May 18

other jacksons in your house

Hidden Landscapes19 comments • 2,600 views

… or how when we made Morrissey we made him bad

[This post originally went up at my PATREON: subscribers get to read posts and hear podcasts early — and help offset costs and time and help me do more of this kind of thing]

panic | hang the DJA bitter office quarrel — the so-called the ‘HipHop Wars’ — had been making life at the NME miserable from some time. At issue was the current and future direction of the paper — how to give the readers what they wanted to read, week on week, while staying abreast of music’s future trends — so when the Smiths released ‘Panic’ in late 1986, it crystallised everything. “Hang the DJ!” sang Morrissey: “Burn down the disco!” Those who cared for black music at all — future and past — were appalled: to them it was very clear who this talk of burning and hanging was aimed at. His supporters scrambled for a less ugly reading: not that kind of DJ! Not those discos! Much was made of Steve Wright following a news report about Chernobyl with a Wham! song. Concluding statement for the defence: He’s not anti black musicians, he’s anti bland music — and that goes for us all, surely?

Over at Melody Maker the singer explained himself to Frank Owen (it’s wrongly dated at the link). Reggae he describes as the “most racist music in the entire world… an absolute total glorification of black supremacy”, firming up an earlier throwaway elsewhere (footnote 1). While he doesn’t have “very cast-iron opinions” about “modern” black music, he “detests” Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson: “I think they’re vile in the extreme.” He then launches into a highly ridiculous conspiracy theory. He’s perhaps half-kidding when he begins, with a deliberate exaggeration to make a point about music and meaning and secret censorship and the charts as a battleground of values, but by the end, like so many in love with their own taboo-busting daring, he’s convinced himself.

In retrospect what honestly strikes you first is how weak the critical writing and thinking about black music was becoming in the music papers by the mid-80s. Up until 1980, Melody Maker had had a storied relationship with jazz and soul, but management meddling and disastrous editorial judgment had broken this thread, driving away some of its best senior writers and scholars. In my memory, Owen was by 1986 one of the paper’s few younger contributors at all well acquainted with and well disposed towards any kind of African American expression. With little to lose, MM was at this point playing catch-up largely by goading its better-selling rival, which had become self-serious and uncertain in the shadow of a better past. Owen has a good nose for a story, and was possibly keener to exacerbate the tensions in NME editorial (2) than to push back on behalf of “other anonymous Jacksons”. As it happens, this was the year of Janet’s third LP Control, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It is not a difficult record to be cogent or and positive about. Yet such defence as Owen makes, of black pop in general, is just absurdly feeble: “It’s hard to verbalise,” he writes (ffs Frank, no it’s not, this is your job). Admittedly the singer is manoeuvred into taking full ownership of the word “conspiracy” — but the not-much-more robust case Owen makes on behalf of rap leaves Morrissey merely contemptuous and dismissive.

JJ | control

Loudly pluralist by editorial choice, the NME had somehow to defang such opinions to justify its strong support for Morrissey. The Wham-Chernobyl-Panic first-line defence required we treat a songline’s inspiration is the whole and all of its meaning. Not only is this a pretty impoverished critical position, it’s one in direct conflict with the invocation, in nearly every NME interview, of Oscar Wilde — from his socialism to his sexuality to his arch epigrammatic derision. The word “charm” comes up a lot. As a troll avant le lettre, Morrissey’s less palatable opinions were nervously being re-spun as jokes, as irony, as ambiguous melodramatic provocation.

So it’s interesting that Wilde goes unmentioned in the long 1988 Melody Maker essay by Simon Reynolds, a position statement that would become the opening chapter to his 1990 collection Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock. Instead citing George Formby, this essay insists there’s much too much humour present in The Smiths, while the camp continuum is declared an irrelevance. Excavating moods and modes and feelings and stances underserved elsewhere in pop, Reynolds is looking to decouple rock discourse from its attachment to and reverence for black music and the clichés of its discussion, and to celebrate in Morrissey precisely this unpalatability: this narrowness, this hardening, an energetics of truculent resignation as a kind of quasi-political revolt.

By 1988, the Smiths had in fact split — as indeed had NME. The paper’s management had decapitated the soulboy faction, and black music and leftish political coverage was now sharply diminished. Morrissey was releasing his first solo LP, and Reynolds made much of its contrasting elements: on one hand, the delicate drift of some of the songs, in voice and sound and topic-treatment, and on the other hand the abrupt title Viva Hate. The combined effect, of petulance as a kind of refusenik aggression, is wary of politics as ordinarily then understood, in and out of pop, and yet by no means entirely anti-political (Thatcher gets head-chopped in the final song).

So here is a sensibility perhaps newly salient in the story of rock. In any case, Reynolds wanted it taken absolutely seriously — not least because of its usefulness against critical pluralism. True pop, he insists, never negotiates — though not his own preferred sound, he approves indie’s commitment to sweeping out the chart imposters in favour of a remembered perfect pop (at that time a term you read often). “Fanaticism,” he declares, “is the true experience of pop, not discrimination and broad-mindedness.” Morrissey’s anathemas fold into a Reynolds diatribe against yuppies and suburbia and humanism. In the 60s the Rolling Stones had injected R&B sexuality into UK sound to goose the normies — except that, as a highly ironised appropriation, a song like ‘Satisfaction’ mocked the very idea that satisfaction was achievable. Not so 80s soul, it seems, and this passage climaxes with a genuinely arresting phrase: the “travesty of healthy sexuality that black pop degenerated into.”

MJ | smooth criminalAs it happens, I think as soon as you actually listen to it, almost any mid-80s black pop gives the lie to this misprision, Sade as much as Prince. But let’s stick with Morrissey’s bugbear: other Jacksons. Bad came out in 1987, and even then the MJ project was as dense a package of wilfully perverse anti-sexuality, strange childish pain and refusal, as ever went over everyone’s heads in the UK critical community. Hiding in the plainest sight, here was someone ringing the changes on performative oddity and manipulative perversity and anti-serious dark play, increasingly threaded with real-world self-doubt and self-loathing (by 1990 he would have been through some 10 plastic surgery procedures). His expression of desire was an unreadable vortex, while his music flipped in and out of romantic swoon, techno-goth horror-posture, self-lacerating sentimentality, unhappy celebrity pathology — and, always, the sheer unmatched physical joy and release of this superbly poised, deeply damaged dancer-singer.

In other words, here was an intimate, neurasthenic parade of symptoms — loneliness, self-disgust, performed melancholia, deep self-isolated Incel resentment — very much not located in the white (80s, English-Irish) body. Here were journeys aplenty through the tribulations of fame, the poetry of pain, the refusal to grown up and make peace with the mere suburban real. Of course MJ no longer now gave interviews, good or bad, so no dialogue was possible re subtext or intention. Which may actually be what Frank Owen was gesturing at with his “hard to verbalise” — certainly the consequence was that white pop, however obscure or mediocre, was routinely afforded a far subtler range of against-the-grain readings than black pop (3).

Late in the essay, Reynolds tentatively unpacks the LP’s title, Viva Hate. What if only bigotries can make sense of the world? What if we need an illiberal side-taking, a (his words) “new order”? I’m less interested in Morrissey’s reply — these days I find his in-interview persona as exhausting as it’s trite — than the fact that the fourth song on Viva Hate is ‘Bengali in Platforms’, a song that goes undiscussed and indeed unmentioned in this essay, and this charged context. When Cornershop burned the singer’s image a few years later, a concrete demonstration of the wounds such songs left on his Asian fans, we would hear the same old weak-sauce excuses. It’s about a person Morrissey once met, just the one unnamed person — as if, again, a songline’s anecdotal inspiration is the whole and all of its meaning, even an anecdote deliberately kept as vague and unconcrete as this one.

Of course one way to create an entryspace for the voices outside your privileged circle is, precisely, a framework of broadminded critical tolerance, encouraging experimental or exiled or outsider contributions to to emerge without straightaway being slapped back down. This probably does also encourage lazy habits: in contrast to the gleeful jargons dreamt up at Melody Maker to champion the music they felt was under-regarded, much too much of the language used elsewhere to celebrate, explain and justify black music was flattening it out and distorting it, especially for newcomers. And pop’s blander imposters have always been very easy — far too easy — to stir up impatience against.

In regard to impatience, at this distance it’s clear that the NME’s soulboy faction and MM’s pale-theory crew were hostile mirrors of one another, twins in all but taste (and lol fashion-sense). Both were militantly futurist: what’s good in the past must be mobilised to take us forward; the stupid present must be swept aside. The former organised their intransigence against the racism they intuited everywhere in white-rock talk — but then perhaps too patly nudged every next new pop-cultural trend they embraced into line as a part of the resistance. The latter organised their primary intransigence against this same often-brittle mod moralism — and then developed a bad trick of not really engaging with the music on the far side of it.

I haven’t dug it out to reread (I suspect it’s not that great), but sometime in late 87 or 88 I wrote a piece for NME called something like ‘Images of England in Rock and Roll Music’ (an unearned reference to the subtitle of Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train). In it The Smiths and Madness were compared with The Fall and found wanting (for being backward-looking: I too was a futurist). But I also remember that I was very taken by the Smiths title ‘A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours’. There was a revolutionary vigour to it, and I guess it didn’t then occur to me who besides plutocrats Morrissey had a mind to be driving off his lawn and out of his country.

Because being in denial was general. After all, most of the Morrissey stans at NME loved soul and reggae and African pop. Even the badboys at MM — who enjoyed ruffling their rival’s earnest PC demeanour for the sake of naughtiness and clicks — were transgressing largely within the countercultural penumbra: where pop was not only “against the system”, but in its very bones anti-racist and multicultural. Breaking with these rockwrite pieties, only the soulboy faction had demurred. And despite their prescience about house and hiphop, ragga and dancehall and the mid-90s renewal of R&B, this likely ensured their defeat within and exclusion from the discussion after 1987.

Morrissey | MM

As for Morrissey, I’m not sure I believe he’d gone full alt-right quite yet. It was still all games and flirting and deniability at this point: making waves and thinking out loud, to an audience that ooh-ed and ah-ed uncritically. Yes, he already fully loathed the Jacksons, but the Wilde exemption held firm: irony as get-out clause, even to himself. Even when he draped himself in a Union Jack at Madstock a few years later, it was still partly testing the limits of (as we used to call it) semiotic free play — his Siouxsie-in-a-swastika moment, in other words. Only as nearly a decade’s rock-hack soft soap turned belatedly into articulated dissent did he begin throwing the tantrums that would harden into full-on bigotry and bullying.

From the outset he had been a creature more than usually bound up in fascination with the music press — and given this shared language, once we encountered him we enthusiastically returned the favour. But if the flattery was two-way, the projection wasn’t. Because so much pop writing is fan-fic, its tragedy is that its delusions ever smash into a reality-correction. Sex-gods are revealed as creeps, pranksters as arseholes, charmers as bores. Morrissey’s shtick was charismatic dreamy parochialism, a stubborn narcissist weaponising cultural incuriosity — “Because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life” — so the lurking reality shouldn’t have been the nasty surprise it seems to have been.

1: The totemic quote is “All reggae is vile”, but I’ve found it hard to track to source. I’ve seen it dated as 1984 and 1985, and found Johnny Rogan via Google Books saying that it was part of a poll response for the NME. [UPDATE: Billy Smart in comment 7 has provided the context and the proper quote, hurrah]
2: There’s an element in this history that hasn’t been been made enough of. NME editorial firmly discouraged its writers from returning incoming MM sniper-fire, and from even mentioning rival titles and their wack theories. We had to behave as if we were the only serious commentary in existence. Apparently drawing attention to our rivals would encourage readers to switch to them — in retrospect surely an admission of self-doubt.
3: I wrote more fully about black pop-stars being denied full artistic agency by white critics in ‘“What About Death, Again?” — The Dolorous Passion of the Son of Pop’, an essay collected in The Resistable Demise of Michael Jackson (zer0 books, 2009).
4: I should affirm that I don’t believe that any of these pro-Morrissey writers shared his budding racism at this time. They were naive about it — the phrase “white privilege” would certainly be used today — precisely because it seemed so hard to imagine that someone so key to our general sphere didn’t at all share the general countercultural assumptions. Pop’s continent was cracking up — and we were too many of us merely seizing on favoured fragments and trying to recast them as stand-ins for the whole, to recognise what ugly matter was beginning to flood up between the cracks…

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  1. 1
    Phil on 14 May 2018 #

    Fascinating stuff. A couple more footnotes. I remember reading “All reggae is vile” – it was in NME’s page 3(?) box-out insta-poll, the same one where Darryl Hall and John Oates (those were different times) both nominated The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the guy from Eels answered every question with “Get Ur Freak On” and MES said his favourite work of fiction was “Julian Cope’s Bumper Book of Lies About Mark E Smith” (miaow).

    Unless it was (all of the above, but) in Sounds.

    I don’t know about alt-right, but I get the feeling, looking back, that Moz was already properly racist back then – I mean, “Bengali in Platforms” really is ‘vile’. Perhaps what blind-sided (most of) us was that, as well as being automatically enrolled into the Nice Guys’ corner qua indie pin-up, he didn’t seem to be talking like a racist. On the one hand, he wasn’t using the defensive language of the receding tide of acceptable racism, making a point of using phrases like “our coloured brethren” and making jokes about blackboards – he believed what he believed, and he was on the attack. On the other hand, though, he wasn’t talking about muggers and dogfood and ten to a room, the recognisable language of everyone from the NF to Bernard Manning to Michael Wharton. We simply hadn’t had anyone expressing overt anti-Black racism through hatred of Black music – and (pretty much) only that way – so in a way it’s not surprising that what he was actually saying went relatively unnoticed for so long.

    Hiding in Plain Sight: British Pop Culture From Telstar to Beetlebum. ISAGN.

  2. 2

    do you mean the “portrait of the artist as a consumer” page?

    here is morrissey’s — but it does seem to be chopped off short:

  3. 3

    or maybe that is all there is: someone’s transcribed it here (it’s dated 1983)

  4. 4
    Phil on 14 May 2018 #

    OK, now I’m confused. I definitely remember a questionnaire-type thing with the more usual ratio of questions to answers (many Qs, 1 A each), which I guess would go with having individual prompts for musical genres. (Maybe it actually was Sounds?) Alternatively, maybe all the other people I mentioned answered the same questionnaire more conventionally – it would be just like Moz (Good Moz, that is – the Moz We Thought We Knew) to ignore the Qs & send in his own lists.

  5. 5

    This is the Johnny Rogan googlebooks citation (you have to scroll down a bit). He says an NME poll in Feb 85 (and he is king of the cut-and-paste biography so quite likely right). But elsewhere I have seen it dated 1984.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 14 May 2018 #

    I have a copy of the NME for 23 February 1985 in my hands, and can confirm that on page 22 Morrissey does indeed opine that “reggae is vile”.

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 14 May 2018 #

    Morrissey’s choices in full:

    BEST GROUP: James
    MALE SINGER: Pete Burns
    FEMALE SINGER: Tracey Thorn
    BEST NEW ACT: Shock Headed Peters
    BEST SINGLE: ‘Nu Au Soleil’ – Ludus
    BEST LP: ‘Fried’ – Julian Cope
    BEST SONGWRITER: Don’t be silly
    BEST DRESSED SLEEVE: ‘Jean’s Not Happening’ – Pale Fountains
    TV SHOW: ‘Victoria Wood As Seen On TV’
    RADIO SHOW: Richard Skinner
    FILM: ‘The Dresser’
    SOUL ACT: Nico
    REGGAE ACT: Reggae is vile
    BEST DRESSED: Linder
    PROMO VIDEO: All videos are vile

    Poor Sade. The readers’ Creep Of The Year was – as you might expect – Margaret Thatcher.

  8. 8

    Thanks Billy! Excellent — I see the word “all” in the so-called totemic quote transferred across from video.

    Nico is an, um, interesting choice as “soul act”. It’s maybe just a reference to the fact that at that time she lived and performed in Manchester, a tired shabby smacked-out echo of her old ice-maiden self — but there’s another possibility that I’m afraid jumps out at me. At some point in the mid-70s — I don’t know exactly when, or who she was talking to — she had announced her dislike of “negroes” to a Melody Maker writer, comparing them to animals and cannibals (she chose to make an exception for Bob Marley). As a result, she was quietly dropped by Island Records, and ever afterwards persona non grata, certainly at the NME (a senior editor once told me she would never appear in the paper as long as he had anything to do with it). I guess I hope Morrissey wasn’t making a sly and shady joke about this — though of course he was an obsessive reader of the rock press at just this time.

  9. 9
    Mark M on 14 May 2018 #

    Re7: Yeah, in retrospect (but mostly in retrospect*, I suspect) the signs are there.

    (*But things were very clear after Bengali In Platforms – I had Viva Hate on cassette and used to fast-forward past it every time. Never did buy another Morrissey offering).

    [Completely apart from the Morrissey issue, there seems something a bit uncomfortable about the ‘soul act’ and ‘reggae act’ categories – they feel like very old-fashioned pigeonholes into which to fit the staggeringly exciting black music being made in the US, Jamaica and the UK at the time. I know that soul was used very flexibly, but even so.]

  10. 10
    Matthew Marcus on 15 May 2018 #

    Oh man, I hadn’t thought about A Rush And A Push through the lens of the new Morrissey showing his true colours, but it’s a bit horrid isn’t it? It’s gonna be hard to listen to old favourites ever again now. Still I enjoyed a Polanski film despite myself not long ago, so maybe I can compartmentalise this too…

  11. 11
    Peter Miller on 15 May 2018 #

    I don’t think Panic is racist, and I don’t really think Morrissey is/was racist. I think it is more anti-Radio 1, which was available in all the places listed.

    I suppose this is not a staggering new take on the song.

    I don’t know about Bengali in Platforms.

    I don’t really mind the flag, although I wouldn’t do it myself.

    I don’t know why anyone would support Anne-Marie Wotsit.

    I really like the picture of the aliens thinking about this.

  12. 12
    Peter Miller on 15 May 2018 #

    I do not like the concept of “black music”.

  13. 13
    Phil on 15 May 2018 #

    Neither do I – it’s a racist category – but it’s an accurate label for the types of music that people like Morrissey hate, or believe they hate. (Can you say you hate a genre of music if you hate it in general and a priori, irrespective of what any example actually sounds like?)

  14. 14

    it’s quite hard to put together a history of the uk music press without saying it:

  15. 15
    Andrew Farrell on 16 May 2018 #

    What is it that you feel you don’t know about Bengali in Platforms, Peter?

  16. 16
    Kit on 16 May 2018 #

    “I don’t know about alt-right, but I get the feeling, looking back, that Moz was already properly racist back then”

    Yes, this – it’s not so much that he started throwing tantrums in response to challenges in 2005, as that in 1993 people stood down in the face of his entitled pouting. The fact that he apparently (still!) doesn’t BELIEVE he’s racist perhaps gave an authority to his tendentiousness that people accepted at the time.

    However, note that after being called on “testing the limits of (as we used to call it) semiotic free play” to an audience of skinheads, he spent years doubling down on skinhead imagery as backdrops and record sleeves. And then, during his relationship with skinhead Jake, would smirk as the ex-boxer shoved and threatened music writers. He had always been, of course, wondrously skilled at using the press as a main outlet of his performance project The Personality Of Morrissey, but transitioning from arch provocative statements to arms-length almost-violence, through a living symbol of what he’d been challenged on, felt extremely telling and a significant turning point.

    (Of course, in the moment it was probably largely that it gave him warm fuzzies, and half a stiffy, to be so vociferously defended by his boyfriend.)

    Thanks for the piece, Mark, and I’m really looking forward to the book!

  17. 17
    Tommy Mack on 17 May 2018 #

    I wonder if he partly got a free pass because he was entertaining about it, spinning mad conspiracy theories and the like which played to his image as an eccentric whereas someone like Phil Collins got castigated for whinging about taxes because it makes him look petty and small. (Also the papers in question liked Morrissey’s music and hated Collins’ which must have played a part)

  18. 18

    800+ views in 4 days is very gratifying! if you subscribe now you can read my next patreon post right now (it’s about the late tom wolfe, another problematic fellow to be sure)

  19. 19
    Mal on 20 Mar 2021 #

    The title of “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” comes from a pamphlet written by Oscar Wilde’s mother I think, under her pseudonym Speranza, about Irish independence. Of course, as the article above states, the inspiration for a song is not the be-all and end-all of its meaning. It’s notable that pretty much every reference (online at least) to the original pamphlet that one comes across is in the context of explaining the Smiths song. So I assume that when the song was released, its title didn’t work as an explanation of the song’s meaning, it was just another phrase.

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