Friday, June 29, 2012

Mythmaking and Morrissey

Q: How often does the seriousness end and the irony begin in your work?
A: Many times. I have a grand and endless capacity to find myself slightly ridiculous. I'm not pretending to be some wallowing prophet, for heaven's sake. I think we all have to sit down and look in the mirror and think, What is that absurd monstrosity?
- Interview with Morrissey,
Details magazine, 1992

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
- The Critic as Artist, Pt. II, Oscar Wilde

One of the things that has always intrigued me about the career of one Steven Patrick Morrissey is just when is he taking himself seriously and when is he playing a huge joke on all of us and taking the piss. Certainly Morrissey has indicated and demonstrated that he can be deadly earnest,whether it's his opinions on the rights of animals (he's for them) or the chances of The Smiths reuniting (zero).

And yet... and yet.

I would go out tonight
But I haven't got a stitch to wear
- "This Charming Man," The Smiths

Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.

- An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before," a single1 off of the Smiths' fourth and final studio LP Strangeways Here We Come, somewhat follows the formula of most Smiths videos up to this point: put a lot of attention on Morrissey (who likes the attention) and relegate the band, workmanlike, into a supporting role. "Stop Me" takes this one step further and dispenses with Mssrs. Marr, Rourke, and Joyce altogether.

To put the "plot" of this video as simply as humanly possible, it's a bunch of people dressed like Morrissey riding around Manchester on bikes with the real Morrissey. While that's going on we get some posed and composed shots of the aforementioned quasi-Morrisseys, photos of idols of Morrissey's, and places in Manchester that Morrissey seems to like. That's it.

Post-postmodern-perspective-wise, this video has always blown my fucking mind. It's Morrissey, literally taking every single juicy morsel of the myth of him being an aesthete and narcissist and exploding it. Not "exploding it" in the traditional sense of the word (denying and refuting it) but blowing it up to absurd proportions. In this video, Morrissey has a posse. With him are a about a dozen other young men, also with 50s-style quiff haircuts, NHS-style glasses, painfully dorky looking bicycles, and a somewhat revolting tendency to pose, posture and preen. And most of them are wearing Smiths t-shirts. Haven't they ever heard that indie precept that you never wear the t-shirt of the band you're going to see? Let alone the band whose singer you are going to act as narcissistic doppelganger for?

I say a lot of things I don’t mean.
- Morrissey, 2003

Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.
- Oscar Wilde in a letter to James McNeil Whistler 

So here's where I ask the question again: is Morrissey taking the piss? Specifically, in the video above? At this point in his career, and keep in mind that's only a 7-8 year career at this early point, it doesn't even matter. In my opinion the self-mythologizing is being done in such a blatantly obvious and seemingly ironic way that it comes back around from parody back toward sincerity again. Let me count the ways in which Morrissey constructs and deconstructs his own myth in less than three and a half minutes.

  1. Punctured bicycle/crashed down on the crossbar: First the use of the bicycle in both the lyrics and the video deliverately echoes the lyrics of the song for which the Smiths first became (in)famous: their first ever Top 40 single "This Charming Man." On British TV institution Top of the Pops, Morrissey somewhat scandalized the assembled TV viewers by Byronically opening up his shirt and thrashing himself with gladioli. A conscious set of bookends to his career with the Smiths and a kiss-off to his bandmates who he'd grown to loathe? I'd have to think so.
  2. The cycling tour of North Cornwall Manchester: Yes, this... is Manchester. But is it a Manchester of the late 80s where the Madchester scene was in full swing and had revitalized the streets of the drab Northwestern city? While by no means safe, sparkling, and crime-free, Manchester in 1987 for the most part certainly didn't look like the streets of a 1950s British black-and-white kitchen sink drama. Morrissey's Manchester in this video looks like it's just been bombed by the fucking Nazis.
  3. Re-issue! Re-package! Double-pack with a photograph: Also as they ride around Manchester there is the tyranny of image everywhere. Three-second cuts of the Morrissoids posing like wan Hollywood stars on the swoon. Conveniently placed posters of figures that Morrissey reveres (Oscar Wilde, Elvis, etc.) but this is part of the Smiths (more accurately Morrissey's) branding plan for the band all along: every single Smith's album contains a cover photo not of someone in the band but instead pop culture heroes, preferably from the 50s or 60s. Likewise the locations in the video: the roundabout to Strangeways and Salford, the Salford Lads' Club (from the inside cover of The Queen is Dead), the betting shop run by Albert Finney's dad have now become sites of pilgrimage and/or iconic images for Morrissey fans nearly 25 years later.
  4. Send in the clones: I don't think I have to explain how incredibly, almost laughably narcissistic it is to recruit a dozen young people (and keep in mind at this point Morrissey is pushing age 30) dressed exactly like you, who were probably fans of your band and have them ride around with you, again posing and preening in unison the whole time. Creepy. Funny? Ironic? Sincere?
In the end, this video defies categorization. When you've run the whole gamut of sincere feeling to high camp to ironic self-parody and back again, not over course of decades, but of three-and-a-half minutes, there's no way to tell which is real and which is the illusion. Which I suppose is wholly the point.

Who said I'd lied, because I never!
- Morrissey

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
- Oscar Wilde

1Actually, it never got the chance to be a single, at least in the UK, because of a reference to a mass murder in the lyrics and the then-recent Hungerford massacre in the UK. Plus ├ža change, eh?

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