Saturday, March 13, 2010

Michael Jackson and Six Degrees of Separation

So I got to thinking about the 'six degrees of deparation' idea, which of course leads to musing about Kevin Bacon. If you don't know, the concept is that any two people on earth are linked by a chain of acquaintances of a maximum six links (probability researchers now say seven). In other words, person A living in, say, rural China and person B living in, say, Somalia don't know each other. But a chain exists (if it can be found) where, at a maximum, person A knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows person B. Neat theory.

Anyway, that leads to the Oracle of Bacon, where any movie actor is shown to connect to Kevin Bacon in a similar way - not mutual acquaintances but co-stars. Two people who have appeared in the same movie connect just as, in the original theory, two acquaintances connect. It doesn't have to be Kevin Bacon, but the project started with him, and revolves around him. I thought I'd reorganise it to put Michael Jackson, who doesn't have the richest filmography, at the centre.

I tried twelve friends of his, and was amazed to find that only one had a first-degree filmic relationship and only one had a third-degree relationship. But fully ten in twelve of those friends had 'Michael Jackson numbers' of two.

First-degree relationship:

Diana Ross, one of Michael Jackson's closest friends, co-starred with him in "The Wiz".

Second-degree relationship:

Macaulay Culkin and Michael Jackson were good friends in the 1990s. They have a second-degree filmic relationship, joined by Seth Smith, who was in the long-form video "Ghosts" with Michael Jackson and in "Getting Even with Dad" with Culkin.

Corey Feldman was one of the child actors who had a close friendship with Michael Jackson at Neverland. Marvin Miller joins them, having co-starred with Jackson in "The Wiz" and with Feldman in "Gremlins".

Janet Jackson is, of course, Michael's sister. They co-starred in the video of "Scream", but considering big-screen efforts only, they connect through Nikki Cox, who was in "Moonwalker" with big brother and in "Nutty Professor II: the Klumps" with little sister.

Emmanuel Lewis was the first child actor to form a high-profile friendship with Jackson. They connect through Kevin Grevioux, who was in "Men in Black II", where Jackson made a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo. Grevioux co-starred with Lewis in, aptly, "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star".

Madonna made such a beautiful eulogy for Michael Jackson at the Staples Center that their brief friendship still seems noteworthy. They are connected by Will Smith, the star of "Men in Black II", where Jackson appeared, and also of the short film "Torrance Rises" alongside Madonna.

Paul McCartney was hardly a friend for the last two decades of Jackson's life, but they were at one point. They connect through Ben Lokey, who played a bit part with Paul McCartney, also playing a bit part, in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (the Bee Gees film). Lokey was in "Captain EO" with Jackson.

Liza Minnelli, a long term friend of Jackson's, connects to him through Ted Ross, who was in "The Wiz" with Michael and in "Arthur 2: On the Rocks" with Liza.

Ronald Reagan had a controversial relationship with Michael Jackson. Friends? Perhaps not. Acquaintances? Certainly. Movie actors? You betcha. Even they have a second-degree relationship, joined by Marvin Miller (the same person who joins Jackson to Corey Feldman), who starred with Reagan in "Hong Kong" in 1952, and with Jackson in "The Wiz".

Brooke Shields was, at one time, romantically linked with Michael Jackson. They never acted together, but Tony Fields has acted with both of them - in "Captain EO" with Jackson and in "Backstreet Dreams" with Shields, whose name rhymes with his.

Elizabeth Taylor had an unlikely but incredibly loyal friendship with Michael Jackson. They are linked by Bill Walker, who starred with Taylor in "Raintree County" in 1957 and who starred with Jackson in "The Wiz".

Third-degree relationship:

Lisa Marie Presley, Michael Jackson's ex-wife, of course co-starred semi-naked with him in the video for "You Are Not Alone". But a video not being cinematic, we find our only third-degree relationship here: Stanley Greene was in  "The Wiz" with Jackson. Greene was also in the no-doubt-memorable "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" with Furry Lewis. Lewis was in "This is Elvis" with Elvis's daughter Lisa Marie. Whew.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

While I Was Away...

Well, I took about two months off from this blog... which might not have been the smartest idea, I concede. However, while I've been gone, it's certainly good to know that other people have been writing great stuff about Michael Jackson. A few links:

  1. The video for Thriller redone in Lego: there is not a second here that is not awesome. Must have been such hard work...
  2. A review of the Michael Jackson Exhibition in London: complete with a lot of great photos.
  3. A creepy VH1 re-enactment of his death: all given a vaguely Roswell feel... at least that's how it seemed to me.
  4. Discussion about media bias against Jackson: I'm a bit sceptical, but it's an interesting read.
  5. An appreciation of "Morphine": I love this song, and I love the site. Of course, I have a similar site myself, which I'm now shamelessly plugging.
  6. A nice discussion of Michael and magic: written by a singer and a fan.
  7. Old men dancing to Michael Jackson: silly, and ultimately tiresome, but a bit of a giggle.
  8. Very silly 'Billie Jean' shoes: that purport to recreate the light-up tiles from the video.
  9. Some of his home movies: I find these very bittersweet to watch. He was definitely a special person.
  10. Michael Jackson 'helping' in Haiti: a nice story, though the new 'We are the World' is a bit more prominent...
  11. The Vatican praises 'Thriller': the most bizarre story I've heard in a while, as the Vatican turns record reviewer.
  12. Michael Jackson was a Catholic priest: unless this is the most bizarre. Though it's a joke.
  13. A very nice optical-illusion portrait: you kind of need to look at it it from a distance.
  14. Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan: brief, but interesting.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Michael Jackson and the National Film Registry

So the music video for "Thriller" has been inducted into the National Film Registry, the first music video to be so honoured. Great, I thought. Wonderful. A worthy honour. After all, not only did Michael Jackson recently die but also he is recognised as a pioneer of the music video industry, and "Thriller" is usually seen as his greatest (or at least most iconic) visual achievement.

Then it occurred to me that I didn't have the first clue what the National Film Registry was. It is, Wikipedia tells me, a list of films deemed 'worthy of preservation' in the Library of Congress. I love that word: preservation. In other words, after World War III, we'll be left with cockroaches and with Michael Jackson dancing like a zombie. I bet the roaches will love it. Or alternately, it's great to think that on the off chance that Sony Music, the Jackson estate, Jon Landis and any one of the seventy million people who have viewed it on YouTube happen to, you know, forget its existence, the Library of Congress will make sure history remembers it. Very noble.

Sorry for the sarcasm, but it does occur to me that not all accolated are created equal, and what at first seems like a big deal might ultimately turn out to be a very small deal instead. Oh well. If nothing else, it creates nice headlines. For a few days. Yay Library of Congress!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Michael Jackson and the Album Format

What is an album? Is it a single work of art, or is it a collection of ten to fifteen works of art? Michael Jackson's idiom has always been pop music, a genre that glorifies the single and gives little attention to the album. The worst pop albums are inevitably those with one great radio-ready track (probably the title track) with nine disposable pieces of filler that no one would listen to more than once (a single with nine b-sides, you may think of it). Truth be told, the worst rock albums are those ones too, but rock (or “FM radio music”, if you'd prefer) tends to be seen as a genre where albums are unified 'statements': where singles are merely tasters for the album and where the true fan will hear the single and buy the album.

All of this is discussion from the past, of course: pop fans and rock fans don't really have different buying habits anymore: since the 1990s in North America anyway the album has been the prime medium for purchasing music: very few Americans outside of collectors bought singles, even the poppiest of pop fans. And today, of course, the albums itself is dead, as music has gone online and reverted back to an emphasis on single tracks. I wonder how Michael Jackson would have adapted to this new era, since, curously, he's very much an 'album artist', with each of his Epic era albums being significant 'statements' and signposts for 'eras' in his creative history. Releasing well over half of an album's tracks as singles was all but unheard of before Michael Jackson, and certainly his filler-free albums brought the medium a respectability within pure 'pop' circles that it hadn't really had before (by comparison, the early Jackson 5 albums were released as frequently as Jackson 5 singles were, but were filled with all kinds of filler that were probably designed never to be heard more than a few times each by purchasers – what mattered to Berry Gordy and Motown was the 7”).

However, though I think you can make a case for the Quincy Jones-produced Thriller and Bad as unified pieces of work (and even at that, it's a stretch), Michael Jackson's 1990s albums are very much collections of songs. Okay, collections of hit songs, but still: not 'albums' as unified pieces of work. Does it make a difference? Well, to an extent, every Michael Jackson album plays like a greatest hits album (thought is given to sequencing, mind you, and each of his albums feature deft though imperfect track sequencing). Apparently, his nineties albums were cobbled together from dozens (in some cases hundreds of songs recorded over a period of several years: in different studios, with different producers, with different musicians and collaborators. If this is really the case, then obviously it would be difficult for these albums to hang together with any sense of purpose at all. Which is why, largely speaking, they don't.

Yet they remain great albums. Not just great collections of tracks but great albums. Listening to Dangerous or CD two of HIStory offers an experience that merely listening to the individual tracks doesn't. It's a bit of a mystery how Michael Jackson managed that, but there you have it.
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