Like most Smiths fans under 30, I think I heard about Morrissey being pissed off for some reason or another before I'd heard him croon over a single perfect Johnny Marr riff. He's a self-consciously difficult figure to ignore once he's wedged himself into the news, a stout British guy with a voluminous haircut and one name, and he's been getting pissed off and pissing other people off about things for so long that he drags an important-sounding history into the news cycle behind him every time it happens. Now he's called Paul McCartney "Paul McCartload," canceled a Jimmy Kimmel appearance because of an inexplicably real reality show about duck hunters, and gotten Staples Center to go meatless (eventually.) (Here's some incredibly Morrissey quotes about it.)
And I'd talk about it tarnishing his legacy, but is it really tarnishing his legacy if it's kept his legacy in the news the whole time?
I don't want to say that most Smiths fans under 30 also share this with me, but some must--I probably wouldn't even have heard the Smiths, at least not when I did, if it weren't for Morrissey constantly making news for things other than his music.
And when I did, it didn't much matter that the guy singing was the same guy who said things like "Tune in [to Jimmy Kimmel Live] and relive the intellectual fog of the 1950s."
It could be that Morrissey is--in this way as in so many others--an edge case. Even in his early days he presided over an album called Meat Is Murder and sang a fusillade of Oscar Wilde-isms designed to get under the skin of listeners who were just in it for the euphony. In life, then, as in music, it makes sense for Morrissey to be the same weird combination of theatrically principled and theatrically noisome.
But I don't think it's just that.
Rock and roll and sports have a sometimes-justified obsession with use and spotless careers in common, and one of my least-favorite tropes in sportswriting is the idea of a player "tarnishing" his greatness by hanging around a little too long. Typically sportswriters use Willie Mays with the Mets as their example, although Emmitt Smith with the Cardinals might be more locally appropriate; for a music example sub in Paul McCartney circaPress to Play
The issue I have with it seems, to me, to be self-evident: Nobody actually thinks of these examples, when it comes time to reminisce fondly about athletic and musical heroes, unless it's to feel vaguely sad about them.
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But it seems ridiculous to conflate actual stars with the people whose careers can actually be tarnished by what they do outside stardom. Vanilla Ice? Sure, you'll remember his KoRn-aping days or his reality TV appearances as much as you do "Ice Ice Baby," but that's because Vanilla Ice isn't very good and never was.
Willie Mays the Giant is too strong an image to fade against Willie Mays the stumbling Met unless you're asking for it; the Paul McCartney of Venus and Mars, let alone Rubber Soul, isn't going to bring Press to Play to mind unless somebody's just mentioned it twice in a blog post.
And Morrissey would have to demand my apartment be meat-free before he managed to make me forget about The Smiths. So when I saw Morrissey was doing Morrissey things again, did it tarnish his career for me? Nah. Like every other time it's happened, it was little more than a pleasant reminder to listen to "Sheila Take A Bow."