Thursday, July 9, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Backward Look

The recent death of pop music idol Michael Jackson sent me back to my files in search of a column I had written during the spring of 1984 when Jackson was about to appear in Boston during his highly touted “Thriller Tour.” I reproduce it below exactly as it was published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

“He’s coming to town!” read the headline on last Saturday’s Boston Herald.

The “He” referred to was not God or Christ for whom the non-specific capitalized personal pronoun is traditionally reserved. It was none other than pop star Michael Jackson. And for the thousands of fans in the Boston area whose sole preoccupation seemed to be whether or not their idol would appear here, there was presumably no need to say any more than was indicated by the cryptic headline.

You either knew what it meant or it didn’t concern you. All else—the heightened tensions in Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, or the president’s vicious proposal to lower the minimum hourly wage on summer jobs for those kids who most need the money and who also constitute Jackson’s largest group of fans—was relegated to the back pages, if it was mentioned at all.

Jackson was front and center. It is a position only fortified by his May appearance in the Rose Garden. There he was given the presidential seal of approval in return for lending his name and face to a long-overdue anti-drug and drinking campaign aimed at teenagers. Indeed, there seems to be little question that the country is in the grip of another craze, one that appears every bit as pervasive as that initiated more than 20 years ago by four young mop-headed working-class boys from Liverpool, England.

The Beatles began first by reproducing American rock n’ roll and recycling it back to us. Their early music was clean and hard-edged and it caught on fast. They soon revealed themselves not simply as imitators but as artists in their own right. In the process, they took most of their fans on that Magical Mystery Tour that lasted through a number of highly creative y ears. They also added to their devotees millions of older people like me, who came originally to scoff at the music our high school students were listening to instead of reading Silas Marner. But instead we stayed, not only to listen ourselves, but to be enthralled by their humor, their ability to grow and their extraordinary political and social consciences.

Years after they disbanded and after the tragic murder of John Lennon, whose creativity seemed only to expand with time, one could still listen to their music and find new things in it. It was also a pleasure to find one’s own children listening to the music we loved rather than laughing at it and us, as we often did with our parents and their generation’s music.

Michael Jackson is an altogether different sort of performer. His music is different, too. It’s far more commercially oriented, lavishly orchestrated, dramatic in its electronically modulated effects. With the advent of MTV Jackson has an entirely new medium for the extension of his music and for reaching vast audiences.

There’s no question about his talent as a singer or dancer. But that talent seems to lend itself to exploitation like a jewel overwhelmed and ultimately engulfed by its setting. When all is said and done, when MTV is off, the record over, or the radio playing another production, there is no resonance. You have to hear the song again, wait again for the segment to appear on MTV, play your record again, or buy the next one.

Jackson’s music depends upon its reproduction, upon the habit it has conditioned in its listeners, not upon its essential impact. A Michael Jackson song or performance does not change its listener. It does not make you see the world or yourself differently, as many Beatles songs did. It does not refer you to something outside of it or yourself. It is entirely reflexive, self-enclosed and self-perpetuating. It leads only to repetition or to another production like itself. It ultimately creates consumers for itself and for the packaged myth of the performer and his carefully orchestrated persona rather than an enlightened audience.

The Beatles were a craze—there is no question about that. They were exploited by the media and the music industry. But they exploited them in turn, using their immense popularity and the money they earned to make music, which the record companies before their time would never have risked producing. They also used their public prominence to espouse important causes and to raise the consciousness of their audience. They put their lives and their talents at the service of more than the music industry or their own personal wealth.

Time and time again, in ways both personal and musical, the Beatles undermined those who set out to exploit and to market them. They transcended the spectacle which they were being forced to participate in and which the larger society had become—that life which is lived at a remove from itself and entirely at the level of image. It is a life which depends not upon what is creative in each one of us but what has been created for mass consumption.

One could not imagine the Beatles being received by Ronald Reagan. Their own Queen acknowledged them only because they increased Britain’s GNP. But then, 20 years ago, one could not have imagined a Reagan presidency. That, like the Michael Jackson phenomenon, can only become possible when the spectacle displaces reality and we are all hooked into MTV and not into each other, our neighborhoods, our towns, our nation or ourselves.

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