Saturday, October 31, 2009

Michael Jackson and Prince

No, by this I don't refer to either of his sons, though I ought to mention that I spent years thinking that Michael Jackson named his sons after his great 80s rival for musical dominance (or alternately as a tacit acknowledgement of his own status as 'king' (of pop)). No, this is about that other effeminate, slight, light-skinned genre-bending 80s superstar, Prince Rogers Nelson.

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

Michael Jackson and the Money-Grabbing Compilation

Well the "This is It" movie is due to be released this week. I have to admit that I'm looking forward to seeing it, though I have no idea when I'll actually have a chance to. I should actually word it this way: the movie is the only thing either Sony or Universal have done since Michael Jackson's death that interests me.

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

Michael Jackson and the Fashion of Vitiligo

That title sounds flippant. I don't at all mean it to be. Vitiligo is a very sad illness, and its effect on the happiness of Michael Jackson was far-reaching and profound. But it occurs to me, oddly enough, just how much of Michael Jackson's fashion statements and sartorial preferences down the years can, definitely or just possibly, be attributed to his struggles with Vitiligo.

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

Michael Jackson and Artistic Freedom at Motown

In the 1970s, former child star and Motown-machine-product Stevie Wonder reached the peak of critical and commercial successes with a series of completely self-created albums: songwriting, production, vocals, in many cases all of the instruments: completely self-created epics nurtured in the hothouse of complete artistic freedom.

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?

Who knows?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Daughter's Perspective

Just read that (according to LaToya) Paris believes her dad was killed as a result of overwork. Leaving aside the important question of just how reliable a source LaToya is, if we suspend disbelief and say it's true, it's an interesting perspective. Particularly in light of the fact that, according to some commentators, Michael Jackson set out on the "This is It" concerts in part for his children's benefit, to show them his legacy.

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?

Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese's "Bad"

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.

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