Morrissey, the game-changing British pop star, has just released a record so timely it could be called reportorial. “World Peace is None of Your Business” takes sarcastic assessment of current global conditions, peaking with a right-now litany that name-checks Brazil, Bahrain, Egypt and Ukraine. Sung in Morrissey’s identifiable plaintive, romantic style (formerly heard in his 1980s group The Smiths), it’s an anti-anthem — not meant to promote sides in a conflict or inspire allegiance, but intended to rouse skepticism about politics and authority.
This indeed changes the game played by most pop music artists who profess political consciousness. The customary pattern is to sing cause- or issue-related screeds, typically from a left liberal perspective (Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas,” U2’s “In the Name of Love” et al), that rallies hoary sentiments about “justice,” “equality,” or “pacifism.” But Morrissey abandons that moralistic folkie mode.ad#
Morrissey has become one of the few iconic pop artists to sing about ideology. He targets the unconscious suppositions people share as “common sense.” This wily, personally principled approach has unnerved Morrissey’s critics since the beginning of his singer-songwriter career when The Smiths put out records that deliberately queered the conventions of love songs (“You’re the One for Me, Fatty”) and dance tunes (“How Soon is Now”).
The protest song is what Morrissey transforms in “World Peace.” He laments the modern day futility of protest (Occupy as herd mentality), which is a specific advance from his regular reproof of ideological self-righteousness. No anarchist he, Morrissey is cautionary. “World Peace” pities the “poor little fool” who “sweetly pays taxes never asking what for” and warns the electorate who dutifully, unthinkingly “supports the process.” His point is disillusionment and his art, that sensitive yet persuasive croon — a croon that yearns — makes the loss of faith palpable. Politics, the song implies, has become the scheme of others more brutal than you.
To dull ears that might seem cynical. But listen. Morrissey doesn’t sound cynical. “World Peace” is a plaint connecting geopolitical circumstances and private citizen helplessness — the humane part of citizenship that feels and regrets its ineffectual reality. This realization is significant precisely because it goes neither Left or Right. Conservatives may think Margaret Thatcher-bashing Morrissey has nothing to say to them, but his exacting, revelatory art completes or perfects important parts of their own social argument, including impatience with glib liberal sentimentality. Above all, Morrissey seizes upon the illusion politicians and protesters insistently misuse to manipulate expectations, as in Patti Smith’s sincere but fanciful “People Have the Power.” Morrissey’s song goes deep beneath doctrinal enthusiasm to reject rabble-rousing folly and political vanity — opiates that current cruel inhumanity has disproved.
Responding to recent events in Brazil, Bahrain, Egypt and Ukraine, he observes “so many people in pain.” Rulers might consider this ineffectual but Morrissey’s position has a thoughtful and sympathetic core. Rather than encourage people to inanely “get involved” in political busyness that either fails or exacts a painful cost, his track ends artfully, with a grinding, rhythmic musical impression of martial movement and pyrotechnic explosion–sounds of militarism (or rioting) that intrude on peace more convincingly than mere rhetorical lyrics ever could. We hear the result of political venality, the foolhardy, all-too-human ineptitude that Morrissey dares rebuke. It makes for a song of powerful irony and grief. Its opposite number, “Earth is the Loneliest Planet of All,” could be a great James Bond title (or theme song) but its illustration of the unkindness in the world pleads against incivility (it explains, at long last, the drive behind Morrissey’s artistry and the puzzling, sardonic title of his first solo release, 1988’s Viva Hate.)
The audacious “World Peace” — title track of Morrissey’s pointed new album — recalls two previous career-defining provocations. With The Smiths in 1986, Morrissey and co-writer, guitarist Johnny Marr responded to the Chernobyl disaster with the single “Panic,” a riposte to pop music that “says nothing to me about my life.” And in 2004, Morrissey waged a solo comeback with an album opening track “America is Not the World.” Accustomed to controversy — and unafraid of it — Morrissey woos listeners by always challenging them. (No wonder dim critics revile him.) His “America” song (reflecting his relocation from the U.K. to Los Angeles residency in Clark Gable’s old mansion) decried “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.”
Time has, in turn, queered Morrissey America-baiting. The media has heralded the election of a “Black” President and there are strong prospects for the next being Female or Gay, which doesn’t mean Morrissey’s provocation was mistimed, it just needed devious (“bi-racial”) perception. Most pop singers, whether conservative or liberal. endeavor to win popular approval by simplifying their political messages — even country artists who more commonly celebrate patriotic fealty — but Morrissey’s method is always to complicate. His interest in paradoxical reasoning and ambivalent emotion gives his music uncommon maturity and richness. “America Is Not the World” begins scolding yet ends “but I love you, I love you, I love you” sung gently and persuasively. The point isn’t mere political loyalty but the complex thinking-through of beliefs, principles, realities — the same search for understanding that observes the chaos of Brazil, Bahrain, Egypt and Ukraine then detaches enough to foreground the reality of suffering and dissatisfaction — not images of dead or injured children but the humane work that remains to be done even though nebulous pop music politics rarely, if ever, acknowledge it. If pop music is ever to be taken seriously, it needs the sense of humor Morrissey dares.