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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Passion of The Morrissey

Sometimes a fan's devotion to a pop star transcends musical interest and becomes more like a religion. This is the case with many a serious fan of Morrissey. A lengthy article in The Believer explores the Morrissey phenomenon, touching on the reasons for The Smiths' initial appeal for Reagan/Thatcher-era misfits (and why that appeal has lasted), Morrissey's influence on the britpop of the 1990s, and Morrissey's curious veneration among southwest-US-based Latino audiences:
When the crowd chanted "Mexico! Mexico!" at an off-the-beaten-track Morrissey concert in the desert town of Yuma, Arizona a few years ago, trying to get Morrissey to acknowledge that the majority of the audience was Latino, the singer responded by saying: "I'm going to sing a couple more songs then all of you can go back to Mexicali." The convention center auditorium ricocheted with cheers. "Only one white man in the world - and he's not the Pope - can tell a group of Mexicans in the United States to return to Mexico and not only avert death, but be loved for saying so," wrote journalist Gustavo Arellano in an article about Morrissey's Latino fans in the pop culture 'zine LoopdiLoop.

Morrissey's "Latino connection" has been a source of amusement and confusion to journalists who cannot quite see how this skinny, effete Englander with his oblique references to dank Manchester cemeteries could appeal to the traditionally macho, sun-kissed Latino culture.

What's behind this Morrissey-Latino love fest? 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.

The most striking similarity, though, is Morrissey's signature beckoning and embrace of the uncertainty of life and love, something that at first glance might seem the opposite of macho Mexican music. But check it out: 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. In fact, Morrissey's most famous confession of unrequited love, "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" ("And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Would be a heavenly way to die"), emulates almost sentiment for sentiment Cuco Sanchez's torch song "Cama de Piedra" ("The day that they kill me/May it be with five bullets/And be close to you").

I've always been more of a fan of The Smiths than Morrissey's solo work -- it was Johnny Marr's brilliant writing and jangling, effortlessly complex guitar playing that really made that band -- though I will admit that Morrissey's voice and lyrics provided the perfect counterpoint. I'll also admit to having fond high school memories of wearing out Bona Drag and Kill Uncle tapes in my walkman, watching happily from the bleachers with a broken wrist as my first period gym class ran laps. Morrissey was perfect for that.

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