When Thriller was in its extended hegemonic moment, I liked Michael Jackson as much as the next 12-to-14 year-old kid. I liked the music, wanted to see the videos ("Friday Night Videos", right? we never had cable. . .), enjoyed watching the dancing. I was never into him, but I wasn't into anything at that age other than baseball. And I wasn't yet buying anything of my own. When I was 16 and started buying music and cultivating my own tastes, I'd positioned myself as officially against actually popular music, which obviously meant no Michael Jackson for me--or, for that matter, Prince or Madonna. (And, of course, as noted here on numerous occasions, at the time of this shift I was engaging in necrophiliac music consumption of my own by listening almost exclusively to classic rock.) By the time Bad came out, I couldn't grasp that Jackson was still being taken seriously, even if secretly I liked some of the songs. (Indeed, I remember watching the Grammys, when he performed "Man in the Mirror", and thinking I sensed and saw an audience that wasn't with him at all. Silly me. It wasn't the first or last time I'd be so out of touch.)
In those days I had rather confused ideas about authenticity and selling out. I've blogged about this stuff previously and have no desire to rehearse it here. But that I was able to persuade myself that, for example, the insanely popular Led Zeppelin was somehow not commercial is some kind of neat psychological trick--when it was their very popularity that helped confirm their acceptability to my confused adolescent mind. Of course, they played their own instruments, they rocked, they didn't release singles, didn't license their songs, broke up when Bonham died, and so on--various factors which became for me components of a baseline norm of what music and musicians should be like. Insert here a paragraph or two about the whole indie angst about selling out that I bought into wholesale when that music caught my attention. And another one about self-consciousness about dancing, about cool, about looking foolish. The point is that the kind of spectacle represented by Michael Jackson, especially as he seemed to be continually trying to repeat the unrepeatable success of Thriller, was completely anathema to my tastes, my perspective, my comfort, my sense of propriety, the list goes on.
As a result of all of this, I have never owned a Michael Jackson record. Like many, we rectified this oversight yesterday by downloading all of Off the Wall and about half of Thriller itself. So I find myself listening to songs I've known forever for really the first time, in my own time, paying attention to stuff I've taken for granted. And the main thing I'm struck by is the evident rage and pain in Michael's vocals. I think I'd taken subliminal notice of this before, but it hits me right away every time now, especially in the utterly magnificent "Billie Jean". (About which, perhaps you've already seen k-punk's great post on this song. If not, and you care, go read it.) I think we've long known that this had to be one seriously lonely and tortured person, if we even gave him credit for being a person at all, if we didn't think of him merely as some freak. And again I am saddened by what we do to people, saddened by the life lived by this person in particular. I'd like to step back from the impulse to critique the spectacle and take a moment to celebrate the man's gifts and thank him for sharing them.
That's really all I'm going to say of my own. Of all the stuff written on Jackson elsewhere my favorites, along with k-punk's, have been Marcello Carlin's, in which he talks about the pressures faced by those identified early in life as "special", and Steven Shaviro's. In particular, speaking of selling out, I'd like to highlight this from Shaviro's post before I go:
All this [i.e., discussion of certain racially coded remarks from Greil Marcus, quoted by k-punk here] might seem like raking over old coals; but the intersection between mass popularity and questions of race is still a central one for American culture (note: I am including the reception of British musicians like the Beatles in America as itself very much part of American culture). In the most important respects, the Beatles and Michael Jackson were very much alike, in that they both achieved a mass popularity that exceeded all bounds and crossed over many cultural divides. If we toss out (as we should) Marcus’ white mythology, then we might even say that Michael Jackson was the end of something, as much as he was the beginning of something else. Jackson’s celebrity, like that of the Beatles before him, and of Elvis before them, was only possible in an age of “mass culture” that no longer exists. In the time of Fordist mass production and mass marketing, cultural products were also mass marketed. This reached a new level of intensity when television replaced the movies and radio as the dominant mass medium. Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson are all figures of the period between the introduction of broadcast television and the introduction of multi-channeled cable television, home video players, and the Internet. The latter technologies, together with the general shift from standardized mass production to the regime of just-in-time flexible accumulation, with its endless array of customizable options, mean that no single celebrity figure can ever be as culturally dominant as Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson were. Recent debates, among music critics and on music blogs, between “rockists” and “popists” are ultimately sterile, because both sides fail to take sufficient account of our curent culture of niche marketing, “long tails,” customization, and “crowdsourcing,” not to mention that the advertising and commercial strategies initially deployed on a massive scale by figures like the Beatles and Jackson are now increasingly prevalent on the micro-level. They are no longer just imposed from above; rather, they saturate all our media and all our interactions, oozing up as they do from below. It used to be that you could accuse somebody (as Marcus liked to accuse black artists) of being a bourgeois sellout; but today, everyone without exception is a “bourgeois sellout,” because (in the age of “human capital” and self-entrepreneurship) being such is a minimum requirement for mere survival. Today, this is a structural condition of social existence, rather than a matter of personal integrity or choice.