Our relationships with art and music can run deep, but when beloved artists assume uncomfortable stances on issues, it can be difficult to separate the art from the artist.
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before …
I have a lot of sympathy for those who insist that it’s possible—even somehow noble—to separate art from the artist.
It would certainly be easier to believe that great things can be created by reprehensible people as though the things are unconnected and that Ted Bundy’s personal charm and quality political fieldwork for the Republican Party shouldn’t have been tarnished by association with all those women he murdered.
But I agree that it’s especially difficult with music because the relationship between a person and the songs that soothe their soul isn’t a rational one. It’s deeply emotional. And since most people have their most passionate connection with music in their teens and early 20s, it requires people to not just reject an artist but also their younger self.
It’s why deciding to never again listen to, say, child sex offender Gary Glitter wasn’t exactly an onerous decision, because his music didn’t feature heavily in my adolescence and is also objectively terrible.
Conversely, it’s agonizing when it’s someone you absolutely adore and whose music soundtracked your pivotal developmental moments.
As a moody teenager who liked to read a lot, it’s not a huge shock that I was (and remain) a massive fan of The Smiths—the ur-band for moody, bookish teens. I played their heartbreaking suicide ballad “Asleep” on a loop after my father’s death when I was fourteen and taught myself guitar trying to copy Johnny Marr’s fiddly riffs to “What Difference Does It Make?” and “This Charming Man.” My being alive to write this piece has a small but not insignificant debt to that band and their life-affirming music.
… if you can’t let go of a horrible artist, don’t beat yourself up about it. You can’t help the artists that spoke to you when you were a teen anymore than you can help the stupid things they subsequently say …
And they were completely aware of the nature of their relationship with their listeners too. When Morrissey sang “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life” in “Rubber Ring,” he was basically telling his listeners what they already knew: that his band was special and important and that you owed them a lot.
Which is why I had to learn to draw a mental line dividing the band and their singer when Morrissey started expressing outspoken support for hard-right politicians with anti-immigration agendas, not least because it slowly dawned on me that this wasn’t exactly a new position for him.
Yes, the NME’s handwringing over whether there was a snide anti-black message in the song “Panic” with the lyric “burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ” was, I thought (and still think), nonsensical, but the idea that Morrissey didn’t have some deeply troubling ideas about race and nationalism got harder to maintain with his debut solo album Viva Hate, and, specifically, the casually cruel “Bengali in Platforms.”
Putting go-back-where-you-came-from sentiment into a lilting tune about someone trying to “embrace your culture” I found hard to dismiss, especially with the repeated line “life is hard enough when you belong here.”
But then I got very good at making half-baked excuses for his increasingly questionable lyrics. A few years later Kill Uncle’s “Asian Rut” made me more uncomfortable, especially lines like “oh Asian boy, what drugs are you on?” But … um, maybe it was from a short story or something? You know, like the Camus-referencing Cure single “Killing an Arab?”
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And sure, Your Arsenal’s centerpiece “The National Front Disco” seemed like it was a satire rather than a white supremacy recruitment anthem, but still had a refrain of “England for the English” that was to align with a lot of what Morrissey was saying off stage.
In a way, though, Morrissey did me a favor by releasing a record that stood out in his frustratingly variable solo career by being irredeemably awful: 2014’s World Peace Is None of Your Business, an album filled with weak lyrics, tepid music, and a downright cartoonish amount of violence against women.
So, I was already in the non-Moz camp by the time he was endorsing the anti-Islam For Britain Party (even wearing their badge during a live performance on Jimmy Fallon), or when he was saying things like “everyone ultimately prefers their own race.”
Meanwhile, my love for The Smiths was bolstered by the continuing excellence of Johnny Marr, who responded to (yet another) question about how the band was rumored to reform with a snide tweet suggesting Morrissey would prefer another race-baiting hard-right UK politician in Marr’s place: “Nigel Farage on guitar.”
But if you can’t let go of a horrible artist, don’t beat yourself up about it. You can’t help the artists that spoke to you when you were a teen anymore than you can help the stupid things they subsequently say about lazy, grasping immigrants, all delivered without any sense of irony from their adopted home in LA.
For me, I’m not even angry at Morrissey anymore. I’m just truly disappointed; truly, truly, truly, ahhhhhh [vibrato guitar break].
(By Caligvla at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5)