Morrissey

snowy.ykhm

Morrissey

CHAPTER 17Being Wild(e) About MorrisseyEOIN DEVEREUXHe attracts this gentle adoration from everybody, butyou’d need a degree in sociology to work him out. 1The Point Theatre at Dublin’s North Wall was built in1878. Formerly a rail depot, the venue is oftenheralded as symbolic of the gradual revitalisation ofthe area. What was once a place of toil for a specific group ofworkers has become a place of leisure for many. On 20December 2004 upwards of eight thousand people gatheredin the Point Theatre to see the final night of Morrissey’s ‘YouAre The Quarry Tour’.Before the concert began, the crowd sang ‘Morrissey,Morrissey, Morrissey’ to the strains of the football anthem‘Here We Go, Here We Go, Here We Go’. At 8.45 p.m. thesound system played ‘The Imperfect List’, a spoken pieceitemising the decline of English working-class life. Theaudience knew that this piece signalled the start of the gig.Morrissey arrived on stage dressed as a priest and blessedhis fans. Between songs he name-checked various parts ofDublin, referring to Drumcondra, Crumlin and Glasnevin.He also mentioned well-known pubs such as Whelans and1 Morrissey’s former manager, Jo Slee, cited in D. Brett, Morrissey:Landscapes of the Mind, London: Robson Books, 1994, p. 126.235


UNCERTAIN IRELANDMcDaids. He was playful with the audience. Earlier, a‘leprechaun’ had appeared on stage, dusting down themusical instruments before the band started to play. Withthe name ‘Morrissey’ in red lights forming a ‘Las Vegas style’backdrop, the former Smiths singer entertained his fans forseventy minutes before bidding them an emotional farewellAn iconic and contradictory figure – being a shy andreclusive yet narcissistic rock star – Morrissey provoked afervent response from his fans. Those in the front of theauditorium, who tried desperately to touch Morrissey’s handor climbed on stage in order to hug him, demonstrated thescale of the fervour. Later, many of the same fans vied witheach other for a piece of Morrissey’s shirt or t-shirt, which hecast into the audience in the last quarter of the show. Theyalso competed for the other artefacts such as water bottles,drumsticks and set-lists that Morrissey and his bandmembers threw into the crowd during the concert’s climax.Both the star and his songs are sufficiently ambiguous toattract a broad range of fans. His fan base is strongly malebut he has significant numbers of female fans. Morrissey isa contradiction. He is heralded as a gay icon but he appealsto ‘straight’ men. His previous band The Smiths aresometimes (somewhat problematically) seen as being thequintessentially English band of the 1980s, 2 yet all fourmembers were the children of Irish immigrants. The songsof The Smiths and Morrissey are just one example of alarger shift within (Northern English) popular culture,which has fetishised and commodified traditional workingclasslife. The songs have, in turn, crossed manygeographical and cultural boundaries in terms of their2 See, for example, J. Stringer, ‘The Smiths: Repressed (ButRemarkably Dressed)’, Popular Music, vol. 11, 1992, pp. 15–26.Stringer emphasises the extent to which The Smiths were bound upwith articulating a specific version of ‘White Englishness’. Thistheme is developed further in N. Zuberi, ‘The Last Truly BritishPeople You Will Ever Know: The Smiths, Morrissey and Britpop’,Sounds English: Transnational Popular Music, Chicago: Universityof Illinois Press, 2001, pp. 17–72.236


BEING WILD(E) ABOUT MORRISSEYmeaning and their appeal, for example Morrissey hasattracted a cult following in places like Bogotá, Columbia, aswell as, most notably, amongst Latino immigrants in theUnited States. Even a cursory scan of the many fan websitesand fanzines dedicated to Morrissey indicates the centralityof the star in the very meaning that Irish and other fansmake of their lives. Some Irish and diasporic Irish fans haveadopted electronic usernames such as ‘Irish Moz’, ‘IrishHeartthrob’ and ‘Irish Blood, Irish Heart’. So how are we tomake sense of this phenomenon? What does it mean to be aMorrissey fan?In this chapter I use an ethnographic approach in order totry and understand more about Morrissey’s fandom in anIrish context. My understanding of his fandom is focused ona discussion around identity and meaning. I begin by brieflydiscussing the characteristics of Morrissey’s fans. They aredefined in terms of their diversity and their fervour. Agrowing number of them are also defined in terms of theirmobility. As a discernible sub-culture, they are easilyidentifiable in terms of their overall style. While there aremany Irish resonances in the combined work of Morrisseyand The Smiths, his Irish fans are participating in a form ofpopular culture that is transnational in its appeal. Fans,whether in Mexico City or Monaghan, localise the meaningsthey find in Morrissey’s songs.Sing your lifeThe appeal of The Smiths is often explained in terms of theirmusical virtuosity, and particularly the abilities of guitaristJohnny Marr (née Maher), but more usually by reference toMorrissey’s lyrics which are abundant with sadness,humour and irony. He sings, typically in the first person,about depression, suicide, failed relationships andrelationships that will never happen. He sings about thedispossessed, the long-term unemployed, the disabled andthe lonely. There has been a recurring focus on themesassociated with gay sub-culture. He has written about237


UNCERTAIN IRELANDboxers, football hooligans and skinheads. Fans in Irelandand elsewhere repeatedly refer to the connection they feelwith Morrissey’s lyrics. They apply the situations evident inMorrissey’s songs to their own immediate experiences. Theyconform to Alan Wells’ thesis on the emotional use andmanagement of popular music in everyday life. 3 The musicand the lyrics evoke memories of sad and happy events intheir personal lives.The music of The Smiths was initially popular during anera of record unemployment in the UK and pre-Celtic TigerIreland. Fandom, however, stretches beyond the songsthemselves. In response to a question on the significance ofMorrissey’s music, one Irish fan told me that it was aboutmore than just music: ‘Morrissey is a way of life’. A furtherexample is to be found in a two-day event in Cork in June2005. The video artist Phil Collins recorded an Irish versionof his karaoke film ‘The World Won’t Listen’ over two daysas part of the Cork European City of Culture. The openinvitation to the recording described the event as ‘a karaokefor the shy, the dissatisfied, narcissists, and anyone whoever wished they could be someone else for a night’.Upwards of forty people took part in this event with eachperson being given 30 minutes for their performance. In asubsequent discussion on the Morrissey-Solo website, one ofthe Cork participants said, ‘I got my 15 minutes [of fame] inCork for ‘The World Won’t Listen’ karaoke. I sang ‘BigmouthStrikes Again’, with pride and some gladioli for fun! Wasbrilliant, [It] was always my dream to sing The Smiths’. 4As leader of The Smiths and as a solo artist since 1987,Morrissey has attracted a fandom that is sometimes seen asfanatical. His fans have been described elsewhere,somewhat unfairly, as being ‘High-IQ misfits and fervent3 A. Wells, ‘Popular Music: Emotional Use and Management’, PopularCulture, vol. 24, no. 1, 1990, pp. 105–117. Wells employs a uses-andgratificationsapproach towards understanding the significance ofpopular music in the emotional lives of university students.4 Amanda_hug_n_kiss on Morrissey-Solo.Com, accessed 11 July 2005.238


BEING WILD(E) ABOUT MORRISSEYintroverts’. 5 In addition to a range of biographies andhagiographies, Morrissey has slowly begun to attract theinterest of sociologists interested in masculinity and queertheory, cultural studies theorists and musicologists.Morrissey’s appeal seems to hinge on the openness of themusical texts that he creates. While he attracts a significantmale audience, the mode of address of his songs speaks to anaudience that can be male/female/gay/straight/bisexual/celibate/transgendered.In Ireland, and elsewhere, Morrissey’s concerts and otherMorrissey-related events such as tribute band nights orkaraoke evenings are places where non-conformist sexualidentities can find a space. His music encapsulates thecomplexities of postmodern masculinities. The themes dealwith being soft or hard, funny or sad, vulnerable orinvincible, caring or not caring, meek or proud, spontaneousor orchestrated, naïve or manipulative, and so forth.The importance of being (like) MorrisseyAt the 2004 Point Theatre concert the audience werepredominantly male and aged thirty-five or older. What isimmediately striking is the level of mimicry amongst manyof his male fans, who attempt to look like their icon atvarious stages of his career. A specific hairstyle and style ofdress mark out the (male) Morrissey fan. The dress codeinvolves wearing either a Morrissey t-shirt usuallyemblazoned with Morrissey’s face or a t-shirt fromMorrissey’s previous band The Smiths. Many of the t-shirts,which were originally record covers, make use of gayiconography. Additional items of clothing include thewearing of a Harrington-style jacket and Dr Martens shoes5 Paul Evans quoted in N. Hubbs, ‘Music of the ‘Fourth Gender’:Morrissey and the Sexual Politics of Melodic Contour’, in T. Foster,C. Stiegel and E. E. Berry (eds.), Bodies of Writing, Bodies inPerformance, New York: New York University Press, 1996, pp.266–296, p. 287.239


UNCERTAIN IRELANDor boots. The James Dean/Elvis-style quiff is the mostcommon hairstyle. Some fans have the nickname ‘Moz’shaved into the back of their heads. Tattoos, of eitherMorrissey’s image or selected quotes from his songs, are alsoused as signifiers of fandom. Other fans wear t-shirtsquoting lyrics from his songs. One female fan, for example,had the words ‘Lazy Dyke’ on her t-shirt, in reference to arecent Morrissey song. Male and female fans wear t-shirtswith ‘The Moz Father’ written across their chests. Also inevidence are the NHS-style glasses that Morrissey wore inthe early days of his singing career as well as gladioli wornin the back trouser pocket.Fandom, however, does not come cheap. The officialmerchandisers inside the Point Theatre sold t-shirts for €30as well as button badges and car stickers for €5 and €8respectively. The selling of the Morrissey brand extendedoutside the venue, where post-show street-sellers hawkedcopies of ‘official’ t-shirts for €10. A local hotel re-named itsevening buffet ‘The Morrissey Special’. Clubs and pubs heldafter-show Morrissey events and rumours abounded thatMorrissey himself would appear at one or other of thesevenues. Fans met up and sang their favourite Smiths andMorrissey songs, karaoke-style, until the early hours of themorning.While there were examples of a variety of subcultures inthe Point audience that evening, such as skinheads, punksand mods, Morrissey fans are an identifiable sub-culture intheir own right. Taina Viitamäki notes the heterogeneity ofMorrissey’s fans and states that his American fans include‘androgenic teenagers, Latino gangsters, skinheads, welldressed30 year olds, gays and some older fans’. 6 Morrisseyhas a specific appeal to gay fans. After his Dublin Castleconcert in June 2004, there was a special ‘Gay Launch’ ofMorrissey’s latest record in the Temple Bar Music Centre.The launch was celebrated by a heavy metal group fronted6 T. Viitamäki, ‘I’m Not the Man You Think I Am: Morrissey’s FourthGender’, Musical Currents, no. 3, 1997, pp. 29–40, p. 40.240


BEING WILD(E) ABOUT MORRISSEYby a cross-dressing lead singer, as well as several hours ofmusic by Morrissey and The Smiths. The stage backdropwas a continuous video loop with quotes from Morrissey’ssongs.‘The regular irregulars’Morrissey’s fan base is increasingly mobile. Cheaper airtravel means that a growing number of fans followed the2004 tour throughout Europe and North America. Two of myinformants – one from Israel and one from Scotland – gaveup paid employment for a year to follow this tour. At otherconcerts, in Paris and London, I spoke to Irish, Canadianand British fans who replicated this pattern. Irish fans alsotravelled to Boston in 2004. Some structured a year out fromwork or study around following the tour. Friendships aremade and information is exchanged amongst the fans, withMorrissey being the most talked about theme. ‘Full-time’Morrissey fans, from Ireland and beyond, made use of thediscussion boards on fan websites in order to find thecheapest places to stay in Dublin. In the weeks leading up tothe concert they discussed travel and accommodationoptions, they made arrangements to meet up either beforeor after the concert and they discussed the rumour that thePoint gig would possibly be the last ever in Morrissey’scareer. Over six hundred messages were sent to thediscussion boards concerning this concert. Morrissey madespecific reference to these fans during the concert as beingthe ‘regular irregulars’. During the concert, he also spokedirectly to one specific fan – Julia Riley – who had attendedevery single concert on this and previous tours. He alsoreferred to a group of Spanish fans that he could identify inthe audience.Who or what is Morrissey?Morrissey’s biographical details and his influences are welldocumented. He was born Steven Patrick Morrissey on 22241


UNCERTAIN IRELANDMay 1959 in Manchester. He was born into an immigrant,Irish, Catholic, working-class family. His parents hadmigrated from Crumlin in Dublin. Experiencing thedislocation common to many immigrant children, Morrisseyhas summarised himself as being: ‘Ten parts Crumlin, tenparts Old Trafford’. 7 Much of the subject matter ofMorrissey’s songs deals with the particular experience ofbeing Catholic and working class (for example ‘I haveForgiven Jesus’), which further cements the connectionsthat many Irish fans have with his music. He is also wellread in terms of feminist theory and has famously espousedvegetarianism, animal rights and celibacy. By all accountshe was a shy and reclusive teenager. He was a dedicated fanof film star James Dean, northern English playwrightShelagh Delaney, prototypal punk group The New YorkDolls and Anglo-Irish writer Oscar Wilde. Simon Goddardtraces how Delaney’s and Wilde’s work have beenparticularly influential in shaping Morrissey’s songwriting. 8 As the musical equivalent of a literary dandy,Morrissey has used Wilde as a reference point throughouthis career.In 1982, along with Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and MikeJoyce, he formed the seminal post-punk group The Smiths.Given that all of the band members were of Irish parentage,it was perhaps with some irony that they named themselvesThe Smiths. From the foundation of The Smiths, Morrisseydecreed that he would be known by only his surname. TheSmiths was an immensely successful band in its five shortyears of existence. Although the band members refused torecord promotional videos for their songs, they made carefuluse of a stock of images concerned with (White) northernEnglish, working-class life as well as an array of gay andcamp icons from soap operas and the ‘Carry On’ genre of7 ‘Who Put the ‘M’ in Manchester?’ [DVD], Sanctuary Music Group,2005.8 S. Goddard, The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life, London:Reynolds and Hearn, 2nd edition, 1994.242


BEING WILD(E) ABOUT MORRISSEYBritish films. Homoerotic imagery continues to dominatethe iconography used to promote Morrissey’s solorecordings. Avowedly anti-Royalist, The Smiths provokedmany political controversies in their five-year existence,especially when Morrissey made controversial comments inthe aftermath of the IRA’s attempt to assassinate the PrimeMinister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet at theConservative Party conference at Brighton in 1984.The Smiths disbanded in 1987. Since then, Morrissey’ssolo career has had mixed fortunes in terms of record sales.Without a recording contract for a long period of time, hecontinued to sell out his concert tours. His fan base has beenre-constituted in recent years with a growing number ofHispanic fans becoming devotees, especially in his adoptedhometown of Los Angeles. He has also begun to attractyounger fans. The prospect of him remaining a cult figure onthe margins of the mainstream music industry was broughtto a close in 2004, with his resurgence as a top-sellingrecording and touring artist. As ever, his newest songs dealwith themes such as identity (the autobiographical ‘IrishBlood/English Heart’ and ‘Mexico’), the political (‘America isnot the World’), the marginalised (‘Teenage Dad on HisEstate’, ‘All the Lazy Dykes’), Hispanic gang-culture (‘TheFirst of the Gang to Die’), death (‘Munich Air Disaster’),suicide (‘I’m Not Sorry’) and relationships, failed andotherwise (‘Let me Kiss You’ and ‘I Like You’). Anoverarching theme on his latest recording is thedisappearance, as he perceives it, of (White) working-classEngland. In spite of a number of controversies surroundingspurious accusations of being racist, Morrissey has reemergedas a mainstream star.Morrissey is an iconic figure in the traditionally maleworld of rock music. I would argue that in spite of the manyconcerns that his music has with ‘masculine’ subjects, hedoes not conform to the usual ‘cock-rock’ aspects of thegenre. Morrissey manages with some success to subverttraditional rock and roll culture. Unlike other stars whohave flirted with androgyny, bisexuality or faux-lesbianism243


UNCERTAIN IRELAND(such as Madonna and Britney Spears), Morrisseyrepeatedly refuses to be categorised in terms of his sexualorientation. His ambivalence and ambiguity are central tounderstanding his appeal. The complexities of postmodernmasculinities are played out on stage at his concerts. Hissongs draw upon the anxieties associated with adolescenceand young adulthood. At the Point Theatre, grown menrushed to the stage in order to hug and kiss this reluctanticon.Morrissey’s music and iconography have become diffusedinto everyday popular culture. The Dublin tribute band,These Charming Men, re-create the music of The Smiths invenues from Limerick to Tokyo. Morrissey tribute nights inclubs such as Spy in Dublin, have mixed live bands, therecorded music of The Smiths and Morrissey, and karaoke.Fans can experience a ‘Smiths’ gig; listen to their favouritesongs or ‘become’ Morrissey for three minutes during akaraoke performance. Irish fans are not alone inexperiencing Morrissey and The Smiths on a second-handbasis as tribute bands are a global phenomenon.Identity, fandom and MorrisseyMorrissey’s appeal to his many fans is bound up withidentity politics. He famously described himself as a‘prophet for the fourth gender’. 9 In combining social realismand ambiguity about sexuality and gender (often in a wryand humorous fashion), Morrissey provokes strong feelingsof empathy from his fans. His attraction may be explainedby reference to his ability to write well-crafted songs whichdraw upon a bricolage of images associated with traditional,(English) working-class life and manage to present a senseof authenticity and ‘realness’ to his fans. He taps into, Iwould argue, a widely held nostalgia for a particular versionof working-class life whose key elements are now9 J. Henke, ‘Oscar! Oscar! Great Britain Goes Wilde for the “Fourth-Gender” Smiths’, Rolling Stone, vol. 45, 1984, p. 45.244


BEING WILD(E) ABOUT MORRISSEYdisappearing or have gone altogether. At a more generallevel, he expresses feelings of loss, alienation and anomie,which may explain his transnational appeal.Side by side with this, is a consistent gay and campdiscourse. Stan Hawkins notes that the ambiguity inevidence in his songs and associated imagery means thatboth gay and heterosexual fans are allowed to ‘address thecomplexity of their own sexualities and desires’. 10 Morrisseymanages to sing from a range of viewpoints that addressboth male and female subjects. Sometimes it is notaltogether clear whom exactly he is addressing. Inrecognising this ambiguity, Nadine Hubbs stresses thevariety of ways in which Morrissey’s audience can read hissongs and points out that whilst gay fans have no difficultyin decoding the gay discourse inscribed in Morrissey’s work,many heterosexual fans do not adopt a so-called queerreading of his texts. 11 The fluidity of Morrissey’s ownidentity may help us understand his appeal. Mediasociologists, when attempting to understand how audiencesengage with widely circulated media texts such as popularmusic, are interested in the degree to which audiencemembers from diverse cultural backgrounds make sense ortake meaning from these texts. Morrissey’s music and thelarger Morrissey phenomenon manage to combine bothauthenticity and ambiguity at once.Irish Morrissey fans are participating in a transnationalphenomenon which has specific Irish resonances. TheDublin concert upon which this ethnography is largelybased is an example of where the newfound complexities ofmale identities are played out. Morrissey’s texts are cleverlyconstructed so that all fans can see something of themselvesin his songs.10 S. Hawkins, Settling the Pop Score, Aldershot: Ashgate, [see chapterentitled ‘Anti-Rebel, Lonesome Boy: Morrissey in Crisis?’], p. 75.11 N. Hubbs, ‘Music of the ‘Fourth Gender’: Morrissey and the SexualPolitics of Melodic Contour’, in T. Foster, C. Stiegel, E. E. Berry(eds.), Bodies of Writing, Bodies in Performance, New York: New YorkUniversity Press, 1996, pp. 266–296.245

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