from celebrity to hero: steven patrick morrissey

May 2, 2011

When I was asked to do a case study in my Celebrity Culture course this semester, I knew it would be about Morrissey. And when I read Daniel Boorstin’s seminal article of celebrity critcism, “From Hero to Celebrity,” I knew I had my thesis–that Morrissey was a unique creature who defies all aspects of celebrity and yet remains relevant in today’s underground music culture, making him–by definition–a “hero.” For the last three months, I have been conducting research on Moz, fan culture, zines, hero worship, celebrity cycles and Manchester whiteness in order to prove this point, in the process concocting more theoretical shit than I’ve ever wanted to about the Pope of Mope and officially becoming Smith’d out.

Below, a snippet from the results–part of the intro and the final paragraph from the 20-page paper:

Morrissey was born on May 22, 1959 in Manchester, England to an Irish-Catholic immigrant family. At the time, Manchester was a depressing place to be, with its empty factories and unemployed working class making it the prime example for post-industrial failure. Morrissey family was not rich and he grew up face to face with these struggles.

[Manchester was] the Puritan Protestant tradition of English culture, which is distrustful of pleasure, hostile to success, suspicious of riches and always expects to be punished for any happiness…turned into anxious narrow streets, resentful leaden skies and gloomy terraced houses stained by soot from coal burned generations ago in other people’s grates (Simpson 34).

Hyper-aware of his unfavorable social status—and with his parents’ marriage crumbling—Morrissey retreated into himself from a young age. By high school, he was “a brilliant, extremely sensitive and self-conscious young man” with “natural sulkiness” and a nearly religious worship of pop music’s images and sounds (Simpson 36-37). His rise to fame was not unexpected—at least not to Morrissey, who wanted to be famous in the same way that American boys at that age wanted to be firemen or astronauts. In 1983, he began performing with Manchester band the Smiths, but after four years of touring and four studio albums, the band broke up and Morrissey embarked on what was originally thought of as a less-successful solo career.

But Morrissey’s career pattern is unlike any in existence and instead of fitting into any of the story arcs in the “PR recipe book,” the one-time Smiths front man has continually cultivated unique fan bases across the cultural spectrum (King). Daniel Boorstin’s assessment of celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness” is true in many cases, but not this one. As Mark Simpson writes in the opening lines of his portrait-book entitled Saint Morrissey, “Morrissey is well-known for being Morrissey” (Boorstin 25, Simpson 5).

The idea of Morrissey as a performer unlike any other is not a new one, but the talk of his status as an icon only emerged after the success of 2004’s You Are the Quarry, his seventh solo album. The aging singer had lived in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles since 1991 where he was relatively free from the celebrity media that followed him in the 80s. According to one critic, he “gamely played the role written for him—that of a washed-up eccentric English pop star” (Snowsell 855). So when the music writers took notice of Quarry’s platinum record sales, they were surprised to find that Morrissey may have faded from media’s attention, but certainly had never gone out of fashion.

Though it was the media that originally created Morrissey as another “new substitute for the hero…the celebrity,” his influence has lasted well beyond the scope of his “celebrity” career. Because celebrities are “creatures of gossip, of public opinion, of magazines, newspapers and the ephemeral images of movie theatre screens,” if a celebrity survives in the minds and mouths of the public without publicity for a significant amount of time, it is possible for that person to shift to the other end of Boorstin’s dichotomy and become a person “distinguished by his achievement”—a hero (Boorstin 80-82). The word “hero” might sound hyperbolic for a cult musician when compared with the worthy historical figures traditionally thought of as heroes, but the term is used here to refer to someone who is well-known despite not adhering to celebrity constructions. In this paper, I will attempt to dissect the rise and continual popularity of Steven Patrick Morrissey in order to prove how he has defied notions of celebrity to become, by definition,  a sub-cultural hero.

Boorstin sets up the terms “hero” and “celebrity” as opposites, but as Morrissey shows us, they are less conflicting words dependent on media’s whimsy and more of a social perception shift through which a person can move throughout their career. Morrissey has danced between these two titles a lot in the last three decades, but his cultural significance remains so pervasive that he has undoubtedly shed the title of celebrity once and for all.

With a lasting influence that continues to span across generations of popular culture regardless of media coverage, Morrissey–as defined by Boorstin–has graduated from being a celebrity to being a hero. His followers continue to perform cover songs, organize fan conventions and photocopy zines, assigning him greatness outside of his previous media-ascribed celebrity status. As music critic Annie Zaleski writes, “Morrissey isn’t merely a musician. He is an untouchable icon” (Zaleski).

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