Saturday, December 26, 2009
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
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
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.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Note that there are no officially published versions of the lyrics to "Bad" online. This is just an approximation. It's really very tough to figure out the lyrics to this song, to say nothing of "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough".
I'm tiny, tuberous (Your butt is mine)Some parts make as much sense as the original... I love "Rusty show-off; better oil". Anyway, that's about it this week. Boredom is the mother of... er, anagrams.
Turgently, hooligan (Gonna tell you right)
O Jesus! Wotcha! Fury! (Just show your face)
Halo drab dignity (In broad daylight)
Me on guiltily (I'm telling you)
Whine of ole (On how I feel)
Rumor annoying thud (Gonna hurt your mind)
Kind sloth to tool (Don't shoot to kill)
I, I moving guy (I'm giving you)
Encounter of hot (On count of three)
Out! Rusty show-off (To show your stuff)
Better oil (Or let it be)
Me on guiltily (I'm telling you)
Joy! What mucous truth (Just watch your mouth)
I am wonky rogue (I know your game)
Beauty! Rout a who (What you're about)
Littlest sleeky, healthy whimsy (Well they say the sky's the limit)
Ultra, maltreated honesty (And to me that's really true)
Ungifted veneration by hush money (But my friend, you have seen nothing)
Twitter jail, thuggish lout (Just wait till I get through)
Ace biased bum (Because I'm bad)
Mob demoniac (I'm bad, come on)
Okay dumb wino (You know I'm bad)
A wonky bum idiot (I'm bad, you know it)
Okay dumb wino (You know I'm bad)
Mob demoniac (I'm bad, come on)
What-ho! Well droned wrathiness on wart hog (And the whole world has to answer right now)
Conglutinate to jealousy (Just to tell you once again)
Bad show (Who's bad?)
This blog mentions http://www.blogsurfer.us in it.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
"Apophenia" is the word used to describe the human tendency to find patterns where none exist. It's like when you buy a certain brand of car, you suddenly find that the streets are filled with that very model of car.
The article I saw last week about an English couple who discovered the face of Michael Jackson on their baby's ultrasound is nothing more than a particularly comical example of that phenomenon. I include the photo, from North News and Pictures and taken by me from the website of the Telegraph, to illustrate the idea. Sure, I can see a face. It can, with a good amount of imagination, be said to resemble Michael Jackson's (especially the nose, say the cruel among us).
But it is certainly no more than a silly, meaningless fluke. Not even a 'coincidence' (as there are not two things coinciding here). Just a random meaningless thing. It is, however, significant to the extent that it reminds me of Jesus on toasted bread or the Virgin Mary on a mouldy wall. "My foetus is the reincarnation of Michael Jackson" is perhaps the first sign I have of a religious element that I'm sure will surround Michael Jackson's death. Images of faithful fans flocking to the courtrooms a few years ago where Jackson was standing trial might suggest that the phenomenon was already happening during his life, and the extraordinary reverence accorded him since his passing might also be further proof. But I think we might find a quasi-religious movement even greater than the one that surrounded Elvis Presley.
There is increasingly a need to create 'conspiracy theories' when faced with tragedy. I think that the so-called 'immortality' (as in timeless fame) that we attach to celebrities transmutes itself to a belief in genuine immortality for certain famous people. When Michael Jackson died, I think on some basic level many people felt shock not so much that the had died but that he could die - that he could succumb to the ravages of the flesh like any mortal. I don't think many people would admit to such a delusional thought, but I'm sure many of us experienced it, even on a subconscious level.
So I'm sure rumours that Michael Jackson faked his death will continue for years, and presumably people will 'discover' him undercover in the most ludicrous of places (the extent to which he went to hide himself from the public eye during his life will certainly establish a precedent for the more elaborate of these). As with 2Pac, people will scour songs, lyrics, public pronouncements and videos and find them filled with cryptic references to his faked death and rebirth. Dates will be discovered when Michael Jackson will publically reappear.
It's sad, really. I think it says a lot about a human need for religious-style belief, and how in the absence of traditional religions that need can be fulfilled in all manner of strange ways. I do think it's inevitable though. Michael Jackson's soft-focus positivitiy and humanity will form a basis for this new-religion, and people will, with teary eyes, declaim how Michael Jackson has 'saved' them and how their belief in him keeps them whole.
Just wait. Faces in ultrasounds are nothing yet.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
When Michael Jackson mounted the stage at the BRIT Awards in 1996 to sing “Earth Song”, Cocker was apparently so affronted by Jackson's over-the-top performance that he attempted to disrupt it by drunkenly climbing onto the stage.
Whatever. But... I think that a major problem with the HIStory era is well exemplified here. The HIStory era is where Michael Jackson took hubris to a level approaching megalomania and ran with it. As far as his descent into a stereotype is concerned, it is a very real part of that. And in this particular case, the tragedy is that in many ways michael Jackson's OTT promotional efforts here absolutely drowned out the truly excellent album they accompanied.
It was high time for Michael Jackson to release a greatest hits album. Of course he hadn't released all that many albums (on Sony), but as each album pulled more than half of its tracks as hit singles, he didn't need to have released that many albums to have generated enough tracks for a 'greatest hits' album. The decision to lump it together with a new studio album was, as I recall at the time, a cautionary approach for a superstar unsure if his new material would achieve enough success on its own. The result was a confusing package that a lot of casual fans didn't know what to make of, and a package that seemed to come into life calling its new material inferior (which it's not; HIStory disc two is an excellent album, albeit with some filler).
But... amid all the private-life scandals, the only things that were really getting through to the media were silly acts of hubris: spending millions of dollars to put together a promotional 'trailer' for the album (Michael in Russia: beautiful but at the same time a repugnant attempt as building a cult-of-personality where no such attempt was really necessary), erecting a huge statue of himself to float down the Thames, spending seven million dollars to create the most expensive video ever (“Scream”, an impressive enough video that shows no indication of where all that money went), and performances like the one Jarvis Cocker tried to deflate.
Why the hubris? Why the grand gestures? I think, based of course on contemporary scandals, HIStory caught Michael Jackson momentarily unsure of himself, unsure of his impact and its longevity. I think he'd hoped he was still popular enough to inspire huge statues, cults of personality and rapt awe... but I think he now doubted it, and was in some way hoping to revive that mass hysteria by creating it (something dictators from around the world can attest to: you can create your own fiction if you work hard enough at it).
What it drowned out, though, was a collection of songs bristling with anger from his legal troubles (or, in the case of “Childhood”, an amazingly frank and much-needed defense) and media manipulation, but also filled with a real majesty (of all of the 'grand' pieces he created, “Earth Song” is probably the most wonderful) and a lot of very genuinely well-crafted music. All the noise he created around HIStory ultimately (despite sales of more than 20 million) drowned it out... to the point that it's rarely discussed today except as a greatest hits album.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
The truth is, it all starts with “Billie Jean”.
What do I mean by that? Michael Jackson already had an assured place in history before “Billie Jean”. He certainly accomplished more than enough after that to make him unique in Western media. It was a number one hit, sure, but those were a dime a dozen for him in the 1980s. But I think “Billie Jean” is the single thing that made Michael Jackson meteoric. And, more importantly, it's still the greatest starting point in appreciating Michael Jackson.
It takes little more than a second to see what is so special about this song. Michael Jackson invented his most iconic dance move, the Moonwalk, to evoke the sense of weightlessness so inherent in this song. John Travolta defined himself by 'strutting' down the street to the Bee Gees' “Staying Alive”, and indeed that song's riff is so lighter-than-air that it involuntarily causes anyone listening to it to walk with more of a spring in their step. But it's nothing compared to the bounce of that drum beat. Songs don't live and die by their rhythms, but the propulsive quality of “Billie Jean” immediately singles it out as 'different'. Michael Jackson's best 'fast songs' have always been built around their rhythms, and here it's so clearly the case that (a) every other instrument is, James Brown-style, in service of that rhythm or else mere decoration on top and (b) Michael Jackson's full arsenal of vocal percussion effects are woven into this song so tightly that they are part of the rhythm themselves (a trick that, across his career, is one of the most significant musical innovations Michael Jackson can take credit for). The bed of the song in its entirety is that beat, tied down with an elastic bassline, and that four-note keyboard riff over and over and over again. In service of Michael Jackson's vocals, that bed could go on for only one minute or for twenty minutes and not get tiresome.
After that, it's all in the performance. Given Michael Jackson's later complications regarding public perception of his sexuality, it's interesting to note that this song is (a) an entirely convincing tale of the repercussions of a one-night-stand with a groupie and (b) very sexy in and of itself. Watching the live Motown 25 performance of this, it surprising to recall just how sexy Michael Jackson once was. The reason he became such a superstar (an event traditionally dated to that performance) is in no small part due to the libidinal thrill he gave young girls. Girls who perhaps didn't really care that the song is a denial of paternity (for a boy whose 'eyes were like mine', no less).
After all, it's less what he says than how he says it: driven, purposeful. Michael Jackson was never less than a fully commited performer, and in this song, his vocals are an amazing example of restrained power. He is, of course, a hell of a good singer – something I don't think even his most vehement detractors could deny. Here, not only does he sell the story (and, as I've said, extend the rhythm) but he is able, using nothing more than the tone of his voice, to give the entire song the 'edge' of confined paranoia that makes it more than just a great rhythm line and into a powerful song. How does he do that? Well, therein lies Michael Jackson's greatness.
This song spent an amazing seven weeks at number one on Billboard. It's credited, famously, with breaking the so-called 'colour barrier' on MTV. It launched the most successful album in history (it was the second single, but “The Girl is Mine” was hardly responsible for much of anything regarding Michael Jackson's fame). Ultimately, of course, it remains his signature song and arguably his one greatest hit.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Well, let me finish that sentence in a second. Before his death, it was often said that Michael Jackson's planned 'This is It' concerts were designed to get him out of the dire financial straits he had found himself in. To that end, just a few months before his death there was talk of Neverland's assets being seized and auctioned off. The auction was cancelled; it never happened. But the items were put on display, and this blog is, at heart, a collection of photographs of the material on display.
Much of it is tacky as hell, and features Michael Jackson. What I think bears mentioning, though, is that the vast majority of these are likely to have been made by fans and given to him, unsolicited. So it's not that Michael Jackson said, "I think I'll have someone paint a picture of me with the Mona Lisa, George Washington and E.T." so much as some misguided soul painted it and gave it to him, and he didn't have the heart to throw it out. Neverland is a large place: plenty of room for storage. The pieces could also have had sentimental value attached to the circumstances of his acquisition: a gift by a visitor to Neverland, some person who had touched him or made him feel good in some way. A memento, not an example of a commitment to crass kitsch, as I believe the blogger suggests.
But it does go without saying that much of this stuff is hideous, and in no real way represents Michael Jackson. It's just another example of the head-shaking 'junk lifestyle' aspect of Michael Jackson's public image that has managed to build around him over the years and will now, hopefully, start to fade away.
The link for the blog I am discussing: http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2009/04/17/goodbye-brain-sorry-i-accidentally-exploded-you
Saturday, October 31, 2009
They say (Elvis and the Beatles perhaps having been erased from the public's memory) that the 1980s was the era of the pop superstar. And with the peculiar revisionism through which we remember the past, it's often said that the era threw up three massive pop stars: Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna (sometimes, Bruce Springsteen is stuck in that list, but that's a ridiculous claim about someone who's never really worked in the pop genre). I think Michael Jackson and Madonna have a lot in common, and 'pop'-wise are true kin, but I think the comparisons and contrasts between Michael Jackson and Prince are probably more interesting.
Prince was never the reliable unit-shifter that Michael Jackson was. His Purple Rain went huge at around the same time as Thriller, but Prince tended to sabotage his commercial breakthroughs by rushing less commercial follow-ups onto the marketplace. In the 1980s Prince was far more prolific than Michael Jackson, and this restlessness meant it was much harder to be a Prince fan, despite his obvious genius (this is why Prince fans became a rarer commodity as time went by). Prince was a songwriter, musician and producer sooner and with more accomplishment than Michael Jackson, and his talent routinely overflowed to other artists, whereas Michael Jackson was perhaps too independent-minded (or self-conscious) to 'svengali' any proteges.
Yet every Michael Jackson album was a major event, while Prince albums often got lost in the shuffle. Spreading himself too thin over so many acts, projects and albums meant high amounts of filler on Prince albums. Prince was interested in the silver screen; Michael Jackson chose instead to master the music video in a way Prince never approached. Michael Jackson sometimes seemed too asexual for comfort; Prince turned off many fans by being overly libidinal.
In the 1990s, Prince alienated his fanbase with a series of eccentric decisions: going to war with his record label, suing his internet fansites and, of course, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Michael Jackson's eccentricities were related not ot his professional career but to his homelife, and ultimately led to the increased accusations of child abuse that led to his retreat from public consciousness. By the end of the 1990s, both were punchlines for hack comedians, even as they continued to release excellent material. Both have had on-and-off-again relationships with the Jehovah's Witnesses, which has affected their work. But have even composed songs for Brt Simpson: Michael Jackson's, "Do the Bartman", was the hit, while Prince's "My Name is Bart" mutated into a solo track called "My Name is Prince" that is filled with what many interpret as disses of Michael Jackson. What a cartoon can do to people...
"Bad" was meant to be a duet between these two icons: a kind of 'sparring' session to see 'who's bad' between the two of them. Neither is, of course, even remotely bad, but I think Prince has a certain street-sense that would give him the edge as 'badder' than Michael Jackson. No worry: another difference between Michael Jackson and Prince is that Prince has always been so interested in control that he's unwilling to enter into genuine equal-partner 'collaborations', preferring instead to keep the reins at all times and 'collaborate' only in a top-down fashion; any kind of duet between them would (like "Love Song" by Madonna) have way too many of Prince's fingerprints on them and way too few of Michael Jackson's. It's probably just as well they didn't collaborate, however fascinating the thought indubitably is.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
On the other hand, there are plenty of CDs available. Given that Michael Jackson's peak era ended while CDs were still the dominant medium of music, and given that so many of his fans are people who more lor less stopped consuming music during that era and so naturally return to the format of the CD in order to honour Michael Jackson's legacy, and given the fact that CDs are still what wet the lips of record companies, it certainly makes sense that the material they'll be most keen to get out to the masses will be encoded on little shiny plastic discs (apparently This is It will even be available on vinyl).
But so far it's all been so awfully contrived...
So far, Universal's been worse than Sony. I will accept as coincidence the fact that they had a box set of his early years solo recordings available within days of his passing, but certainly The Stripped Mixes and The Remix Suite are grave-robbing cash-ins: useless product designed to suck some money off of those people so affected by Michael Jackson's death that they'll buy anything with his name on it. Since Universal is merely a huge faceless corporation with no links at all to either Barry Gordy or to the Jackson family, I guess this is to be expected: there's really no one there to say, "Hey, that's just exploitative".
But Sony? Well, I'd like to think they should know better. There has already been plenty of controversy over how genuine the new single "This is It" is: Paul Anka, Sa-Fire, brothers subsequently overdubbed... all of which obscures the fact that it is a decent song that is worth hearing but should have been released in a more honest way (i.e. not as an 'all-new' single). Still, it looks like the highlight of the This is It CD, which ties in with the movie by dint of both of them being by Michael Jackson... Apparently the deal is to take some of Michael Jackson's greatest hits that are featured in the movie, and then stick them on a CD in their original (already over-compiled) album versions, as opposed to in the versions that appear in the movie. Append that with two versions of "This is It" to make one CD. CD two consists of three demos of Michael Jackson classics plus him reading the liner notes of Dangerous out loud.
What that means is that CD 1 is really just yet another compilation, no better or worse than Number Ones, The Essential Michael Jackson, King of Pop, or HIStory disc one (which has the advantage of being compiled by Michael Jackson). It gets no more adventurous than "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" (the only Jacksons song on the disc) or "Human Nature" (a song whose profile has been increased exponentially by the "This is It" project). Songs apparently featured in the film that might have made the disc slightly less generic include two relatively obscure tracks from Invincible (an album that could do with a higher profile), the title track from HIStory, and several Motown-era songs. Those were not included, however. Instead we get "This is It" (fine), in two different versions (fine), one of which is apparently orchestral (fine), and we get them presented back to back (ridiculous). Why not, for example, put one version on the end of disc two?
Ah yes, disc two. Three demos and a poem. The 'bait'. For those Michael Jackson fans who don't want just another crap compilation, instead they get just another crap compilation with a few scraps stuck on. I haven't heard the demos yet, so they might be revelatory. But even still, their real place is on the lavish reissues of the main Sony-era albums that in my head will one day see release once Sony stops trying to milk the golden cow.
In the meantime, this is what Michael Jackson fans get. I hope the liner notes are at least interesting.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
The most striking of these is the suggestion that the skin colour patchiness first manifested itself in one hand earlier than the other - requiring Michael Jackson to cover the blotches only on that one hand. That single white glove is probably Michael Jackson's single most iconic fashion statement, and it's highly intriguing to imagine that it descends from his illness. Additionally, much of Michael Jackson's make-up decisions during the Thriller era, which had profound implications for how men embraced make-up and femininity from there on, apparently were down to covering up the unever skin tone. As the disease progressed, Michael Jackson might have taken to wearing the more elaborate military-style outfits because of just how little skin they showed. I don't really want to say much here about Michael Jackson's history of plastic surgery except to say that by now it's pretty well understood that the lightening of skin tone we see on Michael Jackson over the years is, at least in the beginning, a reaction to the Vitiligo. Given the reality of a constantly-spreading blotchy skin appearance and the options of either constant application of darkening make-up or a permanent lightening surgery, it's clear why Michael Jackson chose what he did. It might have been better if he'd been more open about it, but I think Michael Jackson was always inrigued by the 'mysterious' facets of his public image, and I think he was just ashamed to go public as having an illness. Sad but true.
Anyway, is it not interesting to think about how much of what we associate with the public image of Michael Jackson, how many of his sartorial decisions that appeared to be the rather strikingly unique results of a creative mind were actually relatively mundane attempts to hide a disease?
Saturday, October 10, 2009
And he did it on Motown.
Marvin Gaye, who like Jermaine Jackson had to marry into the family, released a series of epics created entirely as a result of his own vision. On Motown. "Thriller" competed with Lionel Richie's vastly underappreciated "Can't Slow Down", which came out on Motown.
The point is that it certainly was possible to find artistic freedom on Motown. In the case of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, it came after intense struggle. Both of those artists really needed to fight in order to gain that artistic freedom. And I have a sense that Michael Jackson really lacked the fight necessary to stand up to Berry Gordy and challenge his (adimttedly very successful) hit-making machine. (Also note that Epic didn't exactly hand him that freedom on a platter: viz. the first two Gamble/Huff productions.)
But what if he had? What would Michael Jackson be like if he'd stayed on Motown? It's an interesting question, one that I have no idea how to answer. I suspect he might have been more prolific, but I wonder how much he would have challenged himself. It's interesting to remember that he met Quincy Jones while filming 'The Wiz' - which wasn't a Motown production but did co-star his former Motown labelmate Diana Ross, so no Motown means no Quincy Jones. Would Quincy Jones have made an album with Michael Jackson on Motown?
I also wonder how much Michael Jackson would have been able to step outside the R&B envelope on Motown. Yes, Lionel Richie did get a country song out there ("Stuck on You"), but would Motown have looked keenly on bringing in the guitarist from Van Halen, for example?
I also wonder if Motown would have had the marketing clout to carry out Michael Jackson's more ambitious plans. It is true that as late as the 90s, Motown was able to shatter Elvis Presley's forty-year record and put Boyz II Men at the top of Billboard for more weeks than any other song in chart history. So they had commercial savvy.
In the 1990s, Motown slid from being a 'family' to being just any other corporate label (well, it was bought out and became part of the Universal empire). But until then I wonder what the 'family touch' would have done for Michael Jackson's career. It's easy to think of the example of Berry Gordy's son Rockwell, a kid Michael Jackson had known most of his whole life, who decided he wanted to be a musician and came up with the oh-so-80s "Somebody's Watching Me", and how readily Michael Jackson was willing to help out an old friend by singing the chorus of (and absolutely taking possession of) his song. Would that have kept happening throughout the 80s, and would his own releases be filled with stable-mate collaborations?
Saturday, October 3, 2009
I become more and more intrigued by Paris. I'm quite sure she'll be in the spotlight increasingly often as she gets older, but I can't be cynical about her. I find something very likeable about her, and something quite endearingly sincere. I know nothing about her life to this point - books' worth of speculation but nothing real - but she strikes me as a well-adjusted child, which is practically shocking given the circumstances of her upbringing.
So if she says that her father was overworked, I think it's an interesting thing to consider. But I wonder how much of that was AEG Live's fault and how much was Michael Jackson's own work ethic. Is it possible he overworked himself to death?
Martin Scorsese’s “Bad” was, in many ways, a better film that “Thriller”. I think by now there’s no question of which is the better remembered of the two, but “Bad” I think is actually improved by its relatively rare exposure. It still feels like a bit of a special treat to see the long-form video (as opposed to the relatively useless short version).
The video of “Bad” is a story about class and race, and about how demeaning it can be to straddle those lines. For somebody who’d already gone from poor to unbelievably rich and who was well on the way to a skin colour that in no way resembles his race, this was heady stuff. Michael Jackson’s character, however, doesn’t seem to be choosing his place in all this: his character is shy and passive, until the leather-and-clasps-man within breaks out.
His character is an inner-city kid who, for some reason, goes to a private school ‘uptown’. In the school, everyone is white (except Michael and a Latino in the same boat). In Michael Jackson’s neighbourhood, everyone is black. Both sides are equally condescending: the preppy well-off white kids who tell Michael and the Latino that they’re ‘proud of’ them for, I suppose, overcoming the restrictions of their backgrounds, and Michael Jackson’s friends from the neighbourhood, who see Michael Jackson as a softened sell-out who has forgotten where he came from.
What’s interesting about this, though, is that where Wesley Snipes and the other inner-city homeboys get their come-uppance (of sorts – really it’s just a detente), the rich kids don’t. Once Michael Jackson gets on that subway, the white kids are gone, never to atone for being condescending. And while the overall message of the song-proper part of the video is valid (wearing leather and dancing with men who look like Village People of all ethnicities is just as legitimate an expression of ‘badness’ as mugging senior citizens), it would have been nice to see the rich kids subjected to a dance-routine montage with a similar message. It would, I guess, have created a sense of balance.
As it is, though, the video offers us something much more valuable: a whole other song. This is something that doesn’t happen that often in music videos: the equivalent of a ‘bonus track’, I suppose. Once the song itself fizzles out (I must confess that “Bad” is not my favourite Michael Jackson composition), we are treated to an a capella call-and-response that is, in my opinion, as exciting and musically accomplished as anything in the song proper.
Pity it never showed up on any album.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
There is no doubt that Michael Jackson had surrounded himself with yes-men. "Blood-suckers", as they're sometimes called. People so keen on keeping him happy that they wound up making him terminally sad. Yet another thing that Michael and Elvis had in common. What I wonder is why. Not 'why do they lurk around' but 'why are they accepted?' And 'why are there not more people there to break it up?'
Michael Jackson died because too many people said yes and not enough people said no. But it's not that he was alone and had nobody there who would or could say no: to start with, there was his family. And a certain coterie of celebrities more than willing to publically declare themselves friends of Michael Jackson. Where were they to say "these people are unhealthy for you"?
There are always those who love power, money and celebrity who will buzz around those who possess any or all of those traits. That's inevitable. But I do wonder how in the future other celebrities like Michael Jackson can avoid getting sucked in by them - or, if the people themselves are not capable of telling honest, dependable people from blood-suckers, how structures can be set up to keep them out of harm's way. Michael Jackson had all kinds of security. But where were they?
Saturday, September 19, 2009
So I’ve just been looking at the results of the ‘Michael Jackson memorial’ competition found here: http://www.bustler.net/index.php/michael_jackson_competition/winners/ and I’m quite impressed with what is there. A few initial thoughts:
(1) The winner is a very impressive and simple display that rather has more to do with copyright laws and politics than it does with Michael Jackson himself. It is a pleasing concept, and it has something to say, but it’s just as easily adaptable to anyone else. There’s nothing particularly MJ there. Though it is interesting that I once wrote something about Creative Commons and ‘copyleft’ that used “Billie Jean” as an example and considered the implications if Michael Jackson suddenly decided to relinquish copyright claims over his most iconic song. So interesting that the monument is built around that song as well.
(2) Perhaps more impressive than the winner, if rather less realistic, the runner-up is much more aesthetically successful. The main idea is the streets of the “Billie Jean” video writ large and covering a whole dancefloor somewhere in the middle of the desert. A wind turbine provides the power and it pumps out Michael Jackson music, presumably 24/7, in a fully self-generating capacity (well, generated by wind of course). It’s very pretty and it walks the divide between useful and useless all too well – which art should, really. Interesting that it also takes inspiration from (the video of) “Billie Jean”, confirming that song’s status as Michael Jackson’s most iconic recording.
(3) The third place entry is an interesting exhibit (bed as art – like Tracey Emin) that pays tribute to a thought-provoking comment Michael Jackson once made, but unfortunately it was produced from within the realms of Michael Jackson fandom, where outside opinions can be forgotten, overlooked or even scorned. I mean, there might be a day when uncomfortable questions of sexual habits are mere memories of a different era and not one of the main things people associate with Michael Jackson. But we’re nowhere near there right now, and an artwork that actually goes out of its way to associate Michael Jackson with the bedroom is either one that seeks to directly confront Michael Jackson’s detractors or one that blithely ignores their existence. Problematic either way.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
So I wanted to write an entry about how Michael Jackson was an unheralded songwriter: how, with all the emphasis on his singing and dancing, it was forgotten how good a songwriter he could be. Then I realised that that was completely ridiculous: Michael Jackson is certainly well respected as a songwriter. One of the major frustrations Michael Jackson experienced on his journey from childhood to adulthood was a repeated distrust on the part of his record labels in his abilities as a songwriter. I think it lead to a determination on his part to prove his worth as a songwriter – a determination that led, inarguably, to success.
I came to realise that I should have said the exact opposite: that Michael Jackson’s skills as an interpreter were underrated. Which is not surprising: as a whole in popular music the art of interpretation is undervalued. Ever since the Beatles launched themselves as a ‘whole package’ – singer, songwriter and musician all in one – it has become received wisdom in popular music to hold in contempt anyone who doesn’t write their own material. Inevitably, any product of the ‘star system’ feels the pressure to make a statement of ‘maturity’ by putting out an album laden with self-composed songs. It’s usually their least-successful album. I think Michael Jackson is a brilliant exception to that rule, but it does remain that to a lot of people, Michael Jackson non-originals are in some way ‘lesser’ Jackson tracks.
However, the two things I would have to say are firstly that what really matters about the early Jackson 5 singles is not so much that phenomenal voice but that all-encompassing commitment: that method-actor feeling that Michael Jackson was able to put into lyrics he was much too young to have properly experienced. This is very much the art of interpretation, and it absolutely is an art: it’s what makes Michael Jackson unlike all other child singers, whatever the technical prowess of their voices.
The second thing I would say is: just listen. Not to “Thriller” necessarily but perhaps “Human Nature”. To a certain extent “Butterflies”. Certainly the emotionally compelling “She’s Out of My Life”, where Michael Jackson sings with a commitment that makes the performance seem less Grammy-worthy than Oscar-worthy. But primarily listen to my personal favourite Michael Jackson non-original, “You are Not Alone”, one of the most beautiful songs in his storied discography, and probably the single most beautiful thing R. Kelly has ever written (including “Cry” from Invincible). The emotion Michael Jackson finds in this song is not necessarily buried that deep: its surface-level beauty is part of what I like about it. But it’s just as easy to sing these lyrics passionlessly, enjoying the melody and the mood and worrying about nothing else. This is what I’m sure 99% of popular singers would do with it. What Michael Jackson does is quite something else indeed: as I’ve just said, this is method acting, this is a visceral performance where Michael Jackson actually feels the words as he’s singing them. Too much Presley-Jackson skin in the video, mind you, but a well deserved #1 nonetheless.
I think the best example of Michael Jackson as interpreter can be found on Bad, Michael Jackson’s principal attempt at convincing the world of his songwriting prowess. In an eleven-song album, fully nine songs are self-composed (not even in collaboration with anyone, according to the album credits). One of only two exceptions is “Man in the Mirror”. I like “Man in the Mirror” a lot, even if I don’t love it. It’s a bit belaboured and overwrought, really. But the point is how “Michael Jackson” it is: not just in the composition (by the future writer of Alanis Morrissette’s songs and Michael Jackson’s duet-partner on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”) but in the overall performance. Michael Jackson takes over this song so forcefully that it has become one of those songs that in some way ‘represent’ Michael Jackson. People view it as one of a chain of save-the-world songs, from “We are the World” through “Heal the World” and “Earth Song”. I’m sure most people would assume it was a Michael Jackson composition.
And while it isn’t, it’s ridiculous to say that Michael Jackson made no creative contribution whatsoever to this song that is so undeniably ‘his’; what has happened is that he has transformed it through his singing into something entirely different. And that is most clearly an art form too: the art of interpretation. It’s a pity it’s such a rarely appreciated art.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
But the reason why I call it a ‘deceptive’ fact is precisely because of his ubiquity during this era (plus the fact that he released major albums in 1979 and 1991). One of Michael Jackson’s least considered, but ultimately perhaps one of his biggest, effects on our consumption of music is the way he caused us to reconsider the very concept of the album. The ridiculous sales figures generated by those four albums have much to do with they way they were conceived for maximum impact. The facts are astounding: Off the Wall: five singles in ten tracks, Thriller: seven singles in nine tracks, Bad: nine singles in eleven tracks, Dangerous: nine singles in 14 tracks. A particularly amazing feat: in the 1980s, Michael Jackson released a total of four songs that weren’t singles (excluding work with his brothers).
Saturday, August 29, 2009
“This Place Hotel” starts off with a motif fresh out of a ‘creepy’ movie. It’s a dramatic and enjoyable sound, but it doesn’t fit the words of the song at all. Yet it really makes “This Place Hotel” kind of an introduction to a recurring theme throughout Jackson’s career: the creepshow. As a man lost in the world of fantasy, Jackson the artist would waver between a few of those main fantasies in his artistic creations. Obviously the Peter Pan archetype is the one that gets the most attention, but the creepy fantasy is also a recurring element. His first soundtracking effort was for a horror film about rats. Michael Jackson may not have written “Thriller”, but he did embody it: making it the title track of his masterpiece and giving it the most revolutionary video up to that point: a video in which his sheer enjoyment of the werewolves and zombies is palpable.
Monday, August 24, 2009
No matter. The point still remains: Conrad Murray is responsible for the death of Michael Jackson. It's really difficult to see it any other way, and one does wonder what will happen now. The evidence is shocking: it appears to be a gross disregard for how drugs interact with each other and also, it seems, appears to be the kind of 'treat drugs with drugs' thinking that has resulted in the deaths of many other famous people.
Why does this keep happening? Who are these shady doctors and how do they seem to find their ways into the lives of so many famous people? How do they get their licences?
I suppose it's not entirely fair to put all the blame on Murray. I'm sure he was in the unenviable position of being given an addict to care for. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. But then again, that's why I never went into medicine. If Murray is not exactly a murderer, he certainly does seem to be a negligent charlatan who ought to be stripped of his licence, if not his very freedom.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Michael Jackson was born in 1958, and the first decade of his life was the only obscurity he knew – the infancy is here, but so is the first stage of climbing to success: Joe Jackson hustling his kids around the Detroit area, making it all the way to the Apollo even. The initial overtures with Gladys Knight, Bobby Taylor and the Notown machine.“I Want You Back”, the Jackson 5’s first Motown single and their first #1, was released in 1969. This rather definitively begins the era of Michael’s celebrity and, in fact, is his era of ‘child star’ celebrity. This decade takes Michael Jackson a long way – from obscurity to fame to relative obscurity again to fame again – but sees the whole 10 years pass with Michael Jackson viewed as a ‘kid star’ and as a Jackson family member first and foremost.
This definitively changed with Michael’s first post-Motown solo album, “Off the Wall”, released in 1979, which started the Michael Jackson supernova that would peak a few years later with “Thriller”. “Off the Wall” introduced Jackson the adult sex symbol as well as Jackson the solo star with several has-been brothers. The next ten years are, of course, the pinnacle of the story: the mountaintop he spent two decades rising toward and would spend two decades falling from.
Michael Jackson ends the 90s constantly on the defensive, bruised and battered from scandals and from the stress of arguing against them. Throughout the 90s, Michael Jackson made a concerted effort to keep his celebrity status alive, and in fact sold CDs in volumes that, while of course much less than in the 80s, were still nothing to sniff at.
It’s a little bit late, but I think the release of Michael Jackson’s final album “Invincible” in 2001 inaugurates the final era of Michael Jackson’s life, in that its relatively poor performance and, more importantly, poorly co-ordinated marketing effort by Sony and Jackson himself, really shows Michael Jackson’s final decade-long retreat from public life: a decade in which he was, artistically, completely adrift, the attention given his legal/publicity issues absolutely dwarfing the attention given his creative efforts – which were all but non-existent in the years following “Invincible”.
It is interesting, then, that 2009 was bringing about a historical era-change again inasmuch as Jackson was determined to re-enter the public arena after his self-imposed decade in the wilderness. As it is, of course, 2009 is where the story ends.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
I think it’s highly unlikely that Omer Bhatti is Michael Jackson’s child, but he’s still an interesting person: one of those kids who had such a close relationship with Michael Jackson. One of those relationships that, from the child’s perspective, seemed to be a case of ‘hero worship’. Macauley Culkin has described his friendship with Michael Jackson as a down-to-earth, bubble-popping one, where he viewed Jackson as an equal as opposed to an idol. However, if this is really true, it’s a very rare case among Jackson’s child-friendships. It’s interesting to speculate on the understanding of ‘friendship’ of a person whose closest relationships, with few exceptions, featured either a hero worship moving from him to his target, someone a generation older (Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor) or to him from someone a generation younger (countless kids). In my personal experience, relationships that have a characteristic of hero worship within them may be very valuable, very meaningful relationships, but they’re not exactly ‘friendships’. If this is the case, Michael Jackson had very few friends indeed.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Connie who? Well, it’s of no real significance, but she’s a ‘child singer’ who came to fame on one of the one million Simon Fuller talent shows currently out there. She does have an amazing voice. Ultimately, she winds up being that rare thing for a child star: someone who sings ‘well’, as opposed to ‘well for someone her age’. This is a point made by one of the jurors on a few occasions in commenting on her performances. She sings songs made famous by other child stars: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland and, of course, the love song to a rat, “Ben” by Michael Jackson.
Which raises an interesting, and often forgotten, point: it’s well known that Michael Jackson was a child star who became a magnificent adult performer. It’s often forgotten, though, that he was a magnificent child star too. Giving points for ‘cuteness’, we tend to be uncritical of child performers. But Michael Jackson really does stand up to the harshest criticism, going back all the way to his earliest performances. The energy he brought to uptempo tunes, the sincerity he brought to ballads… I have no idea how a child could sing the very adult words of “I’ll Be There” with such sincerity or ride the dramatic ebb-and-flow of “Never Can Say Goodbye” more convincingly than the adults who later covered it. It’s one of those things that defy analysis: whatever ‘it’ is that makes Michael Jackson Michael Jackson, he had it all the way back in the late sixties, when he stood barely any taller than Connie Talbot does today.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Of what family? Of course, the Motown Family. You know, the label Michael Jackson was with for all of six years, as opposed to the 33 years he spent as a Sony employee. The label the Jacksons left with no small acrimony.I find it interesting to compare Berry Gordy’s extremely personal eulogy with the icky, plastic “Sony comments on the passing of Michael Jackson” statement posted on Michael Jackson’s YouTube page. Michael Jackson’s life saw the evolution of the music industry from small, up-close-and-personal music ‘shoppes’ to faceless multimedia conglomerates – the same companies that have squeezed the music industry so tight that it is currently dying an unmourned death. The fact is, though, that Michael Jackson not only witnessed the evolution: he is in no small part responsible for it.
I won’t defend Motown. The strictures Gordy put on the Jacksons were ridiculous, and they were right to decamp to greener pastures. Berry Gordy presided over an empire that made some amazing music, but it did what so many empires do: find a formula and stick to it well after that formula’s best-before date has expired and in spite of all rising tides of criticism. Motown, today a meaningless imprint of the Universal conglomerate, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Michael Jackson was certainly not to blame.
Michael Jackson became huge, Sony became huge, Sony became anonymous (probably always was, actually). No surprise there. It is interesting, though, that when they came to mourn Michael Jackson publicly, that small label that he spent six stress-filled years with was in full effect, while the monolith he spent a third of a century with was… completely absent. Just an observation.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
So the title of this blog is partly a joke. Obviously there can be no 'last thoughts' on Michael Jackson - the topic is all but an endless one, really. An inexhaustible source of thoughts. More has been thought about Michael Jackson in the past month alone than has been thought about entire classic fields of learning such as history or philosophy, I would imagine. So, here are just some more in a never-ending stream of thoughts. The title is actually an homage to Bob Dylan, who once performed a poem entitled "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie".
I launch this blog on the one-month anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. My main reason for waiting that month was to, in a manner of speaking, overcome the initial glut of noise concerning Michael Jackson - that stretch where Michael Jackson actually threatened to take down the internet. I didn't want to get swamped in that, as I envision this blog as something much more long-term - something that outlasts the present noise revolving around his death and its after-effects. However, it is of course the tragedy of Michael Jackson's early death that motivates me to start this blog. So the one-month anniversary seemed fitting.
There is a lot to say involving Michael Jackson. I hope you enjoy reading it.
And, of course, R.I.P.