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June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson REDUX

As a former rock critic for the NY Times, I covered the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons and Michael Jackson, so part of me felt that I should weigh in with SOMETHING about his death on my blog, Rockwell Matters. But I didn't. I was excited by his greatest LP's and videos and singing and dancing as much as the next person. At his greatest he was great, maybe the last great pop personality to come close to uniting the culture, around the world.

Even at his peak, though, there was a patina of show-biz artificiality about him and his persona. Call us naive, but those raised on 60's rock clung to the notion of "sincerity" in our pop voices, and there was no way, ever, of telling whether Michael Jackson was sincere. The distinction had something to do with white folk-rock morphing into rock & roll vs. the black show-biz revue tradition, but Jackson pushed artificiality to its outer limits. He was a carefully self-constructed artifact, a brilliant artifact at his best. Maybe the whole notion of sincerity and naturalness that infused so much 60's pop culture and art was an anomaly. Maybe constructing an artifact is the one true art. But Jackson never moved me, and the descent of his career and life into weirdness was painful.

So I wrote nothing. But now, for this ARTicles blog, which is about the relation of journalism to the arts, a brief word on the media overkill surrounding Jackson's death. On television, on the radio, in the tabloids, it was impossible to escape it. People say the ayatollahs and Mark Sanford were lucky to have been knocked out of the news by Jackson overkill. But we here in America (and the Western world) aren't so lucky.

The whole orgy of crocodile tears was and is sick and exploitive, and the nerve of the tabloids (mine are the NY Post and the NY Daily News) to attack the Jackson family for being mercenary (which I'm sure they are) one day after running maudlin special Jackson Sunday supplements, all to capitalize on the same death the family is trying to cash in on, is disgusting. Not since the death and canonization of Elvis have so many tried to make so much money with so much cynicism.

We live in a strange, tacky, cheezy world, a world in which popular culture is equated with greed with no one batting an eye. A long way from the idealism of the 60's. If that, too, was ever real.

June 29, 2009 1:44 PM | | Comments (4)


The last straw for me was the imdb news feed gracing us with 92-year-old Kirk Douglas's less than lucid reflections on how this reminds him of when his son died.

I sure picked the right week to read Ernest Lehman's Hollywood stories. There's no place like home...

I find it fascinating how so many news outlets are so willing to canonize MG, they have adopted the urban legend that MTV did not play video's by black artists until Michael Jackson "broke the color barrier". He had to fight to get his own music played, so of course he broke a barrier in that respect. But he wasn't the first black artist to be in MTV's musical rotation. As emphisized by Wikipedia, Eddy Grant, Tina Turner and Donna Summer were played on MTV. So, he's hardly the Jackie Robinson of his profession, but if you went by the media and its misinformation, you'd hardly know it.

Three points:

1. I don't understand this sincerity thing. It feels almost like complaining about drum machines. Jackson merged sincerity and artifice with utter disregard for the sanctity of either. (In fact, he did the same for human and mechanical rhythms.) Good for him, because sincerity has no place as the ultimate measure of popular culture. (The next thing you'll be telling me is that Jack Kirby isn't a great artist, because, well, he isn't whatever a "sincere" painter is.) But I fail to see how you could listen to "Billie Jean" or "Remember the Time" and think the singer isn't sincere; he's desperate, he's soulful, he's utterly committed to and utterly lost in the music. The circus that surrounded his music you can call insincere nonsense. (Though it's more. I could spend a day or two just dwelling on his clothes. In fact, I already have.) But the music. No. That wasn't nonsense.

2. The media overkill is revolting. And so is the Jackson family. But there is a difference between the tabs publishing memorial editions to satisfy the insatiable hunger of their readers and Joe Jackson hogging mic time to plug a new a record label. One is at least connected to mourning. The other is pure, vile self-promotion, and a final chance for an abusive father to beat down his son before the body disappears once and for all.

3. Many people have mentioned the idea of Jackson as “the last great pop personality to come close to uniting the culture,” a replay of the Lester Bangs obit for Elvis Presley where Bangs writes he won’t say goodbye to Elvis, he’ll say goodbye to you and me, because Elvis was the last great pop personality to come close to uniting the culture. But then came Michael Jackson. And Cobain. And Tupac. Right, right — nobody since them. But honestly, isn’t this what pop music itself does? Isn’t this what Rihanna’s “Umbrella” did, and what Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” is doing right now? Right, right — they don’t matter as personalities (though Rihanna totally does). But who cares? Great pop is trivial and awesome at the same time. That’s how it works, that’s why it works.

Just saying.

In other news, President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedyev and agreed to a gradual reduction in nuclear arms. No word on whether the two leaders discussed the death of Michael Jackson.

As the standoff in Iran continues, President Ahmadinijad called a halt to demonstrations as the nation awaits Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's statements on Michael Jackson.

In northwest China, riots broke out between the Uighurs and the police. Jermiane Jackson had no comment.

Now that the memorial is finally over, will we get some real news on the TV, or has CNN gone All Michael Jackson News, All the Time for eternity?

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