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Morrissey in love and hate

[Originally published 1991 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

In the Smiths and on his own, Stephen Patrick Morrissey has charted expeditions into the heaving waters of emotion. His songs are anecdotes of anguish, resentment and sarcasm, and superhuman despair. For Morrissey, pleasure comes in spurts; it's not something to depend on. These are feelings people can identify with, and they run parallel to his archly-expressed gay subtexts. Morrissey's alienation from society's cherished life of love makes him a unique voice in queer pop.

Morrissey finds nothing more gratifying than the trappings of bygone-era stardom (James Dean is an idol); this fixation has taught him a thing or two about being famous. Ironically, though, stardom invites mass love, while it is actually a deeply personal love that Morrissey craves above all. This duality comes to life in concert: The star system Morrissey so adores will invariably divide the world into Hero and Public, but even a hall the size of New York's Madison Square Garden throbs with an adoration from latter to former. A Beatles concert is a study in alienation compared to the love-in of a Morrissey show.

Rushing the stage is part of the frisson of any pop concert, but the stage-diving in a Morrissey show adopts the overtones of pilgrimage. Desperate, almost redemptive efforts to storm the stage and kiss the Hero on his pale Mancunian face are part of the ritual, and it's telling that in the concerts I've seen, three out of five kids who planted their lips on his cheek were boys.

And what, exactly, can we make of the sexual persona of Morrissey? Anything we want, really. Through the gender-neutrality of many of his songs, he is everything, and through his professed celibacy, he is nothing. "I think a sex symbol is possibly the best thing to be," he said in 1983. But where his lyrics are concerned, "I simply can't get down to gender – I don't mind who listens. I wouldn't like to be thought of as a gay spokesman, though, because it's just not true."

Morrissey may portray his gay-icon status as unfounded, but he's just toying with us. Ambiguity is good for building up the fan base, after all. For more trenchant lessons in the workings of his spirit, listen to Morrissey's songs. As he croons in "Cemetry Gates," "Keats and Yeats are on your side, while the love of Wilde is on mine." References like these, left with little or no public clarification, permit Morrissey to speak from a safe emotional distance, but his gay audience hears him loud and clear anyway.

Since the 1987 dissolution of the Smiths, Morrissey has engendered critical disappointment for failing to soar to the heights he attained with Johnny Marr, the ace guitarist who was to the Smiths' music what Morrissey was to the words. Perhaps critics should take a lesson from Morrissey's friend Miss Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who believes that musicians should not seek indefinite growth. Stipe emphasizes refining what you do well over reinventing your act with every album. Even the edict of quitting while you're ahead fits into that framework. With this in mind, maybe we shouldn't hold Morrissey to a standard of continually topping himself. Besides, to criticize Morrissey's solo songs is to overlook some weak numbers from the Smiths era.

Morrissey defined a singular sensibility. His witty wordplay sometimes disguised the love/hate relationship he carried on with love and hate themselves. Morrissey has given listeners an emotional framework to integrate into their own. Attempts to copy his sensibility will rightly be dismissed as derivative; it's something to expand on, not duplicate. And even if he quits the music business tomorrow and retires to a life of sedentary elegance, it won't matter a jot. For if Morrissey can sustain himself on his anguished yearnings for a future world of love and beauty, surely we can survive on our own best-of-times/worst-of-times memories of Morrissey crooning in our ears as we cried ourselves to sleep.