Wednesday, July 8, 2009

EBDS Special Post #3: Last Thoughts on Michael Jackson

Author's note: For the purposes of this mini-essay, let's take it as read that the author has a)listened to his fair share of Michael Jackson, just like everyone else, and b)has any number of MJ-related life anecdotes he could share if pressed upon. Those types of articles have been done. This, I hope, is something a little different.

I, like many of you, have read more than his fair share of tributes to Michael Jackson in the two weeks since his untimely passing, and I don't think it's an overstatement to say that you can sort of see the music - his reason for his all-encompassing fame, let us not forget - being shunted aside by discussions both of that head-spinning global fame and the subsequent descent into tragic human cartoon leading up to his death. That's not to say that there haven't been celebrations of his music; we are talking, after all, about a musician who boasts a catalog of chart-topping hits and utterly classic pop songs that place him on the highest echelon of all-time artists. But, in the end, there is really only so much to talk about when it comes to those great songs, whereas any speculation about his sordid private life or the circumstances of his sudden passing generate far more ink with far less effort. There's only so much you can say about how awesome "I Want You Back" is, but when it comes to those molestation accusations, there isn't enough paper in the world - just read all those (admittedly excellent) Vanity Fair articles about him, which could be the foundation for a book all on its own.

In fairness, the flipside of that coin is that there's so much speculation about Jackson's private life because what we know about it (or think we know) is astounding enough to warrant attention. When it comes to writing about his music, though, what is there to say? You can just cue up "I'll Be There" or "Rock With You" and everything that needs to be said is right there in the track, in Jackson's splendid voice (a constant all throughout his career) and in the ebullient production he made sure to surround himself with. The man's discography defies belief - how many bands can boast even ONE #1 single, let alone the slew that Jackson has to his credit? And it isn't the kind of chart-topping success that we'll all be embarrassed of in twenty years, like the inexplicable success of MIMS or something. Not only did Jackson record a staggering array of great songs, but he also has two unimpeachable classics in his repertoire - Off The Wall and Thriller, albums that basically stand as the pinnacle of what pop music can be. And Thriller, in particular, completely redefined what it meant to have a hit album; you could easily argue that Thriller changed the record industry, plain and simple.

And therein lies a huge problem. Much the same way that Jaws and Star Wars changed Hollywood forever by introducing the summer blockbuster (the ramifications of which we're still dealing with today, and not in a good way), Thriller changed the game in terms of how albums were presented to the public, in terms of marketing and consumption, and basically introduced the idea of album as full-blown media event. That the music on the album is top-notch almost seems secondary; let's not forget, though that the music IS top-notch, and all those records didn't move on hype and fancy-schmancy videos alone. Still, the public would forever brand Jackson as the ageless goose laying golden 45-shaped eggs (well, until they branded him as something entirely different), and that would be the image that would pursue and (to some degree) haunt Jackson for the rest of his life.

There's a tragedy, and some irony, to this - Jackson, by virtue of recording the most successful album any person has ever recorded, was trapped by that success, encased much the same way that Han Solo would be encased in carbonite in the second Star Wars movie. Now, I'm not going to suggest that Jackson ever had a plan to branch out in different directions, that he would ever (ahem) record a country album, or that his brand of synthetic R&B/pop/disco/ballads/etc. was ever going to change before Thriller rendered that option moot. What I am saying is that Thriller DID render that option moot, and Jackson knew it. Every album, from there on out, started to resemble what happens when you Xerox a Xerox - it may be close to the original, but it's not the original. Take a look at the tracklisting to The Essential Michael Jackson, which very cleanly splits his career to pre- and post-Thriller, and try to tell me the second disc is in any way superior to the first. Sure, it's got its share of good to great songs, but unless you're a big fan of treacly Messiah-complex ballads, you're better off with the first disc.

And that brings me to where I can only assume you suspected I was going; with our man, the one and only Bob Dylan. Let's think of Bob Dylan at the crossroads in 1966, after Blonde on Blonde basically coalesced what we all consider the "Dylan sound" and his career had been derailed by the locked-up brakes of a Triumph motorcycle. At this point in history the music industry hadn't become the major-label beast of Jackson's career and the media hadn't become quite as pervasive as it would in the 1980s (to say nothing of today), so Dylan could basically go away and take a year off in peace. He wasn't beholden to a litany of commercials, music videos, tour appearances, and any number of public forays. And, most importantly, he didn't have a slavering public demanding more Billboard smashes (well, he did, but surely not to the same degree as Jackson did) and a blind rehash of BOB. It was this environment that allowed Bob to stretch out mentally and reconsider his current path, to have a couple doobs and roll some tape with The Band, and to shift his career in a new and completely unexpected direction. In other words, Dylan had an environment ripe for creative growth and change, one Jackson would never get the chance to experience, and he leapt at that chance.

Pop music, at the risk of being painfully obvious, is a completely different animal from what Dylan was cranking out in those halcyon days. We're not talking about much in the way of spreading your wings creatively - so much more comes in the craft of the music and the production than in the lyrics (Dylan's everlasting forte). I mean, have a look at some of Jackson's lyrics - he wrote his share of clunkers, that's for sure. Then again, so did Bob. We have hints of the depths that Jackson could plumb on occasion; considering how many of his songs dealt with fame and obsession and darkness, perhaps "hints" is selling things short. And it could have been something truly exceptional to see Jackson really dig deep, maybe with the help of an outside writer, to find some really interesting and thought-provoking things to say about his fame and the way his life was being scrutinized non-stop. Instead, we get "Leave Me Alone", a song so immaculately produced that it really takes the truly strange music video and a perusing of the lyrics to fully comprehend how goddamn dark that song is. Jackson had a whole second career, one where he could have been the foremost commentator on our celebrity culture and on the gasp-inducing pressures of fame, and it slipped right through his fingers. That, to me, is a great shame.

Perhaps it's pointless for me to suggest that the greatest pop artist of this or any other generation should have eschewed doing what he knew how to do just so he might have the "experimental album" tucked away in the recesses of his discography. And it might be unfair to say that just because arguably our greatest musician ever could take a different tack in his music, so could Jackson. This may very well be true. And yet it's hard not to listen to something like "Smooth Criminal" or "You Rock My World" and not wonder if maybe these songs didn't have the same immediacy as, say, "Wanna Be Startin' Something", that the flag had already been planted and there was no real need to just stick another flagpole on land already claimed. Now, those late-career songs have given many people great joy, and I can't possibly argue with that. But he has plenty tunes that gave people joy, recorded years before, and with far more artistic merit. When a man passes away, it's all too easy to wonder what might have been, or how the story could have been different. And we've had plenty of thought given to the side of his life that does the man disservice. I think it's worth thinking differently about the part of him that stands as the reason he entered our consciousness in the first place.

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Rob said...

"career had been derailed by the locked-up brakes of a Triumph motorcycle. " ... You keep referring to this as if it were fact when as even dylan himself has hinted, it is by no means a fact. The rock n roll crash that never was, it was just a cool-sounding cover for a man looking to escape his image and move on to a new chapter. We can allow Dylan to play fast and loose with the truth, just like he did with his BS story about being a homeless hobo, but as Dylan historians we must stick to the facts.

Pete said...

And what if Dylan had died at 50? Clearly the last 18 years have seen Dylan finally escape from (without denying) the heavy weight of his youthful achievement -- could Jackson have done that? Bob went back to his solo folk/blues roots and found a way forward; it might have been wonderful if Michael had hooked up with, say, Booker T for a stripped-down soul album or even a Willie-style update of pre-rock songs. But we'll never know. Anyway, thanks for focusing on the music.