Thursday, May 24, 2007

Stars Reflect in the Reserviors: Morrissey and Mexicans

“I really like Mexican people. I find them so terribly nice and they have fantastic hair and fantastic skin, and usually really good teeth. Great combination.”

(Morrissey, somewhat coyly, declares his affection in
The Importance of Being Morrissey, 2003)

Morrissey, that most quintessential embodiment of a lost or forgotten Albion, the iconic loner whose haunting lyrics and melodies have warmed thousands of hearts in lonely bedrooms all over the world has a fanatical, if unlikely following in Mexico City and the Mexican communities of Los Angeles. While he has been a successful live artist in the United States since the beginning of his solo career, since the end of the nineties he has extended tours to South America in response to his increasing popularity, playing to sold-out audiences in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and most significantly, Mexico. It is here, and in the Mexican communities of Southern California, that the Mancunian singer has received devout audiences, attracting a following whose devotion has led to acknowledgment from both the media and in the artist’s own songs.

While on first examination this cultural union may seem surprising, it is possible to explain its genesis through an investigation of Morrissey’s wittily observant lyrics, which explore complex attitudes towards loneliness and alienation, as well as his intriguing sense of history and religion. Furthermore, the deliberate iconography that surrounds his persona is a powerful means of self-expression, demonstrating his awareness of cultural purpose and peculiar worldview. From his early avowal of celibacy through to a rejection of the traditional rock & roll lifestyle, Morrissey has subversively investigated notions of what is ordinary without being so himself. In showing a willingness to confront what can be considered genuinely taboo subjects for pop music, he has resisted the predictable and continues to produce music that somehow translates the personal pain and neuroses of audiences from Brixton to Benito Juárez.

Since the beginning of his musical career as lead singer of the Smiths, the popular view of Morrissey amongst fans and critics alike has been that of an outsider. Although often the cause célèbre of the independent music press (in which the merits of his singular presence have been frequently contested, though rarely ignored) he has existed on the fringes of the mainstream music industry in isolation, resisting the urge to follow the zeitgeist in order to achieve greater commercial success. This steadfast refusal to compromise his musical nous in the wake of the latest trends is crucial to understanding Morrissey’s unique appeal. He has never been part of the musical establishment, despite being a chief influence and a forebear of the contemporary mainstream success ‘indie’ music has enjoyed during the past decade. As arguably the most important indie band in Britain during the 1980s, the Smiths have yet to be recognised with a lifetime-achievement industry award, unlike some of their less-influential peers. This marginalisation is quite possibly due to Morrissey’s openly contemptuous regard for the machinations of the music industry, where artists are expected to follow the behest of boardroom executives in order to maximise selling potential.

Morrissey remains an enigma to both his admirers and detractors; something that one either gets or one does not, a polarising force. It is clear that his iconography remains intact through the passage of time. Approaching his 50th birthday, he is still recognisable as the 25 year-old, gladioli-wielding front man with the NHS spectacles that appeared on Top of the Pops wearing a fake hearing aid in 1984. In many ways, his standing as an outsider has allowed a natural evolution, removed from the need to reinvent his identity in order to sound fresh to audiences. While he may never garner the mass-worship of Dylan or Bowie, he has nevertheless remained relevant to his audience, perhaps by virtue of a twin-facilitated narcissism; in Morrissey his fans see their own insecurities reflected, in turn compelling him to champion their cause. Considering the disunity in the relationship between Mexico and America from the past to the present day, this outsider status is critical to understanding his popularity with Mexicans, because it demonstrates a rebellious motif that these audiences relate to on a both a personal and historical level.

Disregarding an often distant and aloof regard towards the media, in person Morrissey’s fans describe him as warm and approachable. At concerts he is known to accommodate members of the audience who rush the stage in desperate attempts to be closer to him. In the Channel 4 documentary The Importance of Being Morrissey, Will Self refers to the fans that seek to touch their hero by “flinging themselves onto the stage to catch the king’s touch so that the king could cure in some way the scrofula of loneliness.” Indeed, the ceremonial idolisation of Morrissey by his more fervent supporters suggests that to some, he is a figure of ecclesiastical authority. In Mexico 98% of the population is Catholic, although unlike some other Latin American countries, there is no official religion. Whilst this does not explain why the more fanatical fans living in Mexico City and the Mexican communities of Los Angeles appear to worship Morrissey, at the very least, it suggests the potential for a spiritual vacuum.

Morrissey was born in Manchester, a city where the mythologized perpetual rainfall highlights one of many distinctions between the singer’s birthplace and Mexico City. In numerous early lyrics, the singer acknowledges the haunting presence of the past, a familiar influence in Mexican culture that significantly suggests an association between the singer and his future audience. ‘Still Ill’ from the Smiths’ eponymous debut album released in 1984, harks back to the nostalgia of the past, with the author expressing regret that “we cannot cling to the old dreams anymore” and that life will never be as good again:

Under the iron bridge we kissed
And although I ended up with sore lips
It just wasn't like the old days anymore
No, it wasn't like those days
Am I still ill?

In ‘Suffer Little Children’ Morrissey addresses the Moors Murders committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, imagining the perspectives of the victims, survivors, and even the killers. Although on inspection the lyrics reveal that the song is a tender tribute to the victims, it caused considerable outrage upon its release, with lines such as, “Edward, see those alluring lights? Tonight will be your very last night” cited as evidence of Morrissey’s evil in the British tabloid press. Understandably, the whole of Manchester was deeply affected by the murders, which clearly left a mark on the young Morrissey (who was of a similar age to several of the victims) perhaps helping to explain the preoccupation with death that would pervade many of his later songs. In an interview with The Face magazine in 1985, he expressed his incomprehension of the senseless nature of the killings:

“You see it was all so evil: it was, if you can understand this, ungraspably evil. When something reaches that level it becomes almost… almost absurd really. I remember it at times like I was living in a soap opera…” (Simpson, 2006, p. 46)

In any discussion of Morrissey and Mexicans, it is perhaps inevitable that the question of his sexual identity, and the contradictions this presents to the issue of machismo in Mexican culture, requires attention. Traditionally, machismo has tended to imply sexist attitudes towards women and male chauvinism; however it also often extends to homophobia. Being openly gay in Mexico is a difficult experience, although attitudes to homosexuality have improved in recent years, with legislation recently passed in Mexico City to allow same-sex civil unions. In March 2007 the Mexican singer Christian Chavez became the first pop star to openly declare his homosexuality. Regardless of these developments, the issue of whether sexuality contradicts notions of machismo is rightfully rendered obsolete in the case of the singer’s Mexican followers, as the fringe status and progressive views of his audience demonstrates. In the documentary Is It Really so Strange? , one fan recalls handing his mother the lyric sheet of a Smiths album as a forewarning to revealing his sexuality. She soon realised that most of the love songs were addressed to men. Morrissey has never openly declared his sexuality, although the lyrics of songs such as ‘This Charming Man’ (“When in this charming car/This charming man”), ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ (“I could have been wild and I could have been free/But Nature played this trick on me”) and ‘Handsome Devil’ (“A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand/I think I can help you get through your exams/Oh, you handsome devil”) leave little to the imagination.

In The Importance of Being Morrissey the singer voiced his opinions in regard to the subject of his audience’s passionate devotion and the association with his sexuality: “Because these are fully formed adults and mostly male, it’s inexplicable. It doesn’t fit into any stereotype heterosexual fantasy.” Colin Snowsell, a doctoral candidate at Montreal, Quebec’s McGill University, has made a study of the connection between Morrissey and his fans, and finds the singer’s subversion of gender and sexual roles intriguing:

Morrissey is macho, but in a different way. When you think of the archetypal North American male sex symbol, you think of rockabilly icons like Elvis Presley and James Dean. But he’s taken this most masculine of identities and remade it as a fey, wimpy, cardigan-wearing, gladiola-loving singer. When you present that to Latinos, whose culture offers very rigid gender models, it appeals to them because he uses this to show through actions that there are other identity options available. There’s no right or wrong way, and people can choose for themselves. They can be tough and sensitive at the same time. (Arellano, 2002)

In 1985 on the Smiths’ second album, Morrissey confronted themes of oppression and violence that were prevalent in his childhood. Meat is Murder contains two songs that demonstrate how the past still haunted the singer’s present. In ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ he bemoans the “Belligerent ghouls” that run Manchester’s schools, describing his teachers as “Spineless swines, cemented minds”, whose physical abuse leaves “bruises bigger than dinner plates” on the pupils. The violence extends to the local fairground – a supposedly fun and familiar setting for the social passage of teenage youth – in ‘Rusholme Ruffians’:

The last night of the fair
By the big wheel generator
A boy is stabbed
And his money is grabbed
And the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine

Then someone falls in love
And someone’s beaten up
Someone’s beaten up
And the senses being dulled are mine

The brutality witnessed by the author causes desensitisation. Morrissey later acknowledged the senselessness of the violence he was exposed to during his adolescence in an interview with Mark Simpson:

I remember being at a fair at Stretford Road; it was very early, about 5pm, and I was just standing by the speedway. And somebody just came over to me and head-butted me. What I find remarkable is the way you just accepted it. That was just the kind of thing that happened. There never needed to be a reason. (Simpson, 2006, p. 136)

The violence of Morrissey’s adolescence undoubtedly contributed to his feelings of estrangement, and offers a possible explanation for his frequent lyrical obsession with dying. His unique perspective regarding death is shared by Mexicans, whose acceptance and celebration of death can be traced to early modern Mexican culture and the fusion of indigenous Aztec beliefs and customs with the enforced adoption of Catholicism. A vestige of the Aztec civilization all but eradicated by Spanish colonization survived through subterfuge, in the form of the Day of the Dead festival, which melds Catholic devotion to Pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs. This uniquely Mexican tradition was born out of a fierce desire to both conceal and preserve the hereditary religion of their ancestors, as Winn illustrates:

To the Indians, accustomed to accepting the gods of conquerors into their pantheon, the request that they worship the Christian God was reasonable. But the demand that they cease to worship the gods of their ancestors, who assured them good harvests and fertile marriages, was not. The result was that the old gods went underground, and the Indians learned to cloak their worship in a Christian guise. Spanish clerics could smash Indian idols, but they could not prevent the site on which they had stood from becoming the focus of a Catholic cult whose saint was identified with the old Indian deity. (Winn, 1992, p. 61)

The native Mexicans placed a great emphasis on death as a process of rebirth, thus their acceptance of a subject considered morbid and often taboo in other cultures is understandable. Death is not considered to be disastrous or signal the end of our existence. Instead, it is a natural and inevitable occurrence that is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new stage in life. There is a striking similarity between Morrissey’s embrace of the uncertainty of life and inevitability of death, and the sentiments of Mexican music, as Gustavo Arellano recognises: “For all the machismo and virulent existentialism that Mexican music espouses, there is another side – a morbid fascination with getting your heart and dreams broken by others, usually in death.” (Arellano, 2002) ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ is one several songs from the Smith’s penultimate album The Queen Is Dead that explore the imagery of death:

And if a double-decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten-ton truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine

Arellano believes that the song shares its sentiments with the Cuco Sanchez torch song ‘Cama de Piedra’ (“The day that they kill me/May it be with five bullets/And be close to you”). Numerous other Smiths songs explore the nature of death, notably in Morrissey’s plea to not be forgotten in ‘Well I Wonder’ (“Gasping, dying – but somehow still alive/This is the final stand of all I am”), the bleak suicidal outlook of ‘Asleep’ (“Don’t try to wake me in the morning/’Cause I will be gone”) and the tragic-comedy of ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ (“There were times when I could have murdered her/But you know I would hate anything to happen to her”). However, ‘I Know It’s Over’ offers the most poetic expression of the author’s feelings, as he simultaneously visits death and the hallowed territory of matriarchy in narrating the tragic end of a relationship:

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head
See, the sea wants to take me
The knife wants to slit me
Do you think you can help me?

Of course, Mexico’s past is littered with death and violence, with the country subject to both foreign invasion and internal conflicts, which may explain many of the cultural associations with conflict and struggle. However, in the twentieth century, after the revolution, Mexico has been peaceful, with no involvement in either of the two world wars and certainly nothing as globally abhorrent as the Holocaust to scar its national psyche. Significantly, it is the border that divides Mexico and the US that has arguably left the deepest scar on the Mexican psyche. In February 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought a formal end to the war, decreeing that the United States pay Mexico a modest settlement of $15 million, along with taking the entire expanse of land from Texas to California, about half of Mexico’s territory. If the defeat was hard to stomach then the volume of land acceded was even harsher, and this memory has never been forgotten in Mexico. Where Americans are taught to “Remember the Alamo”, Mexicans learn tales of heroic, defiant struggle against overwhelming odds. A further clue to the sensitivity over this issue is found in the respective official names given to the dispute. In the United States it is called the “Mexican-American War”, but in Mexico they call it the “War of the North American Invasion.” (Skidmore & Smith, 2001, p. 221-222)

Today, the US aggressively patrols its borders, with an estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrants arrested last year via the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California (BBC News, 27 October 2006). Those that cross the Rio Bravo, whether legally or otherwise, to live in southern America may experience anti-immigration sentiments from their American neighbours, cultivating an outsider mentality within Mexican communities. Therefore, a more immediate explanation for the connection between Morrissey and his Mexican fan-base can be found in the link between a social outsider, who has used music to address the isolation he feels from society, and a group of people attempting to cope with the difficulties of life in a foreign culture. In an article examining the phenomenon of Morrissey’s appeal to Mexican audiences, Gustavo Arellano highlights why immigrants identify with the singer: “Morrissey sings to the disaffected, and God knows alienation is part of the assimilation tradition – the equal and opposite reaction of the immigrant’s drive to blend in.” (Arellano, 2002)

In 1987 the Smiths released, Strangeways, Here We Come, which would be their final album. On the first track, ‘A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours’, it is possible to interpret the aggressive lyrics as a call to seize territory that has been rescinded in a past conflict:

A rush and a push and the land that
We stand on is ours
It has been before
So it shall be again
And people who are uglier than you and I
They take what they need, and just leave

Although the “people who are uglier than you and I” may not have intentionally been aimed at Americans, Morrissey has shown a deep mistrust of England’s trans-Atlantic allies. The anti-US sentiments expressed in ‘Glamorous Glue’ on the 1992 solo album Your Arsenal explore the decline of Britain and the decay of the English language, as a result of the perceived hegemony of American culture:

I used to dream, and I used to vow
I wouldn’t dream of it now
We look to Los Angeles
For the language we use
London is dead, London is dead

Despite Morrissey’s ambivalent stance towards the United States, he moved to Los Angeles in 1997, where he would spend the next six years in secluded exile from the music industry, without a recording contract. Throughout this period there was the occasional tour, although by and large the singer disappeared from the music scene. This self-exile from England is significant in relation to the Mexican connection in that it demonstrates a cultural displacement resulting from a geographical shift. However, the experience of most Mexican immigrants is far removed from the luxurious Hollywood mansion formerly owned by Clark Gable, in which Morrissey resided. Some fans have attributed the reason for his migration to a souring of his relationship with the British music press, but this seems odd given that relations had previously reached a nadir following false accusations of racism in 1992. Morrissey is known to not forget the past, as he acknowledged on Vauxhall and I in 1994 with the song ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’ (“Beware, I bear more grudges/Than lonely high court judges”). The writer Michael Bracewell attempts to explain the decision to leave the UK in The Importance of Being Morrissey: “Morrissey is one in a long line of great English artists, like P.G. Wodehouse or Noel Coward, who eventually leave because they’re just not prepared to be pilloried for the very qualities that they were initially praised for.”

Whatever the reasons for Morrissey’s move to Los Angeles, it was during this period that he discovered his fervent Mexican fan-base, a scene that William E Jones documents in Is It Really So Strange? Jones describes the singer as “an entertainer who transforms his solitude and social discomfort into spectacle.” The documentary examines the singer’s popularity with other Latin American immigrants, in addition to those of Mexican origin, and investigates the growth of Morrissey-themed club nights in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles. In the Importance of Being Morrissey José Maldonado explains Morrissey’s appeal: “When you grow up Latino in Southern California you’re in a minority and sometimes you don’t always feel you belong. When you’re listening to Morrissey, whose upbringing you can relate to, you belong.”

Throughout his career, Morrissey has been vocal on the subject of national identity, with songs that express the necessity to maintain ethnicity in new surroundings. Songs such as ‘Bengali In Platforms’ (“Oh, shelve your Western plans and understand/ That life is hard enough when you belong here”) have been criticised on the grounds of being overtly nationalistic, and although the author’s sentiments are rather clumsily expressed, this appears to be a harsh criticism. Morrissey was uncharacteristically reticent on the subject of his own ancestry until well into his solo career. As the son of Irish immigrant parents, he is aware of the complex struggle faced by those adapting to life in another country, as the lyrics to ‘This Is Not Your Country’, a song about the issue of home rule in Northern Ireland, reveal (“Road blocks and fire/ Barb wire upon barb wire/This is not your country”). Morrissey’s Irish ancestry may offer another reason why Mexicans may identify with the bold proclamations in ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ due to their Mestizo bloodline: “Irish blood, English heart, this I’m made of/There is no one on earth I’m afraid of.”

Morrissey addressed his Mexican audience succinctly on the album You Are the Quarry in 2004. ‘America Is Not The World’ is the singer’s most outspoken attack on the all-pervasive dominance of American culture throughout the world. Using the imagery of a hamburger to personify obesity and greed, the author admonishes the fast food mentality that has pervaded world economics, as well as criticising the white, male and heterosexual political leadership:

In America, the land of the free, they said
And of opportunity in a just and a truthful way
But where the president, is never black, female or gay
And until that day you’ve got nothing to say
To me to help me believe

In ‘First Of The Gang To Die’ he narrates the cautionary tale of a Mexican gang member: “Hector was the first of the gang with a gun in his hand and the first to do time the first of the gang to die”. Guitarist Alain Whyte recognises how this song in particular received special attention from certain quarters of the audience:

We first noticed it at the Coachella’s Festival in Palm Springs in 1999. All these Hispanic kids were coming to see us, with quiffs and leather jackets, shouting for Morrissey. The Latinos embraced him because they relate to all that isolation in his lyrics. They feel like outsiders in their own country. Plus, they have a very romantic sensibility and love the whole rocker image. (Rogan, 2006, p. 277)

To Mexicans, the most popular song in Morrissey’s oeuvre is undoubtedly ‘Mexico’, a B-side released in 2004 and the singer’s love song to the country. The recognisably anti-American sentiments of the lyrics need little interpretation:

In Mexico
I went for a walk to inhale
The tranquil, cool, lover’s air
I could taste a trace
Of American chemical waste
And the small voice said
“What can we do?”

In Mexico
I went for a walk to inhale
The tranquil, cool, lover’s air
I could sense the hate
Of the lonestar state
And a small voice said
“What can we do?”

It seems if you’re rich
And you’re white
You think youre so right
I just don’t see why this should be so

In acknowledging Morrissey’s appeal it is worth recognising the parallels his music has with Mexican culture, in addition to the significance of his lyrics and distinct persona. Gustavo Arellano draws interesting parallels between Morrissey’s music and Mexico’s ranchera music tradition:

His trembling falsetto brings to mind the rich, sad voice of Pedro Infante, while his effeminate stage presence makes him a UK version of Juan Gabriel. As in ranchera, Morrissey’s lyrics rely on ambiguity, powerful imagery and metaphors. Thematically, the idealization of a simpler life and a rejection of all things bourgeois come from a populist impulse common to ranchera. (Arellano, 2002)

Significantly, the singer’s influence on Latin American music has stretched beyond inspiring the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, a Morrissey/Smiths cover band with its very own cult following in Southern California. The Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla recently brought his group Bajofondo Tango Club to Britain and asked Morrissey to sing on a track for the band’s forthcoming album. Santaolalla believes that Morrissey’s music has a “deep sadness related to the spirit of tango.” (Pascal, 2007) Morrissey himself has shown an acute awareness of the traditions of Mexican music:

When you go to Mexico, you constantly hear people singing and music playing, and it’s very soft, loving music, not harsh, brittle hip-hop or very nasty urban social messages… It might be the emotional outpouring, which Mexicans also do very well: the high pitch and the stretching-out of songs. The songs are reaching out towards people and asking for some form of communication, they’re not mumbled or sung into the chest. (Rogan, 2006, p. 283)

Morrissey’s relationship with his Mexican fans is symbiotic. On close examination, his appeal may be explained in his personification of the outsider’s need to transcend social barriers and cultural boundaries. In his adoption of themes directly related to Mexican notions of national identity, he provides a similar message to the one that audiences in the UK identified with earlier in his career, demonstrating the universality of the themes he represents.


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Kennedy, Duncan, ‘Changing times for Mexico's gay couples’ BBC News, 16 March 2007, at:

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