Saturday, March 13, 2010

Michael Jackson and Six Degrees of Separation

So I got to thinking about the 'six degrees of deparation' idea, which of course leads to musing about Kevin Bacon. If you don't know, the concept is that any two people on earth are linked by a chain of acquaintances of a maximum six links (probability researchers now say seven). In other words, person A living in, say, rural China and person B living in, say, Somalia don't know each other. But a chain exists (if it can be found) where, at a maximum, person A knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows person B. Neat theory.

Anyway, that leads to the Oracle of Bacon, where any movie actor is shown to connect to Kevin Bacon in a similar way - not mutual acquaintances but co-stars. Two people who have appeared in the same movie connect just as, in the original theory, two acquaintances connect. It doesn't have to be Kevin Bacon, but the project started with him, and revolves around him. I thought I'd reorganise it to put Michael Jackson, who doesn't have the richest filmography, at the centre.

I tried twelve friends of his, and was amazed to find that only one had a first-degree filmic relationship and only one had a third-degree relationship. But fully ten in twelve of those friends had 'Michael Jackson numbers' of two.

First-degree relationship:

Diana Ross, one of Michael Jackson's closest friends, co-starred with him in "The Wiz".

Second-degree relationship:

Macaulay Culkin and Michael Jackson were good friends in the 1990s. They have a second-degree filmic relationship, joined by Seth Smith, who was in the long-form video "Ghosts" with Michael Jackson and in "Getting Even with Dad" with Culkin.

Corey Feldman was one of the child actors who had a close friendship with Michael Jackson at Neverland. Marvin Miller joins them, having co-starred with Jackson in "The Wiz" and with Feldman in "Gremlins".

Janet Jackson is, of course, Michael's sister. They co-starred in the video of "Scream", but considering big-screen efforts only, they connect through Nikki Cox, who was in "Moonwalker" with big brother and in "Nutty Professor II: the Klumps" with little sister.

Emmanuel Lewis was the first child actor to form a high-profile friendship with Jackson. They connect through Kevin Grevioux, who was in "Men in Black II", where Jackson made a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo. Grevioux co-starred with Lewis in, aptly, "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star".

Madonna made such a beautiful eulogy for Michael Jackson at the Staples Center that their brief friendship still seems noteworthy. They are connected by Will Smith, the star of "Men in Black II", where Jackson appeared, and also of the short film "Torrance Rises" alongside Madonna.

Paul McCartney was hardly a friend for the last two decades of Jackson's life, but they were at one point. They connect through Ben Lokey, who played a bit part with Paul McCartney, also playing a bit part, in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (the Bee Gees film). Lokey was in "Captain EO" with Jackson.

Liza Minnelli, a long term friend of Jackson's, connects to him through Ted Ross, who was in "The Wiz" with Michael and in "Arthur 2: On the Rocks" with Liza.

Ronald Reagan had a controversial relationship with Michael Jackson. Friends? Perhaps not. Acquaintances? Certainly. Movie actors? You betcha. Even they have a second-degree relationship, joined by Marvin Miller (the same person who joins Jackson to Corey Feldman), who starred with Reagan in "Hong Kong" in 1952, and with Jackson in "The Wiz".

Brooke Shields was, at one time, romantically linked with Michael Jackson. They never acted together, but Tony Fields has acted with both of them - in "Captain EO" with Jackson and in "Backstreet Dreams" with Shields, whose name rhymes with his.

Elizabeth Taylor had an unlikely but incredibly loyal friendship with Michael Jackson. They are linked by Bill Walker, who starred with Taylor in "Raintree County" in 1957 and who starred with Jackson in "The Wiz".

Third-degree relationship:

Lisa Marie Presley, Michael Jackson's ex-wife, of course co-starred semi-naked with him in the video for "You Are Not Alone". But a video not being cinematic, we find our only third-degree relationship here: Stanley Greene was in  "The Wiz" with Jackson. Greene was also in the no-doubt-memorable "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" with Furry Lewis. Lewis was in "This is Elvis" with Elvis's daughter Lisa Marie. Whew.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

While I Was Away...

Well, I took about two months off from this blog... which might not have been the smartest idea, I concede. However, while I've been gone, it's certainly good to know that other people have been writing great stuff about Michael Jackson. A few links:

  1. The video for Thriller redone in Lego: there is not a second here that is not awesome. Must have been such hard work...
  2. A review of the Michael Jackson Exhibition in London: complete with a lot of great photos.
  3. A creepy VH1 re-enactment of his death: all given a vaguely Roswell feel... at least that's how it seemed to me.
  4. Discussion about media bias against Jackson: I'm a bit sceptical, but it's an interesting read.
  5. An appreciation of "Morphine": I love this song, and I love the site. Of course, I have a similar site myself, which I'm now shamelessly plugging.
  6. A nice discussion of Michael and magic: written by a singer and a fan.
  7. Old men dancing to Michael Jackson: silly, and ultimately tiresome, but a bit of a giggle.
  8. Very silly 'Billie Jean' shoes: that purport to recreate the light-up tiles from the video.
  9. Some of his home movies: I find these very bittersweet to watch. He was definitely a special person.
  10. Michael Jackson 'helping' in Haiti: a nice story, though the new 'We are the World' is a bit more prominent...
  11. The Vatican praises 'Thriller': the most bizarre story I've heard in a while, as the Vatican turns record reviewer.
  12. Michael Jackson was a Catholic priest: unless this is the most bizarre. Though it's a joke.
  13. A very nice optical-illusion portrait: you kind of need to look at it it from a distance.
  14. Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan: brief, but interesting.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Michael Jackson and the National Film Registry

So the music video for "Thriller" has been inducted into the National Film Registry, the first music video to be so honoured. Great, I thought. Wonderful. A worthy honour. After all, not only did Michael Jackson recently die but also he is recognised as a pioneer of the music video industry, and "Thriller" is usually seen as his greatest (or at least most iconic) visual achievement.

Then it occurred to me that I didn't have the first clue what the National Film Registry was. It is, Wikipedia tells me, a list of films deemed 'worthy of preservation' in the Library of Congress. I love that word: preservation. In other words, after World War III, we'll be left with cockroaches and with Michael Jackson dancing like a zombie. I bet the roaches will love it. Or alternately, it's great to think that on the off chance that Sony Music, the Jackson estate, Jon Landis and any one of the seventy million people who have viewed it on YouTube happen to, you know, forget its existence, the Library of Congress will make sure history remembers it. Very noble.

Sorry for the sarcasm, but it does occur to me that not all accolated are created equal, and what at first seems like a big deal might ultimately turn out to be a very small deal instead. Oh well. If nothing else, it creates nice headlines. For a few days. Yay Library of Congress!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Michael Jackson and the Album Format

What is an album? Is it a single work of art, or is it a collection of ten to fifteen works of art? Michael Jackson's idiom has always been pop music, a genre that glorifies the single and gives little attention to the album. The worst pop albums are inevitably those with one great radio-ready track (probably the title track) with nine disposable pieces of filler that no one would listen to more than once (a single with nine b-sides, you may think of it). Truth be told, the worst rock albums are those ones too, but rock (or “FM radio music”, if you'd prefer) tends to be seen as a genre where albums are unified 'statements': where singles are merely tasters for the album and where the true fan will hear the single and buy the album.

All of this is discussion from the past, of course: pop fans and rock fans don't really have different buying habits anymore: since the 1990s in North America anyway the album has been the prime medium for purchasing music: very few Americans outside of collectors bought singles, even the poppiest of pop fans. And today, of course, the albums itself is dead, as music has gone online and reverted back to an emphasis on single tracks. I wonder how Michael Jackson would have adapted to this new era, since, curously, he's very much an 'album artist', with each of his Epic era albums being significant 'statements' and signposts for 'eras' in his creative history. Releasing well over half of an album's tracks as singles was all but unheard of before Michael Jackson, and certainly his filler-free albums brought the medium a respectability within pure 'pop' circles that it hadn't really had before (by comparison, the early Jackson 5 albums were released as frequently as Jackson 5 singles were, but were filled with all kinds of filler that were probably designed never to be heard more than a few times each by purchasers – what mattered to Berry Gordy and Motown was the 7”).

However, though I think you can make a case for the Quincy Jones-produced Thriller and Bad as unified pieces of work (and even at that, it's a stretch), Michael Jackson's 1990s albums are very much collections of songs. Okay, collections of hit songs, but still: not 'albums' as unified pieces of work. Does it make a difference? Well, to an extent, every Michael Jackson album plays like a greatest hits album (thought is given to sequencing, mind you, and each of his albums feature deft though imperfect track sequencing). Apparently, his nineties albums were cobbled together from dozens (in some cases hundreds of songs recorded over a period of several years: in different studios, with different producers, with different musicians and collaborators. If this is really the case, then obviously it would be difficult for these albums to hang together with any sense of purpose at all. Which is why, largely speaking, they don't.

Yet they remain great albums. Not just great collections of tracks but great albums. Listening to Dangerous or CD two of HIStory offers an experience that merely listening to the individual tracks doesn't. It's a bit of a mystery how Michael Jackson managed that, but there you have it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Michael Jackson and the "What If..."

2009... the year of Michael Jackson.

I'm reminded, at the end of this year, not of June 25 but of March 5. A faded superstar making a public announcement of his intent to stage a comeback. The inevitable questions: would this be the hero making good, the legitimate comeback? Or would it be a fiasco that cemented his decline? I was on an internet group at the time, and I can remember the question: 'would you pay good money to see a washed-up celebrity in concert?'

Pretty harsh words, if you think about it. But there you had it: on the one hand, interest in the millions: unprecedented levels of demands for tickets. On the other hand: a yawn or a look of disbelief. It's not just that people wanted him to fail - everyone has their detractors who are out for blood. It's more that so many people just expected him to fail. An act of desperation. Michael Jackson doing it for the money. I can remember that it seemed pretty much that the chances of the This is It concerts being an artistic triumph were seen as next to nil.

And then... well, we all know that.

But what if? What if that fateful night had never happened, and the concerts went on as planned? Two things for sure: Michael Jackson's star would have shone brighter than it did a year ago today. But it would have shone much less bright than it has over the whole second half of the year 2009. And since the praise/criticism ratio has shifted so drastically since his passing, we have seen the film, CD and song through a rather uncritical lens. But had he survived, people would have been harsher. How woud the concerts have been recieved?

A sense of drama makes us want to believe that Michael Jackson was just on the edge of a triumphant comeback. But... was he?

We'll never know.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Michael Jackson and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"

Given that they're recorded hundreds of times a year, it's not an easy feat to record the 'definitive' version of a Christmas song – the genre, such as it is, is primarily given over to lukewarm 'interpretations' that, at best, merely impress. It's all but impossible to achieve 'greatness' while recording a Christmas song.

So it's noteworthy that doing so, and doing so at the age of 12, is one of those many particular achievements that Michael Jackson was able to pull off in his time on this earth. In 1970, when the Motown mill was putting them through an exhausting three-albums-a-year schedule, the Jackson 5 released an eleven-track Christmas album. Several of the performances are excellent, the whole thing is energetic... but it was their recording of the 1934 standard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that was truly exemplary, to the point that most recordings of the song today bear at least a minor debt to Michael Jackson.

Why is it so great? Well, I once read a commentary about this song that mentioned that, at 12 years old (he might have been 11 upon recording it), it's possible that Michael Jackson was one of the few performers to record this song who actually believed the words he was singing. Obviously, the pre-teen Michael Jackson was one hell of a method actor, in that he'd made it through a succession of singles that spoke of romantic love and relationships on a level he was probably unable to genuinely appreciate, and certainly unable to empathise with. But here, even if he had outgrown Santa by then, this is still content much closer to his heart and to his own sensibilities than “I was blind to let you go”. Michael Jackson tears into this song with an assurance that comes from mastery of the subject because he does have that mastery – a way that grown-ups like Mariah Carey or Bruce Springsteen had long since lost sight of.

In any case, whatever is powering those energy levels, they are truly sky high, and his exuberance is entirely contagious. There is so much rubbish recorded in the name of Christmas that hearing a song that truly brings a smile to your face is a real December revelation.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Unhappy Childhood

One day, I think that Michael Jackson's life will be taught as a cautionary tale. But cautioning against what? Well, one thing that I have often thought, and I imagine Michael Jackson himself would attest to, is that his story is a story about the dangers of being denied a 'normal' childhood. Whenever I see child stars, I imagine the many ways that their lives must be different from the life that I had, and ultimately there seems to be about an equal balance of advantages and disadvantages. I mean, child stars have exposure to things that I certainly never saw. They have people willing to do things for them and, and I think this would have been huge for me, people willing to listen to them: people interested in what they have to say, whatever that is. Superficially it seems great, and in a discussion I recently had with a group of people about, of all things, the "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" kids, everyone except me agreed that the material benefits public exposure could bring those kids outweighed the possible emotional repercussions the constant cameras might have on them.

In Michael Jackson's case, it's even moreso. Michael Jackson, born out of the camera eye, wouldn't have even known what a so-called 'normal life' was. That camera eye was there from when he was five years old and it never went away until his death (indeed, the last decade of his life was a constant attempt to avoid it). There are videos of him playing baseball or otherwise engaging in childish activities, but by and large his entire childhood was based around music and, more to the point, around being a celebrity. We know that the altered perception of the media toward him as he grew from a precocious child into an awkward adolescent was devastating for him, and we know that many of his preoccupations as an adult stemmed from a desire to recreate, in his words, "the childhood I've never known". Dealing with abuse at the hands of his father, a grueling touring-and-recording schedule and a million attendant pressures, Michael Jackson makes child celebrity seem downright horrible.

And yet, inasmuch as the 'child is father to the man', the series of solo Sony albums that cement his legacy and are the chief reason he has so many fans today would simply not have been possible had Michael Jackson enjoyed a 'normal' childhood out of the limelight and away from the pressures of his money-hungry father. It's not a popular thing to say, but if great art springs from misery, then Michael Jackson's own childhood misery was a positive wellspring of inspiration for him - perhaps ultimately the primary source of artistic energy that carried him through the eighties and nineties. So this raises an interesting question, both personally (to Michael Jackson the individual) and publically (to the world at large): if his sad, dysfunctional, abused childhood was necessary in order for him to create his subsequent artistic triumphs, was it worth it?

It's an interesting question, and not easy to answer. You might counter that with a happy childhood Michael Jackson would still have been Michael Jackson. While I personally don't believe that, I'd still concede it as possible and ask you just for a minute then to presume that Michael Jackson's childhood unhappiness allowed him to become such a great talent upon adulthood. Again, in that case, is it worth it? From the perspective of society-at-large, it's tough to imagine anyone saying "no", really: his art has brought joy to countless people. But within his own personal, ultimately doomed, life? Well, I don't know. But it's an interesting question.
Powered by WebRing.
homelistjoin | previousnextrandom

powered by alt-webring