It is usually best to ignore Steven Patrick Morrissey. The foppish former frontman of The Smiths and recent right-wing blowhard now brays from the fringes, his music all but irrelevant, his views as nuanced as those of a toddler in a temper tantrum. His only worthwhile contribution to pop culture over the past decade came when JPEGMAFIA borrowed his name for the brilliant “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies.” He’d be a punchline if the joke didn’t feel so easy. He’d be a focal-point if it wasn’t so clear that he was desperate for the spotlight.
But here we are, after even the most ardent Smiths fans have disavowed the man, preparing for another cursed Morrissey record. And while it holds true that we should all ignore him, California Son, out in May, throws up something tricky. Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, Young The Giant’s Sameer Gadhia, The Regrettes' Lydia Night, LP, and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (misspelled as “Billy” in the press release, for what it’s worth) will all guest on the record. What possible reason could any of these people have for lining up behind Morrissey now?
For those lucky enough to have avoided the back-and-forth between Morrissey and the world over the past decade, here’s a non-exhaustive recap. A little over a decade ago, in an interview with the NME, the singer went off on a tangent about immigration in the UK. "England is a memory now,” he was quoted as saying. “The gates are flooded and anybody can have access to England and join in." He took the NME to court for libel, gave £28,000 to Love Music Hate Racism, and eventually got an apology from the magazine, but he wouldn’t stay out of the headlines for long. In a 2010 interview with the Guardian Weekend Magazine, the singer, upset at China’s treatment of animals, referred to the Chinese people as a “subspecies.” He then told Loaded in 2013 that he nearly voted for the far-right, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, and confessed that he liked their blustering leader, Nigel Farage, “a great deal.” Since then he’s seemingly taken a keen interest in UKIP’s internal politics, wondering aloud on BBC 6 Music in 2016 whether their leadership elections had been “rigged” against the vociferous anti-Islam candidate Anne Marie Waters.
Forget such ancient history though because, God, was he busy over the last two years. There was the infamous interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, in which Morrissey seemed to defend both Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. Referring, apparently out of the blue, to the then-newly surfaced accusations against Spacey, he said of the actor’s 14-year-old alleged victim: “One wonders if the boy did not know what could happen.” He said of Weinstein’s victims that “Those people knew exactly what would happen, and they played along. Afterwards they were embarrassed or they didn't enjoy it. And then they turn it around and say: 'I was attacked, I was surprised, I was pulled into the room.' But if everything went well, and it helped them to a big career, they wouldn't be talking about it.” He said that Berlin had become “the rape capital of the world” due to its “open borders.”
He later said that he’d been slandered by Der Spiegel and called for the "unchopped, unfiddled-with audio" of the interview. The newspaper released exactly that soon after.
And then there was the spring of 2018, with the Der Spiegel interview still ringing in our collective ears, and Morrissey seemingly intent on pulling at that “open borders” thread again. “As far as racism goes, the modern Loony Left seem to forget that Hitler was Left wing,” he said in an interview with an ungooglable man called John Riggers at his own website. “But of course, we are all called racist now, and the word is actually meaningless.” In that same “interview,” he insisted that London Mayor Sadiq Khan “can not talk properly,” and, remarkably, said that “halal slaughter requires certification that can only be given by supporters of ISIS.” Soon after, again at Morrissey Central, he expressed his support for Waters’s new For Britain party, which had already gained the support of the far-right activist and one-time English Defense League leader Tommy Robinson, and has since invited a holocaust denier to speak at their conference.
Some true believers insist that Morrissey is more a provocateur than an outright racist. It’s a clumsy form of mental gymnastics that requires the Morrissey fan to not only split the art from the artist, but to split the man from his words entirely, leaving nothing but a clownish husk with a team of lawyers at his side.
Other people simply take the talk of “subspecies” and Spacey and “ISIS,” weigh it against their love for “This Charming Man,” and find that they’re fine with it all so long as they can go and pay homage on the next Morrissey tour. And perhaps that’s where these indie and rock musicians have found themselves today. Surely they know about Morrissey’s takes on the sexual assault of minors and the precise certification process for halal meat. Maybe they just don’t care. Maybe there’s something in it for them.
But it’s difficult to imagine what, precisely, that something might be. Billlie Joe Armstrong turned literally millions of kids against his country’s war-mongering government when Green Day reemerged with American Idiot. Ed Droste feels queasy about bringing politics and art into the same space, but he said that he was devastated by the fact that the people he met on the campaign trail with Bernie Sanders — LGBTQ people and Muslims in particular — were facing aggression in the wake of the Trump election. Sameer Gadhia proudly wrote about the immigrant experience in America on 2016’s Home of the Strange, and his band has apparently dropped R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” from its set — an acknowledgement that a musician’s actions might impact their work, at least in the eyes of their fans. Night wants to inspire the kids at her shows. Laura Pergolizzi wants us to “fight for our rights” in the face of a Republican White House. A Morrissey collaboration isn’t the best way of reinforcing that.
Because, at root, a guest spot on California Son isn’t just an opportunity for these artists to sing alongside someone they liked when they were teenagers. It’s a co-sign, one that gives Morrissey credibility to a younger generation. And for what? Will any of these musicians really see a spike in sales or popularity by collaborating with Morrissey in 2019? Will their own credibility be burnished by singing alongside a man who so openly backs the far-right? If it’s a calculated risk, what’s the pay-off? Who wins except Morrissey?