It so happens I own a black-on-black Morrissey T-shirt (his face in black ink against a black background) from his 2009 Years of Refusal concert at Carnegie Hall. That’s where he praised the black British diva Shirley Bassey whose Carnegie Hall concert I coincidentally had attended many years earlier. But Morrissey’s black bonafides have been internationally questioned and criticized this week, all because of a T-shirt.
A specially commissioned Morrissey T-shirt featuring African American writer James Baldwin went on sale to promote the singer’s new North American tour. An image of Baldwin’s face is framed by Morrissey’s lyrics from his 1986 Smiths song “Unloveable.” Here are the lines that raised the hue and cry:
“I wear black on the outside/ Because black is how I feel on the inside.”
As the English say, this is Brilliant!
Once again, fashionista Morrissey challenges all comers and all preconceived political notions. The British press, no more thoughtful than American media, has created a T-shirt uproar, accusing Morrissey of “every ‘ist’ and every ‘ism’” as he once sang about.
But more interesting than the usual “Morrissey is racist” fake news complaint, the T-shirt tempest is an example of today’s pop-will-eat-itself political correctness. Those self-righteous media calls for Morrissey to “rethink” the T-shirt (per Spin) limits freedom of expression. It’s the media that need to re-think.
This is language-control and thought-control and it goes against everything that is distinctive and valuable in Morrissey’s artistry. The song “Unloveable” belongs to Morrissey’s ongoing campaign against self-righteousness; it subtly expressed the lovelorn attitude shared by gay and straight music-lovers who realized the loneliness of being queer and or just misunderstood. Millennial media demonizes that brave individuality. (Pitchfork called the T-shirt “problematic.” Billboard called it “a bit uncomfortable.” Both reactions are smug.) To fear that applying the lyric “black” so that it ingeniously queers Baldwin’s ethnic identity reveals nothing more than the accusers’ own scared, racist panic.
These assaults and prohibitions typically come from ignorance. Morrissey has more done to complicate celebrity iconography than anyone since Andy Warhol’s famous lithographs. By returning the favor of fan-worship; he opens our cultural legacy to new generations--and for enlightenment. Morrissey has always used cultural icons to back-up his artistic propositions. Concertgoers are regularly treated to iconographic backdrops and album covers that represent his witty, informed range of pop taste: From Yootha Joyce to Alain Delon, Shelagh Delaney to Edith Sitwell and Candy Darling. My favorite is Robert Wagner piggybacking Jeffrey Hunter in a still from In Love and War. James Baldwin is just one among many in a gallery of Morrissey’s personal 20th century totems.
And why not Baldwin? The famously gay, intransigent artist, author of Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, shares Morrissey’s ambitious outsider status. The media’s objections can only come from the rigidity of political correctness—our culture’s new ethnic and sexual segregation. Few might have noticed the T-shirt at all but for the overrated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro that distorts Baldwin’s legacy into Black Lives Matter pseudo-activism (the Internet’s bogus rage).
Morrissey’s T-shirt suggests that Iconic Lives Matter. The “Loveable” lyrics form a halo around the T-shirt’s Baldwin portrait, removing social-worker stigma from “black” so that Baldwin becomes more than a talisman of identity politics. In his 2015Autobiography, Morrissey movingly described sighting Baldwin in Barcelona: “I drink him in, but can do no more. I pin so much prestige to James Baldwin that to risk approach places my life on the line; I’d hang myself at any glimmer of rejection.”
Fans should wear Morrissey’s Baldwin T-shirt proudly, robed in the respect one artist has for another’s humanity. Morrissey identified with Baldwin as “so good at voicing the general truth, with which most struggled. His liking for male flesh gave the world a perfect excuse to brush him aside as a social danger.” That overstates Baldwin’s celebrated literary and political status just a bit, but then Morrissey gets closer to the bone, noting that the intimate Baldwin has been “erased away as someone who used his blackness as an excuse for everything.”
This is where Morrissey blasts the hypocrisy of Millennial political correctness. He rejects the pious blather about black/gay alliance that makes a superficial equivalence of social group history. His T-shirt is one of the great memes of all time. It substantates “black” as being a description of mood, color but not of a delimited personhood. Morrissey already subverted the meaning of “gay” so as to enrich it. His T-shirt announces nothing less than a necessary revolution in today’s trendy political thought and language. He asks: Who owns the word “black”?
At a 2015 concert, Morrissey introduced a revved-up version of “The Queen Is Dead” by shouting “It takes a nation of zillions to hold us back.” He cleverly acknowledged and paraphrased the title of Public Enemy’s great 1988 agit-pop album. Morrissey-haters never get his sense of humor.