I was on deadline the day Michael died so although I, like many other writers and music lovers, immediately felt compelled to write something—to sort through my tangle of emotions—I had to put it aside and wrap up the piece I was working on (which is still sitting languishing in editing purgatory, mind you). The next morning I pitched a personal reflection piece for MIL but the London editor of the print quarterly Intelligent Life had already written something up. I wrote to my editor:
No disrespect to Mr. de Lisle, but I think he erred by focusing entirely on the entertainer and ignoring the seamier aspects of his Wacko Jacko press persona. The Economist.com articlerectified the situation somewhat, but Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic had the best take on the Jackson’s dark side (although he pissed me off by closing off the comments before I could pipe in): “Sometimes awful people, do beautiful things. One doesn’t cancel the other. And mourning the loss of human life, does not excuse the sins of that life.”
I then went on to pitch “Michael Jackson: The More Intelligent LifePost-Mortem” which would cover the media, arts, commercial and cultural impact of his life, work, and death citing the best reporting and analysis among the flood of coverage his death has produced. I concluded my pitch by saying, “This man was the very definition of music for me when I was a kid so I feel like I need to write something to mark his untimely passing.” And write I did—until I heard back from my editor last night (the rough draft of my abortive pitch is pasted after the jump): “You make a good case. Still, I think the overwhelming coverage doesn’t need more coverage — it becomes too much like media-as-echo-chamber.” She makes a good case as well, but I was disappointed since I am trying to make a career of getting paid for my thoughts and effort.
Oh well. This one was for free. Here are my humble(d) take on the death of the man who’s songs provided the soundtrack to my childhood and the fertile soil in which my love for music first took root.
Michael Jackson: A Cultural Post-Mortem
Since the death of the erstwhile King of Pop [I had the Tim de Lisle link here] was announced on the evening of June 25th, the music world has been overwhelmed by feelings of shock, loss and reminiscence. For his fans, of which there are many, much has been done to address (or indulge) these feelings. Jackson’s death, the first of a towering cultural icon in the new media age, nearly crippled Google, Twitter and Facebook. In the US, it seems that every television station short of C-SPAN has run at least one Jackson special. Newspapers around the world featured Michael Jackson’s many faces and have continued to squeeze every last marginally newsworthy drop out of his tabloid-told life. But beyond the deluge of frantic Tweets, stock footage and easy copy what will Jackson’s life—and untimely death—mean once the news cycle has rolled past him?
As many editorials pointed out in poignant terms, Jackson’s music will always be with us. He introduced new (and unaccredited) elements into pop vernacular and further demolished racial barriers prior African-American artists had been chipping away at for decades. Jackson left behind a vibrant soundtrack, the sounds of which Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield noted were unavoidable this past week “as every car, every bar, every open window seemed to throb with the same beat, as if Jackson had successfully syncopated the whole world to his own breathy, intimate, insistent rhythmic tics.”
Jackson’s tragically shortened life has prompted music lovers young and old to either dust off their favorite albums or purchase them for the first time. At one point in the immediate aftermath of his cardiac arrest, singles from Jackson occupied half of the top ten spots on iTunes’ constantly updating sales list. He will likely finish the week back on top of the Billboard charts, adding millions more to his world wide total of 750 million albums sold, the most by any artist or band. The new music royalties will go towards alleviating the $500 million debt Jackson has left behind. The release of his final rehearsal for Jackson’s much-hyped comeback tour in Europe will add to the pot as could a tribute tour featuring the remaining members of the Jackson 5 and their sister Janet, who is a star in her own right.
The King of Pop’s debt is a direct result of the odd, reclusive life he lived. Much less has been said about this, but it is important. [The rest of the graf would have been built around the Coates quote and this cutting analysis from Richard Kim at The Nation: “Our fascination with Whack-o Jack-o has never been only, or even primarily, with his prodigious skills. It was with the way he personified our culture’s most central ambitions to whiteness, immortality, wealth, real estate and fame. Lodged somewhere between the superhuman and the alien, aspiration and disgust, Jackson was a grotesque reflection of our collective desires.”]
As Independence Day weekend arrives, the television talking heads will go to their beach houses, Middle Americans will take to their backyards and, in the haze of smoke from the grill and too many cold beers, the details of Jackson’s trouble life will become largely obscured. Cutting through the sizzle of charcoal, the strumming of grasshoppers and chatter of firecrackers at millions of barbecues across the country will be the pure pop of Michael Jackson, the enigmantic and deeply flawed creator of some of the most clear and perfect songs in the musical cannon.