Friday, June 26, 2009


The death of someone you grew up with is always surprising, and maybe at least a little cautionary. You know the Grim Reaper is eyeing your generation, and that may be cause for anxiety. But when the person who died is a mega celebrity, there’s a certain satisfaction in reflecting that you managed to stay around to see the story end. And I think it’s mainly the ubiquitous figures of our own generation that give us that special relation to their deaths, regardless of whether we were fans or followers or what have you. We were all fellow travelers, in a certain sense, watching the story unfold because it was unfolding in the Big Time in tandem with our own lives and, at times, it was almost impossible to ignore.

For me, Michael Jackson’s death provides an occasion for this kind of reflection, more so than any other performer of his generation, because he was born exactly a year before me and because his fame was so huge, and it helps that his career had such a noticeable three act structure. His childhood era was my childhood era, and he was a star whose voice and jivey movements on variety shows dominated radio and TV c. 1970 -- eleven for me, y’know, the age when most people begin to have some definite ideas about sex and taste in clothes and taste in music and the opposite sex, and all that. Along comes this kid who can out-Smokey Smokey and it registered as ‘late Motown,’ for the simple reason that all the Motown greats I knew of as a kid were quite a bit older. So if someone my own age was suddenly front and center, well, then a new age must be dawning. For me, it didn’t matter much as my tastes were being formulated by folk-rock and British pop and such, but the thing about Michael Jackson, from the start, was that you couldn’t ignore him. But there was also no guarantee that he wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

But the idea that Motown’s great era was over was supported, in my view, by Michael’s plaintive hit “Ben,” which underscored, in its overplayed ubiquity, the reason why, c. 1972, I wasn’t listening to radio much anymore and certainly not AM. Those were largely insipid times, radio-wise, and so the close of the first act is Michael becoming somewhat ‘obscure’ for anyone, like me, who was more concerned with singer-songwriters and rock guitar gods, those staples of FM that now are called ‘classic rock.’ Sure, in the late '70s, when The Bee Gees went disco and had the temerity to enact Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Michael hoofed about as The Scarecrow in The Wiz, but it didn’t exactly catapult him to film stardom, and anyway it looked like he was hanging on to Diana Ross for lack of any other career moves.

But in the '80s, with the birth of MTV, came a vehicle tailor-made for Michael’s showmanship: no more the silly lip-synching in television studios: the songs of his most vital period could be choreographed and enacted as mini-musicals. And Jackson was in his prime. I guess I was too, but I didn’t notice it. Mid-twenties in the early '80s was not a particularly inspiring time, and so it was all that much easier to look on as a spectator -- as everyone seemed to be doing -- of a pop phenomenon. Every age and race of listener seemed to feel the vitality and talent and artistry of Micheal Jackson’s performances at that time. I never bought a copy of Thriller, and the fact that I know the songs is solely from the fact that they were unavoidable, the way those great Motown songs had been in their day. My daughter, who was born the same year as MTV, once walked around the house with a little plush penguin she had dubbed 'Michael Jackson' and for that brief time, at about age four, she was clearly in step with her age group, attesting to the completely infectious energy and timeliness of a musical artist -- as had occurred when I was five and The Beatles came to America.

So that second act ends with Jackson as 'King of Pop,' a supreme talent who can seemingly do no wrong. And even if it’s impossible to do Thriller more than once, the fact of it remains and the feelings of devotion he inspired then never completely subsided, even though he became more and more idiosyncratic. No one minded too much so long as the work he was producing was of the highest quality, but by the late '90s hardly anyone was making that claim any longer.

And so the third act is the one in which he marries Presley’s daughter, and builds Neverland, and starts to look, first, like a slightly more masculine Diana Ross, and eventually like a slightly human mannequin. In this phase, we arrive at that level of mediaized grasp of all things that seems truly debilitating for any kind of creative venture (except providing the technology by which we snoop and snipe): Kurt Cobain, the Great White Hope of the alternative rock world, kills himself; Bill Clinton gets hounded for his sexual misdoings and nearly loses his presidency. It’s a pretty shallow time, and 'Jacko' becomes one of the more garish and cartoonish exhibits in the freakshow of pop culture (though still a million-seller). It’s a period in which I spend a lot of time shaking my head at what so-called postmodernism hath wrought, and there is much to shake one’s head over in Jacko’s career as he hits middle-age, but it’s also a time when ‘excess’ becomes a word with no meaning because there’s no way to measure how far anyone might go in self-indulgence, nor is it easy to fathom the kind of life that excessive wealth makes possible in the late 20th century.

The third act could end with Michael on trial, when the shenanigans at Neverland -- the kind of place perfect for the moment when adolescent urges begin to make themselves felt where formerly all had been innocence and sweetness, and which would be fine except that Jackson’s urges were, allegedly, that of a fortysomething for preteens -- finally blew his cover, at least for yet another mediaized moment. And maybe, if so, it shows how humbling is the law of the land when a family of nobodies can bring to a lowly courtroom in Santa Monica the much vaunted 'King of Pop.' But if that were it, then the ‘next act’ would begin with the 50 shows in London and maybe some version of late laurels as a mature performer igniting a new generation with his showmanship (etc) ... or not.

Instead, the Reaper steps in and draws down the curtain. And the end of Michael Jackson seems to me much like the end of Elvis Presley. Elvis died on the day before my 18th birthday, and I’m sure there are teens standing about now, as I did then, simply shrugging at the death of such an ‘iconic’ ‘influential’ ‘history-making’ ‘dynamic’ ‘innovative’ ‘irreplaceable’ figure. Because by the time Elvis died he was simply a middle-aged guy in a white jumpsuit, doing the Vegas act, and about as interesting to a teen as a vacation with the parents. Jackson, at this point, is better known as a freaky-looking guy of dubious tastes ailing financially and possibly physically. And what the death of such a figure marks is a milestone for those who can remember the immediate effect of ‘the early Elvis’ or ‘the Thriller Michael’ -- it’s suddenly clear how long ago all that was and how little it matters now except in the minds of those who were marked by it.

1 comment:

Matt said...

wonderful, incisive post.