Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Taking a Second Look

Something else happened this weekend, as you may have heard. Michael Jackson’s death on Thursday afternoon certainly took me by surprise, as I switched frantically between NYT.com, cnn.com, msnbc.com, latimes.com, and (unfortunately) tmz.com for details. Hospitalized? Heart Attack? Coma? Dead? I certainly share the sentiment of Rob Corddry, who said that he wished that, instead of TMZ announcing the death of Michael Jackson, it was Michael Jackson who was announcing the death of TMZ.

Like many people, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Michael Jackson over the last 15 years or so. It’s worth saying once again that he was never convicted of child abuse. I have no idea whether he did the things he was accused of, though I recognize that there is a distinct possibility that he did, especially in light of the erratic behavior he has exhibited even in his very few interactions with the larger world in recent years.

So basically, what I’ve come up with is this. There are three emotions I’ve got in reaction to the news of Michael Jackson’s death. (1) Sympathy, certainly, for the boys he was accused of molesting, because I’m willing to admit that there’s a distinct possibility Michael Jackson actually molested them. (2) Sympathy for Michael Jackson who lived a rough life, who was himself abused and scarred by his father and the constant pressure of touring and performing during his childhood and who, it seems pretty clear, was mentally ill. Frankly, his case has made me more and more surprised when people who were child stars or had overbearing parents (like Stevie Wonder or Tiger Woods) AREN’T royally messed up adults. (3) Finally, I’ve joined a lot of people in spending the last few days re-listening to his music, watching his videos on youtube, and marveling at his incredible talent.

I was born 2 months after Thriller was released, and while I maybe have some subconscious flickers of seeing the videos for Bad on MTV (courtesy of my older sisters, who are also responsible for my passing acquaintance with New Kids on The Block videos from this era), I definitely remember Dangerous. I remember watching the face-morphing “Black or White” video on television, I remember hearing those songs on Y94, the pop music station of my hometown Fargo, ND. In high school and college, when my music collection expanded (and file sharing networks proliferated), I worked my way back through his catalog, grooving to tracks like “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night,” “Rock With You,” “I’ll Be There,” “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,”—not mention basically the entire Thriller record, with the exception of the unfortunate Paul McCartney duet, “The Girl is Mine." (I wonder, whose bad taste is responsible for this tune?)

Rather than gush on about how much I like the tunes I’ve just listed above (or about how AWESOME both the song and the video for “Remember the Time” are), I’ll finish with one insight that I have on Michael. The email listserv for the American Musicological Society is having something of a mini-debate about whether Michael Jackson is musically important, whether his music is any good or not--and hence worthy of discussion (or not). This seems like a silly debate. I don’t believe in the tyranny of sales or statistics, because these things are not necessarily the signs of an intense engagement. People buy things for all sorts of reasons. But if an artist is able to inspire as much interest, engagement, and devotion around the world as Michael Jackson has in the last few days and throughout his career, it seems pretty foolish for us as scholars to argue whether his music is important or not. Clearly the music is important to people. If we can't recognize even this, we are really lost as a discipline.

What I will say is that people seem to engage with Michael Jackson in a different way, a way in which videos aren’t the souvenir of the song on the radio or the CD (or cassette or record). The other way around, I think, at least starting with the “Thriller” video. And this is one of the things that may be troubling people who are looking at Jackson’s strictly musical legacy (as some musicologists seem to be). Jackson was such an impressive dancer, his performances at awards shows or television specials were so stunning, and his videos were so elaborate that I think many of his fans treat these performances as the primary text of his career. They may buy the recordings or listen to the songs on the radio, but I think that the videos are not a “supplement” to the “purer” experience of listening to the music in isolation. Personally, I am a lot less interested in studying Michael Jackson as a pure musical artist whose work must be studied sonically only and then compared with recognized geniuses to see if it measures up (even though my personal belief is that the music, at least a good portion of it, absolutely does). Let's try to get out of the business of deciding whether things are worthy of our scholarly efforts based on our personal aesthetic preferences. I think Michael Jackson's music was great, but what I’m far more interested in is Michael Jackson as an incredibly influential social phenomenon, a performer whose songs, videos, and live performances have a tremendous amount of meaning for people around the globe. That’s what I want to hear and read more of.

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