Saturday, August 29, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Creepshow Motif

So I was listening to “This Place Hotel”, and I was struck not (only) by what a wonderful composition it is but what an amazing and radical arrangement it is – only the first of many examples of how, in Michael Jackson’s hands, arrangement becomes an aspect of composition itself and, as a result, a song becomes inseparable from its recorded performance. “This Place Hotel” is an amazing mix of instruments and moods: all fitting, some less appropriate than others.

“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.

Blood on the Dance Floor is where Michael Jackson finally gives into his creepshow fandom – oddly for an outtake compilation, the first part of Blood on the Dance Floor really does play like a piece, with the recurrent theme of creepiness. It’s interesting to note that by this time the public perception of Michael Jackson had slid from the largely self-made ‘harmlessly eccentric’ to the entirely externally-designed ‘uncomfortably creepy’. I think you could make a decent point that Michael Jackson permanently lost control of his public image by drastically underestimating the severity of that shift: “Is It Scary?” presents a Michael Jackson confronted by his public image and gaining a perverse delight in it. I think Michael Jackson genuinely enjoyed frightening people (I imagine in real life someone whose sense of humour frequently ran to ‘boo!’-like attempts to surprise/frighten) and returned again and again to the creepy because it reminded him of the movies that frightened him when he was a kid. “Ghosts” is almost a full-length film based on that very concept. It’s highly enjoyable, but it shows the extent to which Michael Jackson revelled in being creepy – even to the point where he was unfortunately unable to separate ‘good creepy’ from ‘bad creepy’. Until it was too late.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Homicide Ruling

I must confess that the coroner's findings primarily prove to me that coroners use the word 'homicide' in a completely different way than normal people. Clearly I saw the word 'homicide' in the headline and immediately understood something else, as did, I'm sure, most people out there. Newspapers bait, of course, but the coroner's office could have used a different word.

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 and the Eights and Nines

Inevitably, of course, people will be producing documentaries and books about Michael Jackson for who knows how many decades. If anyone wanted to, it’s interesting how easily they could break his life into decades: the story of Michael Jackson is very much an opera in five acts, and each act corresponds pretty much exactly to a decade. To whit:

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.

The next step is not so clear. Certainly between “Bad” and “Dangerous” 80s Michael was replaced by 90s Michael, when the ‘wacko’ stopped being comic and started being tragic. The star still shone bright, but there were always complications. This is where Michael Jackson and the world turn from allies to bitter enemies. I’m going to pick Michael Jackson’s purchase of Neverland Ranch in 1988 as the symbol of this descent, for while Neverland Ranch initially seemed fun-wacko, it became the symbol of his detachment from normalcy and, in many people’s minds, from civility.

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

Michael Jackson and 'Little Monkey'

So Joe Jackson thinks that Little Monkey is his grandson. Even though nobody else in the world seems to think so. What intrigues me so much about Joe Jackson’s claim of ancestry for Omer Bhatti (a/k/a Omar Bhatti for no reason I can understand) is just how plausible it is in the case of the Jackson family that one member might not know for sure and have to speculate about the existence of other family members. The Jackson family is a family like no other, and Joe Jackson, about whom I’ll have plenty to say, a man with his own illegitimate child, is a father like no other. With 25 confirmed grandchildren, I would be surprised if he could even remember all of their names.

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

Michael Jackson and the 'Child Star' Phenomenon

You know, as amazing as Michael Jackson’s death-inspired takeover of the internet was, a certain context needs to be presented. People were meant to be viewing Michael Jackson videos on YouTube in record numbers, but a quick look at his YouTube page shows few records being broken. “Thriller” has some 50 million hits, but that’s small potatoes compared to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” or some guy dancing for six minutes… each of which have two and a half times as many views. Hell, Connie Talbot has about as many views as “Thriller”.

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.

While she sings “Ben” very well, it goes without saying that Michael Jackson wipes the floor with her.

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

Michael Jackson and the Record Label as 'Family'

So there’s Berry Gordy at the Memorial Service. Rambling on, really. Talking and talking and talking about Michael Jackson and his own personal role in Michael Jackson’s life. More than a little self-serving. But vain. There’s Smokey Robinson, unusually prominent. Stevie Wonder. Lionel Richie. Why, it’s a regular family reunion.

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.

What did, however, happen as Michael Jackson slid from Philadelphia International to Epic to CBS to Sony to SonyBMG to whatever they are today is that Sony redefined their relationships to artists as a whole in response to their redefinition of their relationship with Michael Jackson. They did need to redefine that relationship: as Michael Jackson went supernova and tore up the entire rulebook of success, it was only natural for his record company to help to rewrite that rulebook. And after being given a royalty rate at Motown that would make Vietnamese Nike employees tut-tut in indignation, Michael Jackson set new records for highest royalty rate. Which was great: the artist deserves more money; the money-hungry multinational deserves less, right? Well, absolutely. But I think you could make an argument that Michael Jackson’s inflated royalty rate was one of the things that inflated every aspect of his relationship with Sony, to the extent that the Commodification of Michael Jackson became a test case whose results were copied throughout the music business.

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.
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