In all art, it’s often hard to separate the artist-as-person from artist-as-artist, and no more is that true than in pop music. In music, we let the artists ‘into our living rooms and bedrooms when no one else is around. We let them into our ears, directly, through earbuds and headphones’ (Levitin 2008: 243), so we need to know that the words we’re opening ourselves up to so intimately were written by someone we feel we could bond with in real life. This becomes problematic, though, when artist and person are so different. With Morrissey, the problem is particularly pronounced. As an artist he is inspiring, inclusive, eloquent and thoughtful. As a person, he is, well, perhaps not. With every new media controversy, it’s becoming harder and harder to remain a Morrissey fan in 2018, but for the purposes of this article, and to allow me to access Morrissey’s lyrics without my thoughts being distracted by his real-life utterances, he will be analysed and discussed purely as an artist.
Establishing and rejecting the ‘normal’
In the song ‘The youngest was the most loved’, Morrissey sings ‘There is no such thing in life as normal’ (2006), as he tells the story of a child who ‘turned into a killer’ (2006) in spite of an upbringing that offered love, protection, and support. Via this literal rejection of society being able to explain or predict human behaviour (while firmly situating himself on the side of nature over nurture), Morrissey is also passing a wider comment on life in general, ultimately suggesting, through the repetition of the refrain ‘there is no such thing as normal’, that we cannot really reject or rebel against normality if it doesn’t exist, nor can anyone be seen as ‘abnormal’. And within this notion lies the paradox of Morrissey, a writer who has spent a great deal of his career with ‘an instinctive sympathy for the marginalized or excluded … and a suspicion of all that seeks to establish itself as “normal”’ (Hopps 2009: 65). Whether singing from the perspectives of those ‘separate’ from our defined norms within society (‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’/ ‘Ambitious Outsiders’) or simply showing us images of what life is like on the fringes of society (‘How Soon is Now?’/ ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’), Morrissey rejects and embraces the notion of normality, both by suggesting it doesn’t exist, and by giving a voice to those who live outside it.
Morrissey and The Carnivalesque
When I look at Morrissey and the Carnivalesque, there is a similar dichotomy, with many songs tying directly into the concept of Carnival; particularly ‘Hierarchies overturned [by] … normally silenced voices and energies’ (Robinson 2011), but many overturning it.
In ‘The Queen Is Dead’, the lyrics ‘Her very Lowness with her head in a sling / I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing’ (1986a), and ‘I say Charles don’t you ever crave / to appear on the front of the Daily Mail / Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?’ tie in with Bakhtin’s suggestion that ‘Carnival mésalliances allow for unusual combinations: “the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid”’, as well as promoting a suspension of ‘hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it’ (in Vice 1997:152).
With ‘Handsome Devil’, and the lines ‘I know what hands are for / and I’d like to help myself’, ‘let me get my hands on your mammary glands’, and ‘a boy in the bush is worth two in the hand’ (1984), ‘there are elements of erotic fantasy in the singer’s perception of people as readily available sexual playthings … [as well as] fleshy lust’ (Rogan 1993: 176), which can certainly be aligned with a Carnivalesque notions of a ‘variety of sexual partners and practices, or unscheduled bodily exposure’ (Walton 2000: 4).
Pierpaolo Martino touches upon the Carnivalesque images in Morrissey’s song, ‘Vicar in a Tutu’, in which, he suggests, ‘its mix of the religious, of vaudeville, parody and transvestitism is undoubtedly a carnivalesque song’ (Martino 2011: 228) and one where ‘Morrissey is able to turn the world of the Church, and its official culture, topsy-turvy’ (Martino 2011: 227).
Simon Goddard posits that ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’, with its lyrics ‘Oh, shoplifters of the world / Unite and take over’ (1987a) is ‘a metaphor for all those repressed and marginalised by society’ (Goddard 2012: 388), tying in with the Carnival idea of ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order’ (Bakhtin 1984: 10). Despite the occasions where Morrissey’s lyrics identify with Carnivalesque imagery, however, there are also a number of examples where it is subverted.
The Carnivalesque overturned
In many of his lyrics, Morrissey subverts the conventional idea of Carnivalesque by rejecting its ‘direct contact among people’ as well as its ‘mood of celebration and laughter’ (Robinson 2011), taking the nightclub, the fair, and the seaside and turning them into the antithesis of the conventional idea of Carnivalesque.
In the song Rusholme Ruffians (1985a), Morrissey sets a story in the truly Carnivalesque setting of a fairground but, in his world, fun is overshadowed by violence (‘a boy is stabbed / and his money is grabbed’); and romance by greed (‘An engagement ring / doesn’t mean a thing / to a mind consumed by brass money’). The rides themselves, The Big Wheel and The Parachutes, are subverted from being representative of freedom to representative of malice and misery (‘She said: “How quickly would I die / If I jumped from the top of the parachutes?”’).
In his book The British Seaside, Walton suggests that the seaside is a place which puts the ‘civilising process’ temporarily into reverse … and conjures up the spirit of carnival, in the sense of upturning the social order and celebrating the rude, the excessive, the anarchic, the hidden and the gross’ (Walton 2000: 4).
In ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ Morrissey subverts the seaside from a place of carnival into something altogether different. Leisure and frivolity become isolation and despair, and ‘drink-fuelled raucousness’ (Walton 2000: 4) becomes a sombre cup of tea on the promenade. In this song, Morrissey presents an image of life on the fringes of society and gives a voice to those that, even if involved with the festivities of carnival, would do so from its very edges and seek refuge back to their homes as soon as they were able. The lyrics ‘Trudging slowly over wet sand / Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen’ (1988) hints at the Carnivalesque theme of unscheduled bodily exposure, but in a violated, not positive, way; and ‘every day is silent and grey’ (1988) is the antithesis of the spirit of Carnival. Such a subversion also serves as a political statement, and one which still rings true decades later, with ‘Seaside towns… [having] experienced a long-term trajectory of decline’ and where ‘Seven of the 10 local authorities in England and Wales with the highest rates of heroin deaths are coastal towns’ (Perraudin 2018).
Morrissey uses a similar subversion in ‘How Soon is Now?’ where he invites us to imagine going to a nightclub ‘on your own’, and standing on your own before ‘you go home and you cry / and you want to die’ (1985b). In some people’s worlds, nightclubs might be linked with the (very Carnivalesque themes of) sexual expression and experimentation, freedom, alcohol, loss of inhibition, but in Morrissey’s world, it is shown as something about as far removed as one can get from ‘a twilight zone of possibility’ (Crichlow 2012: 6) filled with fun, escape, and socialising.
The Carnivalesque for the socially awkward
It’s important to note that even though Carnival is described as ‘the inversion of the usual totemic and taboo status of certain situations’ (Crichlow 2012: 6), it is itself promoting a feeling of social inclusion and excluding those wishing to reject social interaction. Morrissey supports those excluded from the conventions of normal society (carnivalesque) but suggests they remain excluded and proud of it, rather than trying to rewrite the ‘norm (un-carnivalesque). In his lyrics, Morrissey allows us to reject hierarchy, privilege, and the ‘norm’, but allows us to do it without the social elements. For example:
‘A dreaded sunny day / so let’s go where we’re happy / and I’ll meet you at the cemetry gates’ – ‘Cemetry Gates’ [sic] (1986b)
‘Spending warm summer days indoors’ – ‘Ask’ (1986c)
‘I’m OK by myself’ – ‘I’m OK by Myself’ (2009)
‘Society’s hell’ – My Love, I'd Do Anything for You (2017a)
‘Spent the day in bed’ – ‘Spent the day in bed’ (2017b)
‘I never talk to my neighbour / I’d rather not get involved’ – ‘The Death of a Disco Dancer’ (1987b)
In his lyrics, both with The Smiths and in his solo career, Morrissey presents an image of life on the fringes of society and gives a voice to those who, even if involved with the festivities of carnival, would do so from its fringes, while constantly seeking the comfort of home.
This is itself is representative of the freedom Carnival suggests, but accessible to all.
Bakhtin, M 1984 Rabelais and His World (trans H Iswoksky), Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Crichlow, MA 2012 ‘Introduction: Carnival praxis, carnivalesque strategies and Atlantic interstices’, in Crichlow (ed.), Carnival Art, Culture and Politics. Oxon: Routledge, 1–16
Goddard, S 2012 Mozipedia, London: Ebury Press
Hopps, G 2009 The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart, London: Continuum
Levitin, D 2008 This is your Brain on Music, London: Atlantic Books
Martino, P 2011 ‘Vicar in a tutu: Dialogism, iconicity and the carnivalesque in Morrissey’, in E Devereux, A Dillane, & MJ Power, (eds), Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identity, Bristol: Intellect, 225–40
Morrissey 1988 ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ [Vinyl single] HMV
Morrissey 2006 ‘The Youngest was the most loved’, in Ringleader of the Tormentors [CD] Sanctuary/ Attack
Morrissey 2009 ‘I’m OK by Myself’, in Years of Refusal [CD] Decca/Polydor
Morrissey 2017a ‘My Love, I'd Do Anything for You’, in Low in High School [CD] BMG
Morrissey 2017b ‘Spent the day in bed’, in Low in High School [CD] BMG
Perraudin, F 2018 ‘Seaside towns are “hotspots” for heroin deaths, says ONS’. The Guardian (5 April), (accessed 13 December 2018)
Robinson, A 2011 ‘Bakhtin: Carnival against capital, carnival against power’, In Theory Part 2, Ceasefire (9 September), (accessed 15 October 2017)
Rogan, J 1993 Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance (new rev.ed.), London: Omnibus Press
The Smiths 1984 ‘Handsome Devil’ in A Hatful of Hollow [CD] Rough Trade
The Smiths 1985a ‘Rusholme Ruffians’, in Meat is Murder [CD] Rough Trade
The Smiths 1985b ‘How Soon is Now’, in Meat is Murder [CD] Rough Trade
The Smiths 1986a ‘The Queen Is Dead’, in The Queen Is Dead [CD] Rough Trade
The Smiths 1986b ‘Cemetry Gates’, in The Queen Is Dead [CD] Rough Trade
The Smiths 1986c ‘Ask’ [Vinyl Single] Rough Trade
The Smiths 1987a ‘Shoplifters of The World Unite’, in Louder Then Bombs [CD] Rough Trade
The Smiths 1987b ‘The Death of a Disco Dancer’, in Strangeways Here We Come [CD] Rough Trade
Vice, S 1997 Introducing Bakhtin, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Walton, JK 2000 The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press