Monday, 29 June 2009

The King is dead?

I come to bury The King not to praise him. Some of the weeping over Jacko's sudden passing is simply the first explosion 80's nostalgia for for people who are old enough to have sat through the orgy of self-referencial mass mourning over Elvis and John Lennon but who haven't before had the chance to indulge in it themselves, and they never could relate to that Cobain guy and that whole grunge thing. I remember resenting that at the time; the pompous "The Golden Age has passed and there isn't any good music anymore, you kids with your punk rock, new wave and metal noise don't know shit about real music" from those snooty boomers. It was years before I could listen to Elvis or The Beatles without sneering, but eventually I got over it and had to admit they really were pretty good after all. This time out I'm pretty sure I can be more detatched about the whole thing, so I think I'm on pretty solid ground when I say; knock it off with all the "greatest musical treasure of all time, a pop Shakespere no less" drivel. I'm not denying his cultural importance, he is the obvious and direct godfather to much of what we take for granted as pop culture products today, the slickly produced pop records with their even more slick videos with their vaguely totalitarian dancersize routines are so all pervasive that we don't even pay attention anymore, they actually have become as omnipotent as tv commercials after all. From Madonna to Mariah, from Nelly to Kelly, from The Spice Girls to Boy Bands, they are all his offspring for better or worse. He did not invent MTV but he might as well have. I can still remember the days B.J. (before Jacko) when videos were low budget slapdash affairs, badly shot, poorly lit, improvised student films like Iggy's "I'm Bored", The Pretenders "Message of Love" or the collected works of Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Banshees, The Fixx or Cabaret Voltaire, God how I miss them. Now no major label band would even dream of putting out a video that cost less than a small townhouse since it would never get seen. That is Jacko's legacy as well.
The stunning success of "Thriller" also is one of the few truly global phenomenons. From the far east to the mid east to africa Jacko is still a genuine superstar, there is simply no denying it. There is also no denying that "Thriller" is still the biggest selling album of all time, and will probably never be overtaken. Unlike previous pop culture icons like Elvis and the Beatles however Jacko's formula for stardom is impossible to really pin down or recreate, even by himself.
Elvis and the Beatles were so clearly head and shoulders above any of the competition both in terms of talent and charisma as well as clearly being in the right time and place that it almost seems like they couln't possibly have failed, and they were able to build on their initial smash hits with a logical progression of follow ups. Jacko was never really able to do this. His initial hit with "Thriller" was such a shock that even now nobody can really figure out quite how it happened, including the King himself, especially him. Writers have wasted whole forrests of paper trying to explain his success in terms of his being a non-threatening black man-child, of being the first truly video star of the MTV age, of having management who knew what to do with what they had and who had the clout to force MTV to play him. All of this is true and it's also true that "Thriller" is in fact an excellent pop album that still holds up well. But it's also true that neither he nor any of his army of handlers could quite figure out what to do next. The sheer momentum of the media juggernaut, along with his own work ethic pretty much guaranteed that the follow ups would do well and they did, although notably less so. But it's also true that most of his post "Thriller" work would become progressively bloated and formulaic until he became a self-charicature even before his actual life became the grotesque circus that stopped even being funny some time ago. Even "Bad", the immidiate follow up to "Thriller", showed signs of egotistical rot and creative laziness. Those vocal exclamations quickly went from being annoying tics to really annoying crutches that could not help but draw attention to themselves. The dance moves became even worse, with all the crotch grabbing becoming laughable. which is never a good sign, and the once gracefull spins and turns looking robotic and spastic, which is even worse. In fact his whole persona quickly changed from the charmingly vulnerable and wholesome to the jaw droppingly pompous even before he started building imperial statues to himself, dressing in those weird Nazi toreador uniforms and pretending he was really "bad" after all. And we won't even dwell on the sleazy pedophile trials that we are now expected to gloss over. I'm not willing to gloss over the grotesque tabloid circus his life became, but I don't want to dwell on it here if only because I want to limit myself on the music, which we are also supposed to forget or not notice has been perfunctory for years.
Elvis is usually given as the perfect example and cautionary tale of pop decadance and decline but his decline was actually more gradual than that. He made a number of classic records before he went into the army and several more after he came out. And at least some of his early movies were reasonably good, driven by his sheer charisima and even a certain amount of light acting talent. It wasn't really until the mid 60's that Elvis got overtaken by the Beatles that he started phoning it in, and another decade until he became a bloated, sequened, giant collared jumpsuit wearing, drug addled buffoon. Jacko melted down much faster and even more grotesquely, both mentaly and physically. And as for his creative output; "Off the wall' and "Thriller" are considered classics, "Bad" is not, and the Jackson reunions and various followups and "best ofs" are the very definition of phoning it in. He even had to get his little sister to drag a couple of half decent songs out of him. It's no coincidence that the endless soundtrack of Jackson tunes that has been blaring out of windows and radios in tribute this week have all been songs off of those two albums and a few older Jackson 5 songs with virtually nothing newer. Let's be honest (which is asking alot from the cult of Micheal); most of his post "Thriller" work has been perfunctory at best and accidentally self parodying at worst for over a decade and he has been a hasbeen, albeit a fabulously famous one, coasting on the worlds biggest laurels while going in an endless plunge downward. There is no conceivable way the series of extended European gigs could have pulled him out of his self inflicted death spiral no matter how fast they sold out.
Like Elvis, Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde, Marlon Brando, Billie Holliday and Brian Jones, Micheal Jackson had ceased to be a serious artist a long time ago and had become a miserably helpless prisoner of his own persona. I remember seeing t-shirts a long time ago with the slogan "Brian Jones died for your sins", I wouldn't go that far of course but that doesn't mean there's not a good point in there somewhere, which most will of course ignore. Still; even during this usual orgy of worshipfull mass grief someone should still jot that down somewhere.

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