Saturday, November 21, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Hubris of Desperation

Make no mistake: Jarvis Cocker is entirely irrelevant. I love “Common People” dearly, but all in all its singer is a bit of an overly-clever attention-whore, really, who took fifteen years to become famous and has spent a further 15 years coming to terms with the fact that he isn't famous anymore.

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.

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