On Michael Jackson

The Man In The Mirror

The abrupt and oddly unexpected death of Michael Jackson last week has brought about a startling re-evaluation of the man’s legacy, one that frankly puzzles your humble correspondent.  We are now being told that despite his, ah, “controversies” in the later part of his career, Michael Jackson was a musical icon who fundamentally changed the course of pop music forever.  I’m not quite sure that’s true.  Moreover, I think the dramatic reversal of Jackson’s critical heritage says more about our culture than the work of Michael Jackson himself.

While Mr. Jackson certainly had some big hits in the 70’s as a member of the Jackson 5 and in the 80’s as a solo artist, I don’t think his musical influence is anywhere near that of, say, James Brown whose deconstruction of soul singlehandedly gave us funk and, eventually, hip-hop.  He had some good songs, but really, Michael’s main talent lay in his admittedly fantastic dancing ability and decent enough singing voice.  Yeah, he was a great entertainer, but much of his entertainment was due to the work of many other talented individuals behind the scenes.   “I Want You Back” is indeed a fantastic song (I fully agree with Pitchfork’s assessment that the song’s chorus features one of the greatest chord progressions ever devised: “joy reduced to its molecular level”), but would it be radically different if it kept the same composition and production and simply had a different lead vocalist?

An interesting fact that relates to this issue is that the song in question was written by Motown’s in-house songwriting team, The Corporation.  The anonymity of the group was intended by label boss Berry Gordy (himself a member of The Corporation) to prevent the emergence of any “back-room superstars” like the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team who would detract from the more commercially manipulable stardom of the frontman (in this instance, a criminally young Michael Jackson).  And that’s the point: to canonize Jackson as musical genius is tantamount to a slap in the face to all the figures who worked behind the scenes to create his music.

The other myth (and I mean that in the Barthesian sense, not the fictive sense) is that Michael Jackson paved the way for the emergence of the music video.  Certainly he made some great videos, but this is to be expected from a mega-selling artist with access to a huge budget, and what he did was no more innovative (though perhaps more large-scale) than the work of Madonna, Peter Gabriel, and others who helped usher in the new artform in the 80’s.  Of course, it needn’t be said that, like dance, the music video is an ancillary artform dependant as it is on music.

Also, while it is undeniable that he broke the colour barrier on MTV with Billie Jean (a video MTV initially refused to play because they preferred to focus on “white” music), it’s rather unfair to cast him as the music video equivalent of Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks when most of the forceful legwork on behalf of the video was done by CBS President Walter Yetnikoff who threatened to pull all his artists off MTV if they didn’t play the video.

Still, it’s unfair, and somewhat ghoulish, for me to question Jackson’s legacy so soon after his death (such a comment earned me a “defriending” from a rather sanctimonious goat person on The Facebook), so let’s just agree that he did entertain a helluva lot of people in the 70’s and 80’s and had a dwindling albeit diehard fanbase in the last part of his career.  What is startling, however, is the instant posthumous canonization of Michael Jackson and that’s where I’m calling “shenanigans”.

For the last twenty years, the entertainer has been a walking punchline; the repository of our collective schadenfreude as the masses have hung voyeuristically on the unfolding of every detail of the trainwreck that was Jackson’s life.  So, it seems disingenuous for the same masses who enjoyed watching his tragic fall from a prodigal child star to a creepy and debt-ridden weirdo to now enshrine him in the pantheon of 20th century music.

The word “tragic” is key here since in his later career Michael Jackson became the living embodiment of hubris.  He floated a giant statue of himself down the Thames, for fuck’s sake.  And we loved him for it.   He confessed to sharing his bed with children (though not molesting them).  And we watched with rapt attention, salivating over the salacious details.  He became a strange combination of Orpheus, John Merrick, Howard Hughes, and John Wayne Gacy.  And we enjoyed every goddamned minute of it.  The same culture that gleefully lapped up every bizarre detail about Michael Jackson’s sad life as it unfolded is now heralding him as the best thing since Elvis (another dreadfully overrated figure who is not as influential as everyone thinks he is; while a hero to most, he never meant shit to me.  See Haley, Bill and Donegan, Lonnie).

While undeniably talented (though not the musical visionary he’s been made out to be as of late), Michael Jackson was largely famous for all the wrong reasons, especially towards the end of his career.  Beginning in the 1980’s, the myth of Michael Jackson quickly over took the art of Michael Jackson as the source of his popularity.  Stories of over-the-top oddness (many of which, such as the “sleeping-in-a-hyperbaric-chamber” nonsense, were promulgated by Jackson himself, taking a page out of P.T. Barnum) became more entrenched in the public consciousness than any of his songs.  I’d bet that most people would have difficulty naming a single song of his post-“Black and White” career, whereas the details of the molestation charges, the images of him dangling his baby off a balcony, and his degenerating facial structure are all imprinted into our collective unconscious.

It seems that the outpouring of tribute to Jackson’s passing is a tacit and unconscious expression of guilt over the snide enjoyment of his decline (a similar thing will inevitably occur when Ozzy Osbourne, famous as much for his drug-induced dementia and the concomitant inability to cope with everyday life as for helping invent heavy metal, passes on).  While I’m not one of those who are cheering his death as the needful passing of a disgusting pedophile (I don’t think he was a pedophile necessarily, just an unfortunate case of Peter Pan Syndrome brought on by an absent and abusive childhood), let’s not kid ourselves: he was a professional weirdo who, at the end of the day, was just giving the public what they wanted.  Like any good entertainer.  It’s just an unfortunate tragedy that Michael Jackson the Myth became inseparable from Michael Jackson the Man.


~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on June 29, 2009.

3 Responses to “On Michael Jackson”

  1. One of the best observations I encountered about the passing of MJ is this: the reason his albums rocketed to the top of the charts after his death is simply because no one owned them any more. It was a sign of his artistic irrelevance. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the relevant link for this sagely observation.

    Why the outpouring? I don’t know It might simply be good timing. In times like these people want to distract themselves.

  2. That there’s a brilliant observation re: album sales. However, I think that anytime a popular artist (regardless of the deservedness of that popularity) dies or otherwise makes the news, the interest will spark sales to some extent.
    That said, I still maintain the outporing of grief, itself an over-evaluation of Jackson’s artistic merits, is based on tacit guilt over the schadenfreude of the last couple decades.

  3. […] See “On Michael Jackson”. […]

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