Irish Blood, English Heart: Morrissey and the Marginalized

Sandra Canosa

 

Not everyone likes Morrissey. But the people who do really like him. They read his lyrics like scripture. They pilgrimage thousands of miles to see him in concert, defying gravity and security guards for a chance to crowdsurf their way to his altar and touch the hem of his garment. They build shrines to him and then try to sell them on Craigslist when times get tough.

 

Few artists in the grand canon of Rock’n’Roll ever achieve this level of idol-worship in their living careers—usually they have to die first. But Morrissey, needless to say, is not like other rock stars. In the early ‘80s, when Mötley Crüe was bedazzling its codpieces, when Frankie Goes to Hollywood was breaking down closet doors, and when the British punk scene had all but self-imploded, Morrissey was swinging a bouquet of gladiolas on Top of the Pops.

 

That 1983 television performance was, for many Brits, their first introduction to the Smiths. All at once, that charming man managed to offend both straitlaced society and anti-society counterculture groups. Because Morrissey was neither: His Teddy Boy quiff juxtaposed his costume jewelry and woman’s blouse; his cockiness as a frontman was offset by the quaintness and faint homoeroticism of the words he sang. The Smiths were alternative and indie in the original sense of the word—yet there they were, gloating on the commercially-driven Top of the Pops, with their singer pretending to perform live without a microphone.

 

Immediately, Morrissey was cast as, and remains, an outlier. While he has certainly never been accepted by the status quo, neither could he have hoped to blend in with the metal/new-wave/punk extremists of his day. He fell somewhere in between these either/or distinctions—and so, too, did countless others who saw the Smiths on Top of the Pops that night. They saw in Morrissey what they felt in themselves: an inability to conform, a struggle to find acceptance. They were misfits.

 

And Morrissey’s plight was genuine. Like any rock’n’roll fairy tale worth telling, the odds were set against him from an early age: working-class, Northern, bookish, sexually variant, and, worst of all, Irish Catholic. But where other rags-to-riches stories end happily-ever-after, Morrissey’s only continues to trace circles around his own despondency.

 

Like Morrissey, Ireland’s career is riddled with adversity, ambiguity, and contradiction. It’s no coincidence that some of the heaviest names in English-language literature—James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde—all hail from Ireland. From Viking invasions to famine to civil war, Ireland has always grappled with issues of identity and autonomy. Its harried relationship with foster parent Great Britain further hindered Ireland’s maturation, casting her as the unruly teenager of the Western world—the misfit, the miscreant, the weirdo.

 

 

And this is why, at least in part, the Irish have always been such avid contributors to world art and literature. Hardship often inspires reflection, and reflection inspires art. Creative expression is a means of self-exploration, a way of trying to come to terms with questions of identity and belonging; the Irish have always just had plenty to explore.

 

Morrissey himself never lived in Ireland, however. His parents emigrated a year before his birth. But, like any cultural heritage, Irishness is not something one can leave behind at the departing gates. The United States and England were equally notorious in their discrimination against the Irish immigrants who came in waves after the famine in the late 19th century and through the 1950s, when the Morrisseys re-settled in Manchester. Being Irish in another country meant being ostracized and victim to blind prejudices—yet for many artists, it was preferable to staying in Ireland. Oscar Wilde left for England in his 20s, as did Shaw and Swift; Joyce and Beckett both abandoned Dublin for Paris.

 

But no matter where they landed, stereotypes followed all Irish immigrants who sought a better life abroad. American and British media propagated the view of Irish men as drunkards or buffoons—a stigma often wrestled with by the Irish themselves, as in Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock or Joyce’s Dubliners.

 

The Irish are further associated with militant religiosity—the age-old sectarian conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in the country augmenting these beliefs. But the label Irish Catholic, in particular, tends to provoke certain presumptions: a people, as Mark Simpson describes in his sycophantic biography Saint Morrissey, “distrustful of pleasure, hostile to success, suspicious of riches, and [who] always expect to be punished for any happiness.”

 

 

But Morrissey, from what we can deduce from his songwriting and public presence, is not usually drunk, buffoonish, or particularly religious—though he does match Simpson’s description of Catholics quite well. Like his place in pop music, Morrissey’s Irishness resists the dichotomous confines of being either/or. He resists being pigeonholed into stereotypes, but also evades falling into a reaction formation—a Freudian defense mechanism where insecurities are repressed by acting out and exaggerating their polar opposites. For marginalized groups like the Irish, where stereotypes serve to oppress and emasculate their people, reaction formations can be seen in subcultures where hyper-masculinity, violence, and gang mentalities are extolled.

 

Instead, Morrissey plays into these preconceptions. His purported asexuality, his desire to be seen as a “prophet of the fourth sex,” as he told NME in 1983, reclaims centuries of Irish emasculation and holds it as a thing to be revered. His sexual ambiguity is far more intriguing than the nymphomaniacal tendencies usually associated with rock stars. Still, he doesn’t ignore that other side of the coin that is Irish maleness, openly courting a penchant for boxing culture and James Dean-esque boy racers.

 

As Simpson points out, Morrissey’s rejection of intimacy also conjures a semblance of piety. “Catholicism celebrates the lives of those who resist the way of the world,” he writes, “the temptations and corruptions of the flesh, those who martyr themselves for the One True Faith and deny themselves mortal pleasures and safety for the promise of immortal bliss and protection.” Morrissey’s immortality, however, rests not in Heaven but in the hearts of his fans. His perpetual misery and isolation may be self-inflicted on some level—but it’s what fuels his creativity. Morrissey’s One True Faith is his music, and in his devotion to his fans he has martyred his happiness for the sake of his art.

 

It’s this loyalty that made Morrissey so near and dear to the hearts of disenfranchised British youth in the conformity-obsessed ‘80s and ‘90s. And now he appeals in the same way to marginalized groups cross-culturally. His significant and still-growing young Latin-American fanbase comes as an initial surprise to many, but Morrissey’s themes of alienation and deep-running sense of un-belonging still ring true for this displaced group.

 

While Hispanics are the largest-growing minority population in the United States, their rights and access to the privileges afforded White America remain stagnant. Questions of identity are paramount to young people whose home countries can’t afford to raise them and whose adoptive countries refuse to accept them. Morrissey, in his own way, has been through these same misfortunes—only a generation and a hemisphere removed.  “I wish I was born Mexican,” he told a largely Latino crowd at a UC Irvine concert in 1999; “but it’s too late for that now.”

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. 

 

Photos: Man Alive (Flickr); Jason Upshaw (Wikipedia).

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Comments

I covered that '99 Irvine show for my college newspaper and remember well the "born Mexican" quote. Thanks for taking me back.

Email: 
crtsghlf@gmail.com

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