Morrissey and the Artist/Activist Conundrum
In addition to being one of the most unique and beloved singer-songwriters of the last three decades, Morrissey is, almost certainly, the most impassioned animal rights activists among current celebrities. The latter has often overshadowed the former, beginning with the second album by The Smiths (his former band), 1985’s Meat is Murder. However, in recent years, Morrissey has become more of a walking soapbox than an active musician. This has culminated in two recent, notable controversies that have important ramifications on what it means to be an artist/activist in 2013.
Morrissey’s last album of new material, Years of Refusal, was released to great acclaim in 2009, signaling something of a creative rejuvenation of one of pop music’s most iconoclastic and witty artists. However, since the release of that record, Morrissey has placed his political beliefs before his music. While admirable, he has presented his views in ways that are insensitive and disrespectful to many of his fans. In 2009, Morrissey was one of the headliners of the Coachella Festival in California, one of the biggest annual music events in the United States. Instead of pleasing the approximately 160,000 people in attendance with a full set of music, he left the stage shortly into his set because he could smell meat cooking from one of the tents backstage. His response was simply, “I can smell burning flesh and I hope to God it’s human.”
Not to be outdone, Morrissey stated at a 2011 Polish music festival, two days after seventy-seven people were killed by a mass murderer/terrorist in Norway, that the deaths were “nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken every day.” Depending on your views on animal cruelty, you may find this statement to be completely accurate. However, the way in which he uttered this statement was in poor taste. When a celebrity makes a comment such as this, it sours fans both to the art and the message of that celebrity. Instead of being associated with amazing songs such as “Girlfriend in a Coma” and “Suedehead,” Morrissey is now seen by many as a jerk.
Two incidents in the last few weeks have only further perpetuated this image. On March 1st, Morrissey performed at the Staples Center, one of the largest music venues in the Los Angeles area. Since it also functions as a basketball and hockey arena, the Staples Center has many concession options. However, at Morrissey’s request, all of the meat options at these concession stands will not be available. Additionally, all of the McDonald’s in the arena will be closed completely. While it is the Staples Center’s choice to abide by Morrissey’s wishes, the question of this being a legitimate request remains. On one level, Morrissey is standing on principle and that should be respected. However, he is also being deeply unfair to the venue that is hosting his concert and his own fans. Because the Staples Center is making less money on concessions, a higher surcharge will be imposed on fans in order for the Staples Center to cover their expenses. Thus, Morrissey, through his unprecedented position on meat-free concession stands, is essentially screwing his fanbase. That is a stance to take that I find more than a little puzzling.
Morrissey also made news this week by cancelling his performance on the talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, because the lead guests were going to be the cast members of Duck Dynasty. Apparently (I hadn’t heard of it until just this week), Duck Dynasty is a reality show on A&E that follows a Louisiana family that operates a business that sells duck hunting products. To me, this is a decision that is not in any way an insult to his fans, but it strikes an odd precedent. Would Morrissey also cancel if Joey Chestnut, America’s hot-dog eating champion, was the lead guest? At a certain point, the degree to which Morrissey is holding onto his principles seems a little absurd, especially since the show would be a great way to garner new fans.
However, the practice of talk show bookings is less interesting to me than how we, as consumers of popular entertainment, view entertainers who see themselves as both artists and activists. Some may reject an entertainer for their political beliefs or personal prejudices, but the case of Morrissey interests me more since he is becoming more known as a spokesman than as a singer. Does this mean that music is still in Morrissey’s future? If so, does he maintain an active fanbase or are his comments enough to turn off a large portion of his audience? I know that even if I find his stance on animal rights to be a bit much, I will still find room in my iTunes library for The Queen is Dead.
One thought on “Morrissey and the Artist/Activist Conundrum”
Such an interesting article. Thanks for bringing up this intelligent angle on Morrissey. Well done!
In regard to the infamous “Norway comments”, Morrissey did apolgize for what he said a few days later. If you watched the Youtube video, as I did, he clearly wasn’t being flippant about what he said there. Badly timed? Yes. But is he a jerk? Not at all.
I’m a huge fan of Morrissey.He’s a cult artist…and part of that is understanding his world view. It’s quite a complicated one, and I know it from being a fan for over 15 years, and reading almost every interview and article he’s ever done up to and including yesterday. I feel like I have a very complete picture of who the man is-as much as a fan who doesn’t know him irl can-,and I don’t find him in the least bit off-putting. He’s witty, intelligent, flawed, neurotic, compassionate, sensitive, and strong-willed. He always has been.
However, if all you know about Morrissey are these little Twitter sound bites then yes, you will get a skewed picture of who he is.He lacks the polish and finesse of most celebrities these days. If you know that animal rights have been his #1 cause that he has championed since he was around 11 years old, you’d understand that a prinicpled stand on animal rights is much more important to him than gaining new viewers from a TV show appearance.
I know for myself, and most of his devoted fans, we respect his commitment to being authentic and principled and real. He’s not an easy person to be a fan of, I’ll admit. But if you are, you will see that he is the last icon we have, and completely irreplaceable.