The eccentric, misanthropic English pop star Morrissey gave a concert in Birmingham, and The Guardian sent a reviewer. She did not like what she saw. It begins:
It doesn’t take long, on this freezing night in Birmingham, before Morrissey makes one of his pronouncements. Somewhere between the dying notes of the opening Elvis Presley cover, You’ll Be Gone – licked by exotic flamenco heat – and the opening anglo jangle of “Suedehead,” from Morrissey’s solo debut, Viva Hate, released 30 years ago this month, the singer flicks the mic lead like a whip and declares: “Bring back free speech!”
Ah, free speech: you do feel a certain nostalgia for the idea, as you might for the younger, 80s Morrissey. Formerly uncontroversial, the liberty to air ideas and openly criticise authority is enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution of Morrissey’s adopted US.
Over the past few years, however, the goalposts of political engagement have shifted drastically. Now the most ardent advocates of free speech tend to be figures who have something ugly to say.
Oh dear, free speech. Can’t have that. Anyway, Morrissey has always been known for his weird views and tendency to say provocative things (though why “bring back free speech” offends anyone is odd). But tell us, Guardian reviewer, how was the music at the show? Eh?
Well, you have to wait until the very end of the review to get much of an inkling:
Many of the new songs leave the crowd attentive, but physically unmoved. One stands out, though, as strong a 21st-century Morrissey cut as you could wish for. “Spent the Day in Bed” is as musically light-footed tonight as it is lyrically breezy. The respite from politics is helpful.
A splendid cover of the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” points up a little connection between Chrissie Hynde’s “ohhhhh” in Chain Gang and the “Ah-ah-ah-ah” of “I’m so sorry” from Morrissey’s “Suedehead.” The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” remains magnificent, as does “Every Day Is Like Sunday”. After “Hold On to Your Friends”, a terrace chant of Morrissey’s name goes up and the singer seems genuinely touched. “You don’t have to,” he says. “You’re here. That’s all that matters.” I’m still struck by the song’s words: “A bond of trust has been abused,” it goes. “Something of value may be lost.”
What the reviewer has done is to rate Morrissey’s politics, and to slug him in the gut for disappointing her. Alas, Moz was so much better in his youth, when he was a misanthropic weirdo for the Left! If you want to know how the singer’s performance was, well, I guess you would have had to have been there. So much for the utility of socialist realist pop-music criticism.
If Morrissey comes to the US on tour behind his new album, I’ll be eager to go. I’m sure I won’t like his politics any more now than I did in the 1980s, but I’ll go to see and hear him. That’s why normal people like pop music, right?