For the better part of a decade, I’ve been baffled by Morrissey. Not necessarily by his music, which is pretty straightforward, but by his cult following. To say that the English singer/songwriter has a cult following is not necessarily an understatement as it is an exceptionally literal statement.
If you’re unfamiliar with Morrissey, I’m incredibly jealous of you. Morrissey was the singer of The Smiths who started a successful solo career after the band split up in 1987. Morrissey sings unremarkable, slow droning songs about depression, loneliness, and failed relationships. I don’t want to make any generalized or potentially insulting statements about his fanbase as a whole except to say that they are a startlingly devoted group.
I often find myself surrounded by Morrissey superfans because as counterintuitive as it might seem, this sixty year old frumpy English crooner is immensely popular with a group of young tattooed punks who spend most of their time listen to music like this.
I personally have never liked Morrissey because his music is terrible, but the fanatical devotion among his fans is what has always by turns fascinated and repulsed me. Morrissey fans are infamously unfazed by the fact that his music is clearly bad and possesses almost no redeeming qualities. In fact – on an anecdotal level at least – it seems like the worse his music gets, the more people are devoted to him.
It’s easy to name a musician who is more talented and produces better albums than Morrissey, because if you name a musician at random, there’s an 80% chance you will name someone who is better than Morrissey, which makes it even more incredible for me that the majority of my close friends have at least one Morrissey-related tattoo.
In the past I’ve compared Morrissey worship to the “doublethink” described by Orwell in 1984, where a person trains his or herself to hold contradictory facts as both being true. Facts like “Morrissey’s music sounds like a toddler crying into a tin can,” and “I love Morrissey.”
While reading an excerpt from Jared Diamond’s new book, “The World Until Tomorrow” I came across an argument for the irrationality of religion that essentially explains why people are Morrissey fans.
The relevant part of the excerpt, (emphasis mine):
“All long-lasting human groups — Boston Red Sox fans (like me), devoted Catholics, patriotic Japanese, and others — face the same basic problem of identifying who can be trusted to remain as a group member….
That’s why religious affiliation involves so many overt displays to demonstrate the sincerity of your commitment: sacrifices of time and resources, enduring of hardships…One such display might be to espouse some irrational belief that contradicts the evidence of our senses, and that people outside our religion would never believe. If you claim that the founder of your church had been conceived by normal sexual intercourse between his mother and father, anyone else would believe that too, and you’ve done nothing to demonstrate your commitment to your church. But if you insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was born of a virgin birth, and nobody has been able to shake you of that irrational belief after many decades of your life, then your fellow believers will feel much more confident that you’ll persist in your belief and can be trusted not to abandon your group.“
To paraphrase, Morrissey is popular among tight-knit, closed, esoteric subcultures because the irrationality of believing that Morrissey’s music is actually good — as well as paying for his records and tickets to his concerts, and getting his lyrics tattooed on your body — helps to establish a tribal identity and establishes an in-group and and out-group.
In the same way that Diamond argues that a religious myth about a saviour born naturally would not require any devotion to believe, a love for a musician with real talent who puts out good music would not require any mental acrobatics and wouldn’t help to establish a tribal identity. Everyone loves the first four Metallica albums because the first four Metallica albums are good. As a Metallica fan I wouldn’t necessarily trust another Metallica fan because that could be anyone. But if you are a Morrissey fan, you can trust another Morrissey fan because they are unlikely to be an impostor as it requires so much devotion and effort to be a fan of a bad musician who makes bad music.
This not only gives a credible explanation for Morrissey fandom, it also gives an interesting new meaning to the assertion that Morrissey has a “cult” following. I now think of Morrissey less as a musician and more as a religious figure. My distaste for Morrissey is as irrelevant as my disbelief that an old testament soldier and prophet stopped the sun in the sky or that the thirty thousand Hindu deities are continually marrying and defeating each other in supernatural warfare.
The next time that anyone asks me if I like Morrissey, I’ll just say “No, I’m an atheist.“