Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Michael Jackson With Pictures, Part 1

"I'm different."

[Note: Usually I don't go in for the allusive, blithe zen koan approach to music criticism, as I tend to think it's mostly a way of hiding the author's lack of understanding of his subject on any sort of concrete level behind an array of incomprehensible pseudo-profundities. That said, Michael Jackson is a mystery to me; all I've got are a couple of intimations and sketchy ideas, so all I really can offer are puzzled and necessarily quite solipsistic epigrams (and lots of pictures), or the paragraph-length equivalent thereof.]

I wasn't too affected by the news of Michael Jackson's death, and only dutifully sat through the coverage immediately following the announcement until the start of the decade's least consequential NBA draft. If you had asked me a couple weeks ago where I'd put Michael Jackson, I would've said that he was pop music's Steven Spielberg, a spectacularly successful artist who did a couple of very good, but by no means transcendent things in the late 70s and early 80s (Sugarland Express, Close Encounters, E.T. for Spielberg, Off the Wall and Thriller for MJ) before devolving into a mixture of schlock, disposable exercises in chart-topping (Jurassic Park, most of Bad, Dangerous and everything after), and dull prestige work (the examples for both are obvious). Aside from Armond White and Armond White's groupies, I don't think there's anyone who seriously thinks about movies and will tell you Spielberg's the best director of the past thirty years, box-office receipts notwithstanding, and I figured the same was basically true of Jackson. (Which, by the way, is probably about where the critical mainstream stood the day before he died.) Contrary to some of the more lazy obituaries making the rounds, millions can be wrong. Just look at Rod Stewart, or post-70s Springsteen, or Tupac. And though I was way too unfamiliar with Jackson's discography to be making these sorts of assumptions, the only MJ memorial on tap immediately after his death, BET's parade of MJ horribles ('Earth Song,' 'We Are The World,' 'Stranger in Moscow,' 'Gone Too Soon,' etc.), certainly didn't improve my opinion of the deceased's work.

It was Kobe Bryant, oddly enough, who changed my mind. Once MTV finally got their Jackson tribute on the air, Sway started doing a ridiculous series of celebrity interviews on the impact of the 'Thriller' video on the interviewees' lives. Kobe phones in and, when asked how Michael affected his life, says, sounding more unguarded than I'd heard him in years, that it's a lot deeper than some people might expect. In fact, he says, they had numerous conversations about work ethic over the years. Then he uncorks the following remarkable statement. He was extremely inspirational to me on a personal level, Kobe says, because he, he helped me to understand that it's okay to be different. By which, Kobe immediately qualifies, he merely means being obsessed with one's craft and being consumed with what you do. For reasons not worth going into here, I don't think that Kobe's qualification was necessarily a dishonest one; what he's saying isn't the prosaic observation that Jackson had a great work ethic, it's that Jackson's life was entirely consumed by his music in the same way that Kobe's life is wholly consumed by basketball. (That's why a similar comment wouldn't make any sense out of Jordan's mouth or even Tim Duncan's, and why Kobe couldn't have said the same thing of Jordan.) That said, the two have more in common as far as 'difference' goes than the qualification suggests. Kobe started out as the young, cute, Brandy prom-dating prince of the league, but most people have come to feel that that image was something of a sham, or at least that he was always a mildly Aspergian loner who spent his first years in the league holed up in his hotel room. Then he allegedly raped a girl, did or did not kick Shaq off the team, re-nicknamed himself after a poisonous killer snake, and his dominant play started to take on more sinister overtones. These days, his image has been redeemed, somewhat, by the Shaq-less championship, in the same way that Jackson's image was partly and for some wholly redeemed by his music, but besides the nagging sense that he's somehow less than or more than human and doesn't seem to genuinely care at all for his fellow man and teammate, the new scowl he rolled out in the playoffs, both comical and frightening (much like Michael's face when he turns into the werewolf in 'Thriller'), both threatening and wounded (like 'Give In To Me'), didn't exactly make it easy to root for him.

Of course, Kobe being Kobe, Kobe-bashers claimed the scowl was a rehearsed demonstration of phony passion. It is of course rehearsed, just as those macho moves in the 'Bad' video were practiced in the mirror some and the cleft on Michael's chin didn't just appear one day on his face. But just like the 'Bad' video, Kobe's scowl isn't rehearsed and phony; it's a rehearsed attempt to communicate just what a badass assassin Mamba baller Kobe thinks he is. Kobe doesn't succeed in scaring us anymore than Michael made us believe he was 'bad' (at least not in the ass-kicking sense the song suggests), but both genuinely want to be what they're attempting to portray. (It's not the case, that is, that Kobe lacks passion and is trying to fool us into believing otherwise, or that MJ saw himself as and was okay with being an effeminate androgynous freak and just attempted to play up his non-existent masculinity for record sales.) At the same time though, even if Kobe doesn't strike fear into the heart of Ron Artest with that goofy face, it's what he would do if he could. Which matters.

Vague reflections such as these - if Jackson somehow inspired Kobe to be 'different,' and given how interesting Kobe is, Jackson must have been different in interesting ways that the mainstream "made some great pop records, then became a freak while making ever-blander attempts to maintain his Billboard cachet" view doesn't catch - led me to listen to Jackson some more. Which I did for a bit, until I went off to see London and a beautiful medieval village on the southern coast where Henry James lived the last 20 years of his life. After which I came to the ridiculous and culturally bigoted conclusion that, in a world that contains beautiful medieval villages and Great Novelists (well, at least it used to contain the latter), one really shouldn't bother too much with analyzing the work of trivial pop singers. Arriving back in Philadelphia on the 4th, I made it home in time for the memorial service, which I slept through but caught enough of in highlights to be struck by Brooke Shields's comparison of Jackson to Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. A comparison which I thought was quite a propos for all of 15 minutes, until it struck me that the Little Prince actually was little, hailed from another planet, and didn't persist in thinking of himself as a child and sleeping with children until the age of 50. Nor does he seem like the sort of tyke who might grow up to record 'Billie Jean' and 'In The Closet.'

One of these things is not like the others.

That night, I went to see Psycho on the big screen. I've seen it so many times that it was a little disappointing; I'm not sure that it's a movie that really gets much better when liberated from the confines of television. So I was a tad bored until the ending, when Norman Bates comes down dressed as his mother, and I asked myself where I'd felt that mixture of nervous laughter and visceral disgust Norman makes me feel before. Then it hit me - Norman Bates, in that moment at least, is Michael Jackson.

I utterly lack the critical facility to thresh out the connection between Jackson and the tragic hero of our cinema's greatest, um, thriller, but even in a prosaic beancounting sort of way the similarities are obvious. Norman's a handsome guy in a boyishly disarming fashion, or at least he is when not in a dress and wig. He's also an incredibly fucked up guy who commits a series of psychosexual crimes and can't admit that he's no longer a child and that his mother, whom he killed because he found her sleeping with another man, is dead. He dresses like his mother in a laughable and bizarre getup that fools no one but himself, and still, at the age of thirty, sleeps in a room with his toys and stuffed bunny:

Of course, Michael rearranged his face to look like Diana Ross, his ideal of female beauty and a woman who at various times he publicly described as his best friend, a surrogate mother, and a long-abiding crush. Or as he put it in his autobiography, "my mother, my lover, and my sister all rolled into one." (No, those things aren't meant to be rolled up together.) And though he looked absurd to us, and it's fashionable to airily speculate that he hacked up his face for our racial sins, or that his visage was simply the externalization of his internal agonies, isn't the truth that in the end, he looked exactly the way he wanted?

Looked at in one way, Psycho - and Michael Jackson - are a little too textbook and mechanical. All those complexes, all the deterministic business about the lost childhood, the tight thematic through line you can draw from 'Billie Jean' to 'Dirty Diana' to 'Blood On The Dance Floor' (a song, Wikipedia helpfully clarifies, about "a predatory woman by the name of Susie, who seduces Jackson before plotting to stab him with a knife"). But something in both confounds analysis.

One of the more Psycho moments in Jackson's music is, counterintuitively, his first appearance in the 'We Are the World' video. 'We Are The World' is a joke of the sort I didn't think was still possible in this irony-obsessed day and age until Will.i.am. put out 'Yes We Can.' Everyone in that song not named Michael Jackson, at least for the duration of their 15-second turn at the mic, is a flim-flam artist of appalling proportions. (There are a couple of exceptions; Willie Nelson somehow gets through his minimal bit with his integrity thoroughly intact.) Especially the ones who were flim-flam artists for a living, like Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, and especially 80s Bruce Springsteen. Bruce is so full of shit on this song he's successfully bullshitted himself (fittingly, he looks like he's expurgating an especially difficult blue-collar shit):


Into this self-congratulatory Hollywood liberal festivus of kid-saving masturbation walks Michael. And it's actually quite chilling. As if we're in a horror movie and the slasher's just walked out of the closet, the camera slowly pans up his sequin socks, his pants, his sequin glove glistening in the light, tapping the beat on his hip. When he sings 'we are the world,' it's like a sound out of an 80s synth, or the voice of an alien, something far more advanced than us. And then the camera gets up to his face, and he's coated in makeup, wearing this Diana Ross death mask. And he's slowly, solemnly singing the words, not grossly or soupily performing them, singing them like an extraterrestrial choirboy. Because in his cracked mind, he deeply believes this shit.

But then in a brilliant twist, the camera cuts to the real Diana Ross, the all-too-human Diana Ross, the Diana Ross who no longer looks or sounds anything like Diana Ross. And she makes an evil eye at someone, and though it can't be Michael, who's standing in the opposite direction, it feels as if she's warning off the young aspirant who would be her. And then in an even more brilliant twist, one would like to imagine at Michael's behest, the two are shown together, the actual Diana Ross who no longer looks like the beautiful woman she was, and the man who creepily, hauntingly does. And just at the end of the shot, Michael breaks his pokerface and seemingly looks across the set to Diana for approval.

(Actual thoughts about the man's music coming up.)


Badmon3333 said...

Gotta take exception to the Springsteen bashing. Excellent writer (see 'Nebraska,' 'Darkness on the Edge of Town'). Granted, 'Born in the USA' was a cheeseball '80s record, but most everything up to that point stacks up to almost any other great classic rock album of the time period. I'll even admit that, post-'Born,' he really couldn't lay much claim to the working-class image his songs portrayed (and I'm definitely not into the whole phony-tent-preacher thing he does at his live shows), but he's still easily among the top 25 all-time rock artists.

I am coming around to your way of thinking about MJ, though. I think I may be overlooking the questionable quality of his full body of work and focusing too much on his massive ability to cross over to an audience that so many black musicians at the time could not capture.

tray said...

"I'll even admit that, post-'Born,' he really couldn't lay much claim to the working-class image his songs portrayed (and I'm definitely not into the whole phony-tent-preacher thing he does at his live shows)"

Exactly, and I am mostly thinking Born In The USA and after. Of course, I grew up in a family, oddly enough, where "Bruce was great and then fell off the fucking map" is almost a religious article of faith. And he was definitely great in the days of Thunder Road and Rosalita and such. But after a certain point, not at all sure exactly where that point is, he did become a pretty nauseating fellow. As for my way of thinking on MJ, I mean, definitely still don't see him up there with the Beatles, but he is a great artist. You know, like Elvis, he did record an unfortunate amount of stuff that was either bad or nowhere near his best, and an unfortunately small amount of truly great material; his importance (and Elvis's) is, as you suggest, perhaps more historical and iconic than it is a matter of his having a huge deep catalogue of classics.

Badmon3333 said...

Bruce still has his moments. The 'Live in Dublin' record was very good, as was his late-'90s acoustic record, 'Ghost of Tom Joad.'

I actually think Elvis is a much better comparison. Elvis's entire acting career is a stain on his reputation, it was so horrifyingly stilted and bad. Culturally very important and iconic, but not the greatest artist. I like that.

Trey Stone said...

so i'm just curious as to whether you'd put OTW or Thriller as his best. cuz while i know there seems to be a good amount of people who say OTW's better, for me personally nothing else on it really touches "Don't Stop" and "Rock with You." i know the knock on Thriller is that it's too calculated/focus-grouped, but almost all the songs are great anyway.