On a presumably dull and rainy (at least if the man in question had anything to say about it) evening in November 1983, British culture was dramatically changed in the space of three minutes.
The date in question is November 23 1983, when The Smiths were to make their television debut on Top Of The Pops with their first hit single This Charming Man. As the band offered up a track full of upbeat music and darkly intelligent lyrics while frontman Morrissey brandished Gladioli.
From there the band went on to not only sell music to the masses, but a lifestyle. The Smiths promoted an alternative lifestyle for people: one that was anti-fashion, anti-meat and anti-sexuality. These principles, along with Morrissey’s trademark quiff, became the hallmark of their fans and even provoked a change for those who weren’t hardcore fans. It wasn’t long before things began to change.
These changes still exist today. The Smiths’ guitar sound became the definitive indie rock sound, vegetarianism isn’t considered as much of an outsider concept and the quiff is still a popular hairstyle. And still, Morrissey’s fanbase is as fanatically devout and loyal as it was in 1983.
There’s more to Morrissey’s continued popularity than vegetarianism, music or self-defeating lyrics that evoke a “hug me” response though. Morrissey was ensured, from the moment The Smiths began to break through, a legacy as a cultural curiosity. What if everything we know about Morrissey’s character is a lie?
Before the band, Morrissey went by his full name: Steven Morrissey. When The Smiths was born, so was Morrissey. This distinction might seem meaningless to some, but it’s the moment that Steven made the active decision to become more than just another frontman. He would weave a mystery around this persona so intrinsic that even now, three decades later, nobody can be too sure where the truth lies with him.
One of the keys to Morrissey’s enigmatic cultural success was through his understanding of pop culture. Taking influence from kitchen sink dramas and popular female singers helped him develop his unique lyrical style that spoke to people, all it would take is a vehicle to help build momentum. And if the shock of the punk movement the decade before (including Morrissey favourites The New York Dolls) proved anything, it’s that the greatest catalyst for shifting popular culture is to become counter-culture.
Get yourself a set of outsider ideals and an alternative lifestyle, partner it with anti-fashion and an opinionated mouthpiece, and you have a budding counter-culture. Morrissey provided all of this, and even threw in lyrics detailing taboo subjects for good measure (there’s that one supposedly about age-gap sex and that album basically about child abuse).
Even after The Smiths abruptly ended Morrissey’s self-constructed mythos continued to thrive, and still does to this day. Beyond mere perpetuation, it’s become more of an ever-evolving mystery with fundamental elements such as his sexual life changing (once he was celibate, now his sexuality itself is ambiguous). Every word, spoken or sung, is another thread woven into the mystery of this character.
But as captivating as the self-manufactured mystery surrounding Morrissey is, it’s something that could never be replicated today. The internet has changed the way we interact with society and culture, and offers various ways in which groups of people can band together to share their interests.
As a result, pop culture has become a global and amorphous mass. There is no longer a strong dictating force (TOTP; John Peel) helping to shape mainstream culture, so there is nothing clear to rebel against. A modern day Morrissey would find it very difficult to find anything to fundamentally oppose in a way that would be captivating.
As for opinion, the advent of social media made opinion of budding public figures a lot less valued. Everybody has an opinion, and social media is the perfect platform for people to share their opinions. It’s no longer shocking when up-and-coming artists say something almost controversial - the internet lives on controversy.
For the established enigma that is Morrissey though, it’s simple to adapt to the internet: avoid social media, and communicate only through posting in a specific place. Morrissey spent years crafting the identity of his persona, and it’s a testament to his ability and legacy as an artist that he continues to maintain it and keep it fresh.
Love him or loathe him, Morrissey is an undeniable cultural phenomenon that has had one of the most profound influences of any artist of the last forty years. And the mystique of Morrissey’s character will live on longer than Steven Morrissey or any of us ever could.