“Life is hard enough when you belong here.”
Bengali in Platforms is the fourth track from Viva Hate, directly following Every Day Is Like Sunday, and the first on the album to follow Morrissey’s familiar noun-preposition-noun song title format. I wasn’t about to spend a whole lot of time on this one until in came to my attention that some of the lyrics in it have been the cause of controversy due to a possible racist interpretation. I had to have another listen.
The full lyrics are on Google. You can read along as you listen. As far as I can tell, the song is about a Bengali , or Eastern Indian/Bangladeshi immigrant, who seems to be trying too hard to fit in by wearing platform shoes and other British fashion accoutrements. Morrissey is apparently counselling the Bengali that he need not expend the effort, for his life in Britain will be difficult, no matter how hard he tries to fit it in.
One can never take the lyrics of such artistes at face value. Is Morrissey singing his own ideas or satirizing someone elses? Is he being forthright or sarcastic? Are his words directed only at a single, specific person, or is symbolizing a population with this person? How one interprets this song will depend on how many doubts of which the listener is willing to give Morrissey the benefit.
I’m a Hanlon’s Razor kind of guy, so my motto is: “Never attribute to malice, that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” Or, simply presume good faith. Favor the good-faith interpretation of any statement or argument where multiple interpretations are possible. The good faith interpretation of Bengali in Platforms seems to be, like, “Don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger, but your platform shoes won’t help you fit in and be accepted, so you don’t need to bother trying so hard. #justsayin.”
In bad-faith interpretation, the line, “Life is hard enough when you belong here,” is singled out as evidence of Morrissey’s alleged racism. Even as the singer tries to come off as giving helpful advice to the fashionable Bengali, this line kind of like a Freudian slip, revealing his suppressed disposition against Bengalis belonging in Britain. As he tries to avoid being judgmental, he can’t help but let out a, “Bengalis don’t belong here,” in his pretended advice. Furthermore, he specifically tells the immigrant in question to “shelve Western plans”, which could sound to some listeners like he’s specifically ordering immigrants to back off of British culture. An accusation of cultural appropriation, if you will.
Which interpretation prevails, of course will depend on the predisposition of the listener. Those who are accustomed to hearing such negative things said about them will likely interpret the lyrics of Bengali in Platforms as another negative thing said about them. From this tendency we get op-eds like Jeeven Vasagar’s Why This British Asian Doesn’t Listen To Morrissey Anymore:
Bengali in Platforms had a lyric I just tuned out: “Life is hard enough when you belong here …” Well, yes, I suppose I could buy the argument that he had a particular protagonist in mind when he wrote that. That he wasn’t thinking of an entire race. Still, the son of Irish immigrants should have known better. I suppose I just blanked out his appearance draped in the union flag at Finsbury Park. I dealt with it by not listening to Morrissey any more, confining myself to the Smiths records I had loved in more innocent times.
Others, including at least one Bangladeshi fan, have come to Morrissey’s defense. A comment left on SongMeanings.com reads:
As a Bangladeshi expatriate who has lived for a very long time abroad, albeit not in the UK, but elsewhere and in a place that can be as equally racist and xenophobic, I don’t at all see this song as being racist or being targeted specifically towards a Bengali or any race. We have to remind ourselves that Morrissey wrote this song reflecting upon his own difficulty with trying to blend in, being the son of Irish immigrants. … Morrissey warns the immigrant of possible alienation and isolation. I hope I could explain this well enough. … I could identify with this song in several ways. … I have seen and known people who had gone through the same experiences as outline by Morrissey in the song.
I can’t be Morrissey’s spokesman and say with authority what he meant by this song. I can only say that I follow Hanlon’s razor and presume good faith, so I would initially have come to Morrissey’s defense, but a more recent 2007 NME interview has made that a little harder to do. Not having found the original piece, the alleged anti-immigrant quote that continues to circulate runs as follows, republished by The Guardian:
Morrissey was quoted apparently criticising current levels of immigration after being asked if he would ever consider moving back to the UK. “With the issue of immigration, it’s very difficult because, although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears,” he said. “If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.”
NME put Morrissey on the cover of that issue, alongside the quote, “The gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown away.” Morrissey sued NME for defamation and apparently won an apology.
It is still possible to defend Morrissey against allegations of racism, but it now requires more mental gymnastics. The number of doubts of which one can give reasonably give Morrissey the benefit seems to have fallen by a few. I don’t think it’s totally damning of a person to long for nostalgia—of a time when things were a certain way, but they aren’t that way anymore, but the context of Morrissey’s immigration comments is a little curious. The Irish Examiner reports:
In a statement posted on the Internet, Jonze said: “The ‘I’ve been stitched up’ card is the last bastion of someone who’s said something offensive but is too scared to back this up, yet too stubborn to apologise. How can Morrissey possibly claim a stitch-up [i.e., Morrissey alleged his responses were edited to portray him in a false light.] when the interview is printed in Q&A form, his quotes are recorded on tape and he wasn’t even asked about immigration in the first place? It’s truly cowardly.”
I think I’ll take the cowardly way myself, and leave final judgment with the reader. I report, you decide! Other than that, Bengali in Platforms is musically quite pleasant, so I’ll continue listening. I ain’t burning my Morrissey collection just yet. 😉