With ‘cancel culture’ being so prevalent online in recent years, it still surprises me every time I come across a TikTok on my for you page using a song by iconic 1980’s indie pop/rock band The Smiths. My dad, who is significantly more clued-in on music than me, was the one who informed me about Morrissey: “We don’t play The Smiths anymore, Charlie,” he told me authoritatively when I played Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now in the car as a teenager. Learning about Morrissey’s anti-immigration and far-right activism, I promptly stopped listening to his music. So why are tracks such as This Charming Man, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, and Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now so popular on the internet at the moment?
Morrissey has an increasingly large backlog of controversial public opinions. Specifically, he has made plenty of racist comments, such as stating reggae music promotes ‘black supremacy’, “black people and white people will [n]ever get on”, said he felt Chinese people are a ‘subspecies’, and defended anti-Islam UKIP candidate Anne Marie Waters. He has also stated controversial extremist views on the consumption of meat, stating that it is on the same ‘moral level’ as child abuse and paedophilia. Morrissey has worn a badge from the far-right movement For Britain on stage, a party that even Nigel Farage describes as being filled with ‘Nazis’. So, from racism to misogyny to whatever the hell he’s getting at with the whole meat thing, there is no doubt of the dissonance between Morrissey’s opinions and those of the general public. It is also undeniable, however, that The Smiths made good music. Their lyrical genius effortlessly captures the unforgiving melancholy of early adulthood.
In the wake of the recent situation with Rex Orange County, albeit ‘cancelled’ for counts of sexual assault rather than political opinion, made me wonder what saves Morrissey from the same fate of being removed from playlists and public favour (although Rex’s charges have since been dropped, and has returned to popular public favour). Is it because The Smiths are an 80s band, so don’t get media attention in the same way as active artists? Asking around, I quickly learnt that it was mostly the case that people simply are not aware. I wonder, then, if they did know, whether they would stop listening; is The Smiths a faceless band for our generation, removed from its components to a younger audience who weren’t around for its heyday?
Johnny Marr, lead guitarist of The Smiths, has separated himself from Morrissey, stating that they are “so different”. Morrissey has written an open letter about Marr, asking him to stop mentioning him in interviews.
So, is it right to separate art from the artist? In the case of The Smiths, the situation is a little morally ambiguous, considering the band doesn’t only consist of Morrissey. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t still making money from his music, and if even other members of the band have separated themselves from the artist, maybe we should too. Personally, I can’t help but feel like the music of The Smiths has been tainted. When art is representative of something so personal to the artist, how can we separate them? I find it difficult not to hear the festering spite within the lyrics of their early music that manifests itself in recent years in Morrissey’s extreme comments. It is therefore perhaps to my own detriment that I find it so difficult to enjoy their music at face value, considering The Smiths soundtracked my formative years, but ultimately in this case I cannot bring myself to listen to music that so eloquently illustrates the inner psyche of a fascist.