Is Morrissey a national treasure?

The singer is in trouble for backing Argentina's claims to the Falklands, but we still love him – don't we?

Peter Paphides, music writer

To be a national treasure you have to be likable. Is Morrissey likable any more? I'm almost loth to say that he isn't, because to do so would be to play into the persecution complex he has been nurturing for the best part of his solo career. Even when he makes pronouncements that, broadly speaking, I agree with, there's something about the way he makes them that makes me recoil. I'm not a royalist, but pictures of his band lined up either side of him on his recent Argentinian tour, wearing "We hate William and Kate" T-shirts, momentarily made me feel like becoming one. What made the picture fascinating though wasn't the T-shirts but a) the body language of the musicians wearing them, reminiscent of temps who turn up to the agency only to be handed GOLF SALE sandwich boards; and b) the fact that Morrissey deemed himself exempt from the dress code, preserving his own vanity. Morrissey opposes British occupation of the Falklands. It's a perfectly reasonable opinion. But it's also a classic example of a very Morrissey-ish trope, invoking a wider enemy to endear his immediate fanbase to him. He's always used his fanbase as a sort of human shield. What's interesting is that – as the picture shows – he's now started doing it with his band. Fine if you believe it, but for heaven's sake, don't make your band do it.

Sukhdev Sandhu, cultural critic

For sure, that William and Kate image is truly horrid. And that's odd, as Morrissey is usually very adept at coming up with grabby soundbites, striking photographic images, social-media carrion. Morrissey is a sort of national treasure, but whether he wants to be is another matter. Calling someone a national treasure is just a way of trying to rein in the awkward squad, to make the likes of, say, Alan Bennett or Jarvis Cocker appear less truculent or outsider-ish than they really are. And Morrissey, whether or not you like his music, has always been about outsiderdom. He – like Johnny Marr – has Irish parents. Coming from the north, he's sensitive to the ways in which Englishness is all too often a codeword for home counties. For years he's lived abroad. He's always had an ambiguous relationship with national identity, and these days his most passionate fans are as likely to be Mexicans or Argentinians as they are English. So I wonder not only if he gives a damn about being seen as a national treasure, but whether to give him that accolade would actually be the ultimate insult.

PP I certainly think Morrissey wants to be given that accolade, if only to make a great show of rejecting it. He is, in essence, driven by revenge. He wants the last word. "I do feel as though I have been somewhat victimised," he told Mojo a few years ago. But what has he been "victimised" for? The 1992 show where he sang "The National Front Disco" draped in a union flag seems to have been a turning point. At the time, I was one of the few people in the music press who felt that Morrissey should have been given the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was trying to make some arcane point about the nature of Britishness to a park full of Madness fans. In retrospect, though, it seems pretty clear that he was defying people to misunderstand him, fattening his persecution complex in the process and intensifying his disciples' love for him. Yes, he might refer to the Chinese as a "subspecies" but I don't think he's a racist. I think he hates all humans equally. His outsiderdom is a function of his misanthropy. And his vegetarianism is the expedient by which he justifies that misanthropy.

For all of that, it isn't hard to see why he keeps his dislike of people close to him. It's almost exclusively where his music comes from now. Indeed, on his last album, Years Of Refusal, it was hard not to summon a strange awe at the venal sentiments of "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" or the victorious spite of "All You Need Is Me". By the same token, you wonder what happened to the person who sang "It takes strength to be gentle and kind" ("I Know It's Over"). I suspect Morrissey would deem him naive. So, no: I don't think it's a northern thing. Nor do I think it's a way of keeping his edge. I think he's just allowed himself to become as much of a tosspot as he thinks everyone else is.

SS You're right, Morrissey's vegetarianism and pro-animal rights passions do seem, as with someone like Brigitte Bardot, to go hand-in-hand with some very dark and often stupid "political" statements. As for his music, well I'm not alone in thinking he needs to fire his band, work with better collaborators, and basically have a major rethink (maybe his next LP should be crooner ballads?). He's a stubborn sort and it's probably too late.

Yet the fact that he's always in the news these days speaks volumes about how boring and tongue-tied a lot of modern pop stars are. Watching the Brits and the Grammys and even the NME awards this year has been utterly dispiriting: it's not that you expect Ed Sheeran or Serge from Kasabian to have a position on the Greek debt crisis or do some point-by-point takedown of George Osborne's austerity cuts programme, but if only they would say something – anything – weird, witty, contentious. Perhaps Morrissey is a British Serge Gainsbourg: he's sharp and embarrassing in equal measure, good silly-season-all-year-round fare for the press.

PP He's not sharp though. The issues that bug him are the same issues that bugged him 30 years ago. Animal rights. The Falklands. He even moans about the manufactured pop in the charts. Not so long ago, he wrote a song about it – "The World is Full of Crashing Bores" – which suggests that he believes all the 13-year-olds on the top deck of the bus should have him blaring out of their phones instead of Tinchy Stryder. I really don't think Ed Sheeran's blandness makes Morrissey's willingness to bark from the pop sidelines any more palatable.

These days, when Morrissey opens his mouth, the scale of his delusions is embarrassing. The world is only as generous and yielding a place as the outlook you bring to bear upon it. Ironically, there's no better example of that than Moz's ex-pal Johnny Marr – a musician whose absence of rancour seems to define him. (And if Morrissey's vegetarianism seems inseparable from his dislike of people, Marr's veganism is no less a function of that joie de vivre.) I understand how Morrissey gradually turned into a post-punk Count Olaf. I understand also that it helps him (barely) function as an artist, albeit a pantomime version of his former self. But it diminishes him as a person. Oh, and by the way, Vauxhall And I wipes the floor with Viva Hate.

SS A lot of the issues that riled Morrissey in the 80s are no less important today. "Cameron on the Guillotine" has a certain ring to it. Johnny Marr's recent proposition – "If this government steps down then I'll reform the band. How's that?" – was well-made. Though I don't believe in national treasures, and think pop – like the nation – is so atomised that it's almost impossible for a musician to occupy that notional role, it's far preferable to have Morrissey as a quasi-collective talisman than, say, Adele, who sounds like a 1970s prog-rock inflatosaurus when she moans about having to pay 50% taxes.

Peter Paphides and Sukhdev Sandhu

The GuardianTramp

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