Saturday, November 28, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Posthumous Religion

"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

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.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Michael Jackson and "Billie Jean"

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

Michael Jackson and Pictures from the Estate Auction

Just please forgive the source. I found this blog recently while looking around at Michael Jackson-related things. The blog is filled with wannabe-'pithy' comments about the contents. Yes, I realise that it's tough to keep your tongue out of your cheek when looking at these pictures, but...

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:
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