to any of his new music since 2006, because my retro appreciation makes it easier for me to focus on the nostalgic value and not on his current political stance.

I try to remember that there was so much more to Johnny Cash than his 1982 single “The General Lee” and how lovely he was to me when I met him at an event in the early ’90s.

And if all else fails, I can take Nick Cave’s advice to a Morrissey fan who was struggling to reconcile his love of Morrissey’s body of work with his hatred of his politics.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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