The guilt you get when you listen to The Smiths is a subtle one. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt it before. You’re humming along to the obvious notes, drumming your fingers on your knee, then you recall the time Morrissey referred to the Chinese as a “sub-species.”
You’re drunk and air-guitaring at your friend’s house, belting out a couple of “…to die by your side”s because you’ve forgotten the rest of the verse, then remember how he blamed immigrants for the death of the British identity.
Whether or not Mr Steve Morrissey is doing this for attention does not detract from the fact that he is a terrible person. But that’s not all. Whatever he says, he will – inevitably and always – have people on his side. You (speaking, now, to fans), and me, and all your friends, will forever sip beer in a circle – in the backyard, before the party – and argue about which Smiths line is the best. (It’s “I just might die with a smile on my face, after all”).
How can this be the case for people who possess self-awareness, rationality and Are Not Racists? I mean, if we boycott companies, and criticise politicians, or even indict the people we know for the reprehensible things they say or do, why would artists be exempt from the same scrutiny?
Consider exhibit (b): in 1922, T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land catalysing a literary revolution in the form of English Modernism. Shantih, etc., etc. He also had fascist tendencies and despised Jews and Africans. Consider, also, exhibit (c): Picasso beat his wife. Exhibit (d): the members of the Wu-Tang Clan are – at least lyrically – homophobes. But it won’t stop me from appreciating them.
This article is not about condemning these people for all these things (though they, of course, deserve it). It’s about how their art, to an extent, is redemptive. A person’s problematic views on their country’s borders shouldn’t matter when they’ve made The Queen is Dead. Or, rather, our opinion of the latter shouldn’t be coloured by the former. Morrissey is a blabbering old man whose music has transcended him. Eliot was a sneering prick who formed beauty through words. The Author’s in the ground but they’ve left their inheritance.
Morrissey has consistently denied accusations of prejudice. However, the organisers of the ‘Love Music Hate Racism’ concert in London refused to accept his donations after his comments about China in 2010. The rest of the people I’ve mentioned have, to my knowledge, been unrepentant. Which is a shame. But – and they should count themselves lucky here – fans are forgiving. Fans are sentimental. Things will be condoned and contrition will be imagined.
I don’t think we should feel bad about that. The reason artists aren’t criticised in the same way that corporations or politicians are is because they’re not them. They far surpass those things on emotional and intellectual levels; what they’ve produced is more important than who they are.
Anyway, the same deity or evolutionary flux that gave humans bigotry also created The Smiths. And just listen to them, will you? I mean just listen to them.