To a generation of outcasts who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, the former frontman of the Smiths and prolific solo artist Morrissey might as well be a god. The British singer’s misfit allure connected with legions of fans, from punks and nerds to LGBTQ folks and Mexican Americans, who saw their own alienation in his melancholy lyrics.
In the present, though, his penchant for alienating others with racist behavior and statements threatens his legacy. He’s become known for comments that speak to the British far-right, to opponents of Muslim immigration and to those who agree with his assertion that Chinese people are “a subspecies.”
His return to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia this Thursday has prompted calls for a boycott from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“Under the circumstances, attending Morrissey’s concert is a form of financial support and, in effect, an endorsement of his bigotry,” Zainab Chaudry, CAIR’s Director of Maryland Outreach, wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “Therefore, CAIR is calling on fans to boycott the event to protest his racist, hate-filled views and to send a strong message that we expect better from him.”
Executive Calvin Ball of Howard County, the increasingly diverse and pluralistic area where the venue is located, offered his own statement. “I do not condone or validate any derogatory actions or comments of any [entertainer playing Merriweather Post Pavilion],” he wrote in an email. "It is my hope that any conversation we have around hateful speech produces an understanding of the damage it can cause and leads us to a place of greater unity, and a better tomorrow for all.”
Protests against Morrissey’s racist behavior go at least as far back as 1992, when members of the part-British South Asian band Cornershop burned his picture outside his then-label EMI’s offices. Back then, the critiques largely focused on his use of nationalist imagery, including performing draped in a Union Jack, that were associated with the country’s far-right.
Dr. Iván Ramos, a professor of LGBTQ studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted that these actions didn’t get much coverage outside of the British music press.
“He wasn’t making as many statements, but he was using potentially white nationalist statements or symbols that just weren’t legible in America,” he said.
But his position came into focus earlier this year when he appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” wearing a pin with the logo of For Britain, a far-right U.K. political party whose founder has demanded an end to Muslim immigration and reduction of Muslim birthrates.
Ramos, the author of an upcoming book’s chapter on the singer’s Latinx fandom, didn’t know about all of this when he first gravitated to Morrissey’s work while growing up in Tijuana. He and other fans simply knew that the Englishman spoke to their despair.
“He really was a savior to the box bedroom rebel, to the outsider,” said Chris Quinn, a Rockville native who inhabits the singer’s likeness throughout the mid-Atlantic as the frontman of Caligula Blushed, his latest Morrissey/the Smiths tribute band. “He made them feel good, like somebody who’s become very important, very famous has got my back.”
Morrissey, who declined through his representative to comment, rejects the accusations of racism. The 60-year-old son of working-class Irish immigrants instead frames his beliefs within his longtime animal rights activism (“You see, racism is at its most abhorrent in relation to eating animals,” he said in the same 2018 blog post where he linked halal meat to ISIS). He’s adopted other controversial positions, only to abandon or minimize them — a reflection of what Quinn called his inability to give straight answers.]
Tecla Tesnau of Baltimore’s Ottobar, which hosts Morrissey/the Smiths-themed karaoke nights and dance parties (and presents Caligula Blushed next month), noted that the musician she grew up loving has “always been kind of an outspoken proponent for these outlying kind of ideas.”
“That’s super uncomfortable for people to talk about, because it’s very gray," Hooligan said. “[But] you can’t really be someone who has all of this white supremacist ideology at the bedrock of your perspective of the world and still be doing quote-unquote good.”
At present, Morrissey’s actions don’t threaten the upcoming Merriweather concert as much as his history of abrupt show cancellations.
"Morrissey has played with us 11 times so far in the last 28 years and the upcoming performance will be the 12th,” a spokesperson for I.M.P., the beleaguered company that oversees the venue and others in Washington D.C., wrote in an email. “He has a loyal following [in] the Washington/Baltimore area, which is why he keeps coming back.”
Morrissey’s behavior likewise didn’t stop tour opener Interpol, whose label spokesperson also declined The Sun’s interview request, from playing with him, as frontman Paul Banks previously wrote on Twitter.
Fans like Tesnau, Ramos and Quinn, on the other hand, feel more obligation to not support him by going to shows or buying records. Quinn even addressed the For Britain pin by wearing one supporting equal rights when he performs.
Tesnau reflected that this situation gets to the heart of two important questions: “Should we judge the art by the character of the artist?” and “Where is the moral tipping point?” The path to that answer is “highly subjective,” she said.
She’ll still spin her ex-godhead’s records and book Quinn’s band, but she won’t pay for his new music or a ticket to Thursday’s show: "I don’t want to fund his current platform out of my pocket.”