Monthly Archives: June 2009

More MJ

The best Michael Jackson obits I’ve read:

Marcello Carlin (he hears Martin Fry and Trevor Horn in “Beat It”; about Off The Wall: “a pop-up encylopedia containing everything everyone should reasonably or unreasonably need to know about pop and how to walk it and breathe it”).

Rick Juzwiak: “I’d never give the public that much credit if I hadn’t observed countless examples of the unmitigated joy that results en masse when anything from Thriller is played at a party, no matter the attendees, no matter the occasion and still to this day.”

Chris Molanphy dissects the probably-unsurpassable chart facts of Jackson’s career. I reminded friends yesterday that Bad scored an astonishing five Number One singles (most of which I think are meh, but that’s another story).

Rob Sheffield rushes home from a high school dance to watch Michael. I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s touching and emblematic.

Hua Hsu drinks and stumbles his way through an evening of Jackson (“ifferent versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago. Sometimes he had reinvented himself and found his way back toward his fan’s good graces, sometimes he had only grown more illusive and erratic-seeming”).

Bravo, Frank Rich:

No president possesses that magic wand, but Obama’s inaction on gay civil rights is striking. So is his utterly uncharacteristic inarticulateness. The Justice Department brief defending DOMA has spoken louder for this president than any of his own words on the subject. Chrisler noted that he has given major speeches on race, on abortion and to the Muslim world. “People are waiting for that passionate speech from him on equal rights,” she said, “and the time is now.”

As the President and the House crow about a cap and trade bill so diluted that business leaders get to smack their lips over its “sweeteners” (by the way, isn’t there something…weird about the notion of trading “energy credits”?), the White signals its intentions to draft an executive order that would keep some detainees jailed indefinitely.

The next four years will amount to win-some-lose-some with this guy. As I’ve written before, Obama, so clearly interested in presidential greatness, would be a fool not to use the nifty new expanded-executive powers that the Bush White House left him. Thursday’s episode of “The Daily Show” highlights the absurdities.

You are not alone, so leave me alone

The Michael Jackson Phenomenon was such that I could tolerate him on my parents’ turntable and sheer radio ubiquity between 1983 and 1984 (and again in 1987-1988) without being much of a fan. He was something pleasant you didn’t think much about, like making a Christmas list. During school Halloween costume contests in those years, teachers handed out vinyl copies of Off The Wall and Thriller as prizes. By the time Captain EO premiered in fall ’86, he was a joke — we all knew about the Grammy menage a trois with Bo Derek and Webster, Bubbles the Python, the sudden lightening of his pigment. The movie was a sensation, and a laughing stock; the audience snickered through MJ’s strutting and snarling (which presaged the “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” videos by a year). No longer was his preening tolerable. Maybe it never was, and we believed the fiction for too many years. Like the Beatles in India, who wore bad clothes, stuck daisies in their hair, and endured an intolerable bore and fraud like the Maharishi, his peccadilloes made him the best kind of superstar: he acted like an errant cousin whom you love anyway.

Michael Jackson taught me how to listen to music: the indivisibility of rhythm and vocals, the sublimation of horrible childhood memories and grotesque fantasies into disco. He was also my first exposure to the phenomenon of loving a performer who went through periods of being very uncool and eventually batshit and possibly a pedophile. No more serendipitous event in modern pop music exists than the moment when a Seattle band released an album called Nevermind knocked Dangerous off the top of the Billboard album chart in early ’92. I know it’s an obvious paradigmatic moment beloved by Anthony De Curtis types, but it’s true: in my senior year of high school, the mass popularity of Nirvana confirmed what we’d suspected since Bad. It didn’t matter that he was releasing singles like “Jam” and “In The Closet,” which subsume the hard-diamond beats of New Jack Swing to Jackson’s weird, one-of-a-kind rhythmic savvy and melodic finesse into the slammingest music of his career; his moment had passed, although he would continue to find chart success, like Clint Eastwood movies, as a freak show good for a laugh, with the added benefit of an MTV world premiere.

As the pundits pundit and the obit writers exploit the King of Pop and Jacko nomenclature, they’re going to overlook what an amazing songwriter and producer Jackson became. With a tip of the hat and a deep bow to Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Rod Temperton, and other collaborators, it’s quite obvious that even a facile acquaintance with Jackson’s songs proves that no one else could have sung or written them. I don’t know whether he played any instruments, but listening to the demos included on the Thriller re-release a few years ago, especially “Billie Jean,” I was struck by how closely his melodies hewed to his sense of rhythm; it’s like he wrote songs to his dancing, sung them to the syncopation of his feet (his inimitable hiccups and quick draws of breath almost scanned like verses). Better writers have studied Thriller, which is why I’m focusing on Dangerous. Jackson always performed as if he had something to prove; maybe he imagined his father, the horrible svengali Joe Jackson, watching him from the audience. But Dangerous sounds like the work of a man (yes) who felt the walls tumbling down. Unlike Prince during this period, his music evinces no insecurities about hip-hop or a shift in popular taste. He’s challenged, not threatened. Something nibbles away at him, though — he expands the paranoia in “Billie Jean” and “Leave Me Alone” to their exponential limits in “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” “In The Closet” (with its creepy, knowing chorus), and “Jam.” It’s perfect sense that the apologia/credo “Black or White” (which has aged better than you remember) features Slash playing power chords and pistonbeats that Bell Biv Devoe would sell their misogyny for; instead of an “Ebony and Ivory”-esque plaint for brotherhood, he’s selling racial transcendence to his mass audience as if he thought the limpid grace of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” demanded an answer commensurate with the times and the awful will of an artist who changed his face and color for — what exactly?

The beats only got sparer and stranger as the line between the pop star attempt’s to embrace his mass audience for self-actualization and moneyed isolation vanished like his blackness: in Jackson’s soul “You Are Not Alone” fought “Leave Me Alone” for control. “They Don’t Really Care About Us” has a go-on-I-dare-you taunting quality that reminds me a little of the “reverse racism” self-pity in which certain segments of talk radio still traffic. And Blood on the Dance Floor‘s “Morphine” — well, this is the pop/R&B world equivalent of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.” I wish Eric Weisbard’s original SPIN review was posted somewhere; it nails the lunacy of a track whose splintered, staccato drum programs cut into the filthiest, most confessional lyrics of Jackson’s career, with singing to match. There’s even a bizarre, virtually a cappella section in which the singer moans about his lover getting hooked on Demerol. His audience never abandoned him; he just assumed, with a megalomaniac’s hubris, that they’d accept his music’s weirdness on his terms. When they didn’t, he resorted to videos with faded pop culture icons like Marlon Brando for support. I never bought Invincible, but the craft of “Butterflies” suggested that a comeback was his for the asking if he didn’t try so damn hard.

So, rest in peace, Michael. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but for a life as tormented as yours, death is peace enough.

As if the Academy of Motion Picture Farts and Biases needed another reason to promote a longer show: it expands the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Academy President Sid Ganis cites 1939 as the annus mirabilis; yet, glancing at the list, Dark Victory, All This, and Heaven Too, Our Town, and Kitty Foyle are trash that would still get “green-lit” (and nominated) today. Ratings motivated the decision.

I’ve said it many times: the Richard Nixon White House tapes are the gift that keeps on giving. Charlie Savage’s story offers more goodies:

“There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,” he told an aide, before adding: “Or a rape.”

This exchange between the President and Republican National Committee Chairman George Herbert Walker Bush belongs in a novel:

“I noticed a couple of very attractive women, both of them Republicans, in the legislature,” Nixon tells Bush. “I want you to be sure to emphasize to our people, God, let’s look for some… Understand, I don’t do it because I’m for women, but I’m doing it because I think maybe a woman might win someplace where a man might not… So have you got that in mind?”

“I’ll certainly keep it in mind,” Bush replies.

“Boy, they were good lookin’ and bright,” Nixon continues. And he had been informed, further, that “they’re two of the best members of the House.”

“Well, that’s terrific,” Bush says

I consider, for the hundredth time, the humiliations that Poppy Bush endured for the sake of careerism.