Jul 12, 2009

Off The Wall

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" Jeff Koons

Now that the King of Pop has been laid to rest it's time to come correct about much of the incredible hyperbole regarding his legacy that has emerged since his death. Let me say first off that in spite of my own misgivings about Michael Jackson, I do think both the type of attention and amount of attention directed his way in the aftermath of his passing was indeed justified, though perhaps for reasons you might not suspect.

As news of the new and improved post-bankruptcy General Motors circulates around us, one is reminded that as the industrial in America began to decline in importance, starting in the 70s, it was the production of popular culture that came to stand in as a significant component of American identity. To this end, Michael was in the right place at the right time, in the early 80s, as the full force of this pop cultural might began to reshape our society. Though many people continue to think of popular culture as insignificant compared to "real" news, the amount of money that surrounds the production and dissemination of culture renders such uninformed thinking obsolete. To the extent that Michael was the King of Pop, his departure most certainly deserved the extended memorial celebration that it received due to the immense relevance that culture plays in our society.

That being said, the revisionist history and excessive overdap that has arisen in response to Michael's passing needs to be put in check. While watching the otherwise tasteful memorial service--Magic's unfortunate Kentucky Fried Chicken comment notwithstanding--I sat wondering who exactly Rev. Al was talking about when he said, "Every time he got knocked down, he got back up. Every time you counted him out, he came back in. Michael never stopped. Michael never stopped. Michael never stopped." Mike Tyson, perhaps? Michael Jordan? Mike Jones? He certainly wasn't referring to Michael Jackson.

The Michael Jackson that I remember made it to the top at an especially early age. Only in his early 20s when he reached his apex releasing Thriller and performing at the Motown 25 celebration, Michael seemed to spend the rest of his life falling further and further into the black hole of fame, fortune, narcissism, debauchery, and excess. Since the early 90s, Michael generated more news about his own ever unraveling personal life than he did about his music.

Miles Davis, for instance, made the direct connection from be bop to hip hop in a career spanning five decades. He was playing with the great Charlie Parker in the 1940s. Over the next three decades Miles would be at the forefront of the profound shifts taking place in modern music. Some of his last work in the early 90s was with the hip hop producer Easy Mo Bee. Mo Bee is the producer whose work was quite instrumental on Biggie Smalls' classic debut album Ready to Die. Michael's reign, as a solo performer, by contrast, is limited to a relatively short time span and locked into one genre of music.

Michael's body of work can't begin to touch that of Stevie Wonder. To date, there is perhaps no artist who has ever had the consecutive run of classic albums like the run Stevie had from 1972-76; Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness' First Finale (1975) and his magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life (1976). While Stevie used his lyrical sophistication to write and sing about the day's most pressing topics--life, love, spirituality, blackness, racism, and politics, among other poignant issues--Michael was singing to rats and dropping empty lines like "gonna dance on the floor in the round."

Did Michael ever say anything of substance in his music? If he did, I didn't hear it. When he talked about looking at the man in the mirror, he obviously had not done so himself and if on the off chance that he did take a look, he clearly didn't like what he saw in that mirror.

The problem here is this, people are confusing popularity with substantive musical artistry.

The other segment of Sharpton's comments that served as pure fallacy was all the talk about Michael as a racial pioneer. Though it is true that Michael's videos were initially refused by the fledgling MTV network, once the videos from Thriller were put into rotation, contrary to popular belief, they did not spawn opportunities for a slew of other black videos to be played on the network. The early days of MTV featured Michael, Tina Turner, and Price as pretty much the only black performers whose videos were accorded prominent placement. Michael's music had become so pop that people didn't even think of it as black music anymore, so how could his music in turn open doors for other forms of music that were still deemed "black" by both the record industry and MTV?

It wasn't until Run DMC dropped Walk This Way with Arrowsmith that MTV started giving more attention to black music videos, but this was hip hop, a musical genre that Michael could lay no claim too. While there was scant R & B on MTV in the early days, it was hip hop music that broke down those racial barriers that so many people want to give Michael credit for now. The debut of Yo! MTV Raps in 1988 had more to do with knocking down previously existing boundaries around race and culture than anything Michael did, because hip hop didn't come packaged for mass appeal and mainstream acceptance, though over time the mainstream would indeed come to hip hop.

Michael by this time was looking whiter and whiter, giving credence to the type of racial self hatred which had long dictated that black physical features were inferior. It took Biggie to slay such ignorant thinking when he famously said "heartthrob never/black and ugly as ever/HOWEVER/I stay Coogi down to the socks/rings and watch filled with rocks." Biggie was saying, I could care less what you think about my extreme racial features, I'm gonna do me, regardless! Such a strong statement of racial pride and confidence exposes Michael's counterproductive self-hatred in no uncertain terms.

Coming up in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Michael was of an age when many of the racial barriers in America had already starting falling down anyway. He was a beneficiary of this more so than a pioneer. It was people like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Sidney Poitier, who lead this march through the racial cotton fields of popular culture to the place of mass acceptance that Michael would later be able to exalt in. This journey from the ruins of a segregated society to the ultimate seat of power in the White House that Sharpton mentioned stretches long and wide, and while Michael's success may have a place in this long journey, he did not walk the journey alone, by no means.

One could even argue that Michael's physical transformation from a handsome little black boy to an adult figure who became a racial and gender ambiguity, nullified his potential place on this list of cultural pioneers. The fans who Michael made "comfortable," whom Sharpton spoke about, did not see Michael as a black man, so again it's hard to argue that their comfort with someone who they didn't even regard as black could somehow influence the election of the nation's first black President.

When Sharpton uttered that there wasn't anything "strange" about Michael Jackson, he was, as Mom Dukes might say, telling a "damn lie." Strange is perhaps not even a strong enough word.

One cannot discount Michael's popularity, but all these platitudes about the greatest entertainer ever and all these superlatives about his genius need to stop. Michael was no doubt the most popular entertainer ever, he made people want to dance, he produced pure spectacle at the highest level, but to confuse this with artistic excellence and racial uplift is even more misguided than the idiotic words that come out of Sarah Palin's mouth these days.