Jacko was a product of our Wacko culture
In staying childish and obsessing over his identity, Michael Jackson was actually normal by today’s standards.
It might be better to have nothing to do with it. Instead of trying to compress the whole world into the biography of just one man, so that he is inflated to the level of History and all humanity (even his own) is diminished as a result, perhaps we should simply say: Michael Jackson (1958-2009), superb song-and-dance man who sold 750million records, died on 26 June 2009 when he failed to recover from cardiac arrest.
In many ways that ought to suffice, and it would leave more time and energy to learn about Iran or investigate the reasons for recession. But there are two flaws in this otherwise sensible approach: (1) Hardly anyone else plays by these rules nowadays, so to act according to nineteenth- or early twentieth-century criteria of what matters is like going out in the street with your head in a bucket; (2) Seen from an historical perspective, the current criteria may be weird, but they are also true to their times: in the West we really do live in a world of representation, where making a spectacle of ourselves is considered the greatest achievement. This makes Michael Jackson one of the highest achievers in the Western way of life, and it would be perverse not to comment on the relation between this high flier and the under-achieving society which gave him his wings.
This last point needs to be made more pointedly: Jacko was no more ‘Wacko’ than the world to which his music was so perfectly pitched. We all contributed to both sides of Michael Jackson, the A-side (the song and dance which all the song and dance is about), and the B-side (his child fixation and painful a-sociation). And in the end there is no flipside to the Jackson story, only one loop which tapes him to the society that produced him.
As a budding bass player and impressionable schoolboy, I hated young Michael. While Marvin Gaye had already gone the other way, towards independence, adulthood and sheer cool, the J5 were straight from the Tamla Motown School of Glee: Dr Pangloss in frilly shirts; Epaminondas with an Afro. It may have been the era of moral panics over ‘black muggers’, but this youth’s victims would have been smugged instead.
By the early 1980s little Michael Jackson had grown enormously. Cut loose from his siblings, he got himself a godfather: composer, arranger and producer Quincy Jones. Under Quincy’s direction, Michael found his. This was the golden age, from Off The Wall to Bad: svelte vocals, arrangements which kept listeners on their toes, and rhythm tracks that were funky but not clunky (‘like the hoofbeats of a thousand gazelles’, I once wrote – and some fool published it).
Actually, not a golden period – make it mega-platinum. Nearly 30 years later, Thriller (1982) remains the best-selling record of all time.
What’s not to like? That is the strength of this music, and also its weakness. Like Blair on camera or Torvill and Dean on ice, there’s no friction. It’s not muzak, but even the blandness of muzak might be more unsettling. It is intoxicating – undeniably so; but the Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones kick is the musical equivalent of alcopops.
Of course it takes a great deal of artifice to make millions of record-buyers so relaxed; and consummate craftsmanship is required to produce pop music agile enough to impress the in-crowd without intimidating the new kids on the block (or even their parents). Facile, perhaps? Depends how you define the word, because this music is very easy to be with, but far from easy to produce.
If Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones were indeed the king of pop and his grand vizier, by the 1980s their kingdom must have been locked in a state of arrested development. Here it was decreed that the greatest musical talents should continue to invest themselves in three-minute ditties; sometimes re-mixed to last longer than that chronologically; but formally, as regards the limited form into which their boundless talent was poured, there was to be no advance. It was as if Homer had signed a contract to write only limericks.
Moreover the content of pop songs is generally restricted to two essential modes: I Love You and I Hate Myself. In its limitations it resembles binary code. What should not compute, but unfortunately it does, is our insistence that the world’s greatest musicians should impoverish their own imagination by working in such a confined space.
For the fairytale kingdom of music is not only a world of its own; it is also an expressive extension of the wider world, its moods and its expectations. At a time when progressive politics were seen to have failed (exit ‘the Great Society’ along with Jimmy Carter), and even the Moon seemed further away than it had done in 1969, ‘progressive’ music was going to be impossibly cheesy; anyone of taste would be obliged to avoid it.
As Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher represented a child’s vision of strong political leadership (‘the smack of firm government’), Michael Jackson perfectly embodied a child’s eye view of sophistication. With new leaders and a new firmament of stars, politics and pop would soon converge in an increasingly infantilised culture, though this process could not be completed until the grown-up business of the class struggle had gone bust – and by that time Jacko also seemed to be heading for moral bankruptcy.
Neverland (his ranch) and the allegations of child abuse perpetrated there (subsequently thrown out in a court of law) topped the list of oddities leading to the tabloid creation of ‘Wacko’. In the depths of Jacko’s decline, not even a television special with Martin Bashir could produce the Diana effect. However, in the full-scale rehabilitation which has been taking place only since Jackson’s death was announced on Friday, references to his wacky preoccupation with children have come to be seen as ‘remnants’ or aberrations from the authentic artistry of the deceased.
Yet the cult of the child is neither unique to ‘Wacko’ nor peculiar to the years of his decline. Even at the height of his creative powers the artist known as Michael Jackson was trapped in the bonsai format of the pop song and its (not just his) inability to grow up.
Similarly, if the inability to grow up was also the formative experience of Michael Jackson individually, the personal loss of his childhood cannot wholly account for this. Equally relevant to the arrested development of perhaps the best musical mind of his generation is the theft of our collective adulthood – a crime which has nothing to do with the punishing schedules laid down by Tamla Motown or Michael’s father. Seen in this light, the ‘remnants’ associated with Michael Jackson’s inner life are really a continuation of themes and chords struck elsewhere, in the outside world and its increasingly infantilised culture. ‘Wacko’ may have been unusual in having money and leisure with which to play out these predilections to an absurd degree, but in life as in music, Jacko took his cue from the rejection of adulthood on the part of Western society.
Jackson’s legendary dancing contains similar traits. There is plenty of the Wow! factor, but its immediacy is also its limitation. Though it takes originality and a lifetime of rehearsal to come up with it, anyone can understand it in just one look.
Captured on video, Michael Jackson’s dancing broke the colour coding of MTV (rock = white = monopoly). This is remarkable in itself. On the other hand, MTV was always the natural home for videos such as ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’. Here was a television channel which segued eye-candy (adverts) between eye-candy (pop videos); why would it not be hungry for the better class of candy which Jackson was producing?
These two videos are remarkable for something else (and not just the white socks): Michael Jackson dances in front of other people, but not with them, even when they are all doing the same moves. What else? He’s the solo artist, they are the chorus line. The point is that he is solo, even when he is not soloing. Either the form of the dance and the format of the pop video are so immature that they cannot find the means to represent relations between individuals (never mind individuals and social groups), or perhaps these particular examples were truly representative of a specific moment in social history when centre stage was occupied by a peculiarly atomised version of the individual. I do not know enough about dance to make the call; either way, however, there is something sadly lacking from these artefacts – despite their overt exuberance.
When Jackson’s stock was low, the results of his plastic surgery pushed it even lower. Wow! eventually gave way to Yuk! But it turns out that ‘Wacko’ was far from alone in devoting so much time and energy to manipulating his self-image. The millions who now turn to Facebook might think that plastic surgery is somewhat extreme, but this is only the difference between analogue and digital. While Jackson failed to see that re-imaging is much easier online (perhaps he was too rich to look for it there), in identifying so closely…with his own identity, he was fully in line with the rest of us.
Of course he jumped the other way, like a goalkeeper facing a penalty kick and getting it wrong. While millions of white kids were trying to talk and walk black, Jackson had himself whitened up. Was he so old-fashioned he thought he needed it to get a seat at the Cotton Club? Or perhaps just a little too far ahead of the game? Michael Jackson died less than 12 months after the doors of the White House were opened to a black man with facial features that could pass for Caucasian. The hope of the world rests on the image of President Obama; and that image is not so far removed from the face of ‘Wacko’.
Since his death on Friday, remembering Michael Jackson has been easy: it’s easy to recall song and dance that is so readily likeable; it’s easy to cordon off his ‘remnants’, almost as if he has really been dead since the 1990s. But the other side of Jacko was only an extension of the A-side; and both sides were the fruit of the normal Western world which these strange times have produced.
Andrew Calcutt is editor of Rising East.
Previously on spiked
Andrew Calcutt argued that Michael Jackson’s creeping whiteness coloured perceptions of the popstar long before the child molestation allegations. Josie Appleton criticised the Michael Jackson ‘show trial of 2005. In 2003 Jennie Bristow observed how child abuse allegations have become the preferred form of celebrity bashing. And she was not impressed by the 2003 Martin Bashir interview with Jackson. Or read more at spiked issue: Music.
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