Gay men paved pop’s way this year. With Boy George’s wardrobe fully open, all the closet cases came spilling forth: Burns and The Bronskis, Frankie and NRG. The subtlest victory was Morrissey’s – his the least fairy-tale, the least gaudily exhibitionist. Maybe its because he conjured a ghost from all our pasts: the outsider, the Weird One, the pariah you put at full-back so you didn’t catch his leprosy. When Morrissey refused to play “festive faggot”, he was appealing to something fundamentally more lonely in us. He was making the outsider a star.(Barney Hoskyns, the Virgin Yearbook, 1984)
His name still conjures up deadly deeds.
This blog is a hostage to fortune – it’s mostly an exploration of how and why the Irish Catholic, second generation immigrant, English, British, Northern, Mancunian, provincial, emigrant, gay, asexual, bisexual, humasexual, fourth gender, transsexual, gender fluid, working-class, autodidact, animal protectionist, anxious-depressive, chronically shy, Indie singer/songwriter Morrissey became a folk devil.
A folk devil is the personification of evil. They’re engaged in wrongdoing. An instantly recognisable unambiguously negative symbol with no favourable characteristics. A threat to society. Their sins must be litanised. Good people must identify, denounce and drive them out of public life. The moral boundaries must exclude them. They’re toxic. They taint.
To get rid of the folk devil – there is a moral panic. This always involves atrocity tales – false stories endlessly repeated that sum up their badness and cause outrage. It sometimes involves a subversion myth – a story that explains the way in which a member of a social circle has turned out to be wicked, and has rained evil upon the righteous.
Stanley Cohen’s model for moral panics goes roughly like this:
1. Labeling – a threat to the social fabric is detected, labeled & magnified by gossip/media/social media etc.
2. Exaggeration – the narrative is amplified, distorted, fabricated & escalates into a moral panic.
3. Symbolisation – shorthands are used to sum up the threat, often visual.
4. Prediction – future evil deeds are expected & confirmation bias, intense scrutiny & myths tends to supply them until the panic is over.
The UK music press was uncomfortable with Morrissey’s sexuality, gender identity, social awkwardness (shyness combined with bluntness), deadpan humour and passionate intensity from the beginning, and it evolved over a series of symbolic linguistic scandals into a myth that he had gone from a gentle, kind radical to a vicious, cruel reactionary, whilst also, Always Being Like That.
The narrative hinges on 4 articles:
Frank Owen, Melody Maker, September 1986, Home Thoughts From Abroad, is framed around the journalist’s theory that all pop music is divided into Indie (which is white and intelligent) and Black (which is dumb and dancey) and his interest in getting Morrissey to say he’s gay.
Danny Kelly, Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie, Gavin Martin, Dele Fadele, NME, August 1992, Flying The Flag or Flirting With Disaster? uses false allegations of racism to accuse Morrissey of inciting a homophobic hate crime against himself because he had a fetish for racism and was attracted to (male) skinheads. It takes some of its cues from a Channel 4 documentary about gay skinheads transmitted a month before.
Tim Jonze, NME, December 2007, Has The World Changed or Has He Changed? takes mild comments about immigration and links them to fascism by rehashing the 1992 article.
Tim Jonze, The Guardian, May 2019, Bigmouth Strikes Again and Again, is a rehash of the 1992 and 2007 articles prompted by Morrissey’s interest in the far right leader, Anne Marie Waters, a gay Irish vegan. Morrissey clearly stated that he despised racism and fascism and believed that Anne Marie was being lied about, he wore a badge for her party twice, and dropped her in May 2019.
Detractors wildly overestimate his threat – describing him as full Gammon (a UK slang word for a white male right-winger), an active racist, having daily outbursts, when in reality he rarely gives interviews, or makes statements; and he’s politically focused on class inequality and animal welfare.
They repeatedly associate him with hate figures who were or are active in the media and right-wing politics – giving the impression that he’s just like Hitler, Enoch Powell, Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, Skrewdriver, Donald Trump – people he’s either actively opposed (Powell/Trump), or briefly mentioned (Farage/Robinson).
They distrort UK history to fit the narrative – claiming that the Union (Jack) flag was so strongly assciated with the far right that it was rarely used by anyone else in public because he touched one for 3 minutes in 1992, and claiming that large-scale Asian immgration to the UK happened after 1964 (it was after 1947 and was curtailed by the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962) to explain why he’s nostalgic for his early childhood in Manchester’s working-class Irish Catholic immigrant community (Owen Hatherley, Verso Books, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before: A Study in the Politics and Aesthetics of English Misery, 31 March 2020).
Owen’s essay is a distillation of the old bigotry with some new bigotry grafted on – Morrissey is a Northern suburban Boomer attacking the young; a creepy fascist queer who longs for ‘the gay-bashing and the Paki-bashing’ of his past; an Irish Catholic who has to be cornered by Simon Reynolds over the obsession with Englishness that English journalists have detected in his work.
Instead of seeing him as a minority wounded by England’s cruelty – he’s the perpertrator of England’s cruelty – a self-pitying, self-important, ghoulish monsterous pervert.
Timeline of negative labels directly or implicitly applied to him, and the publication that instigated or amplified it:
1983 – pervert, paedophile (Sounds, The Sun)
1986 – racist, xenophobe, bigot (Melody Maker)
1992 – fascist, Little Englander (NME)
2007 – anti-immigrant, rogue Tory, right-wing (NME, Word)
2010 – genocidist (the Guardian)
2013 – gay, selfish, depressed, nativist, misogynist (Gawker, the Quietus, LA Times)
2015 – predatory creep, homophobe (Guardian, Financial Times)
2017 – rape apologist (Der Spiegel, BBC, Twitter)
2017-2019 – white nationalist, pariah (Guardian, LA Times, Twitter)
It was very important for me to try and write for everybody… I find when people and things are entirely revealed in an obvious way, it freezes the imagination of the observer. There is nothing to probe for, nothing to dwell on or try and unravel. With the Smiths, nothing is ever open and shut.(Morrissey, Rolling Stone, 9 October 1986)