Saturday, September 26, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Sycophantic Slags

The announcement by Sony of the contents of the upcoming two CD set, "This is It", would certainly be enough to call to mind the Smiths song that contributes to the title of this blog entry. The vulgar picture is, indeed, being painted - and will, I suspect, for years to come. But no, it's not record company exploitation that I want to speak about but the more direct sycophancy that seems to plague people as rich and famous as Michael Jacskon was.

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

Michael Jackson and the Memorial Competition

So I’ve just been looking at the results of the ‘Michael Jackson memorial’ competition found here: 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

Michael Jackson and the Art of Interpretation

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

Michael Jackson and the Concept of the Album

One of the oddest, and most deceptive, facts of Michael Jackson’s career is that in the 80s, the decade that stands as the pinnacle of his achievement, Michael Jackson released precisely two albums: Thriller in 1982 and Bad in 1987. When you consider his entire domination over the 80s, it’s really difficult to reconcile that fact: can it be true? There’s so much 1980s Michael Jackson material out there, isn’t there?

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).

Nobody had ever constructed albums like this before, and nobody except his sister has really done it since. I once heard it said that each of these four albums function like ‘greatest hits’ sets, and there’s some truth to that, really: his one-time father-in-law Elvis Presley put out volumes of his ‘greatest hits’ “Golden Records” collections with a comparable frequency in the 1960s: Michael Jackson just elected not to release the other stuff, the filler ‘album tracks’: with those reports of Michael Jackson choosing album tracklists from 50 or 100 recorded tracks, the comparison becomes even more exacting. Michael Jackson could have released more albums than he did: he just seems to have arrived at the decision that a song not worthy of single status doesn’t deserve to come out at all. After a decade or more of horribly bloated albums of 75 or 150 minutes in length, we’re kind of entering a post-album era, where what primarily remains is the one-song download (or YouTube clip): the ‘single’ has returned.

Michael Jackson was made for this current era just as much as he helped to make it. Pity he won’t be here to take advantage of it.
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