Sunday, June 28. 2009
Robert Christgau: It Don't Stop, and Then It Do: I found out that Elvis Presley died one morning when Georgia Christgau called me up, evidently thinking his death was historically important, deserving some form of social acknowledgment. I'm afraid I wasn't very useful company. Presley meant next to nothing to me at the time -- not that I was unfamiliar or unappreciative of his music, but I came to it far enough after the fact that I never saw him as bigger than history. Also because by then I was inclined to cut against the hype, which in Presley's case was inflated to ridiculous proportions by critics like the despised Greil Marcus. Also because by the time Presley died it seemed like he was already dead. Michael Jackson's solo career didn't really take off until after I had transformed from fan to critic, and I never gave him much credit for the shrill and clunky Jackson 5, the last and my least favorite of Motown's big 1960s groups, and never noticed his solo albums until I backed into Off the Wall off the Thriller hype, deeming it the better album, probably a fair judgment given that by then I never played the radio let alone watched music videos, indeed detested both. Jackson's death at age 50 is drawing much the same response as Presley's death at age 42 -- at the moment it seems even more effusive, but that may just be our much greater media savvy. You can draw dozens of easy comparisons: from the King of Rock to the King of Pop; from the white guy who sounded black to the black guy who sounded like race meant nothing; you can tote up the hits, which above all were singles, regardless of how they were packaged; both were amazingly physical performers, and their physicality, their performance, overwhelmed their music. They had similar career arcs, including the ability to bounce back with something better than you'd expect even when they were clearly way past their prime. And you can no doubt draw up a long psych list for each, both being prime examples of how lives can be spoiled with with self-indulgences enabled by too much fame and money.
I could cavil further -- e.g., comparing Presley to Chuck Berry or Jackson to George Clinton -- but both did a few amazing things. Eventually I found some things by Presley that blew me away -- a 1968 live tape released as Tiger Man was ear-opening, and his 1956 RCA debut Elvis Presley eventually delivered all that had been claimed. I'm less sure about Jackson, whose album record is actually pretty thin: four quick Motown albums, which I've only heard filtered through the dreadful Best of Michael Jackson, and five great-to-good Epic albums over 22 years: Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), Bad (1987), Dangerous (1991), and Invincible (2001). The latter is if anything more consistent and more distinctive than the earlier albums -- not as brilliant and weirder in odder ways. Still, I wouldn't have paid much attention to him were it not for Robert Christgau, who not only recommended his records but who literally forced me to watch Jackson perform, giving me the chance not just to view Jackson but to catch his reflection in how other far more sympathetic people saw him. That countered my own instinct which suspected him as a freak way before the evidence piled up to absurd proportions. But he had no sustained impactin my life. I haven't thought of him since I wrote a Recycled Goods review in 2004:
At the time, it seemed like Jackson's music was in danger of being eclipsed by his personal notoriety; now what I wrote seems lukewarm compared to the accolades that have been pouring in. Death separates the body from the work he left behind, which is now free to stand on its own -- and in the rash of flashbacks his music and videos are every bit as explosive now as they were when they were new.
Andrew Sullivan: Thinking About Michael: One of the links from Christgau's blog, this seems about right. I don't, however, find the psychology all that interesting, but I do wonder about -- and I'm certain that we'll never really understand -- how all the money angles worked. Jackson made a lot of money for a lot of people who worked him in lots of ways. I am reminded of something one of my cousins once said: if you won a lottery, how could you ever tell who your friends were? I imagine that few people in America have ever lived through worse versions of that problem.
In his post, Christgau has a paragraph of quotes he gleaned from various critics which makes me feel like my own critical faculties are impaired, and that what I wrote above can simply be filed away under "self-serving blog crap." Pareles' note about Jackson's angular and twitchy dance moves, digital rather than analog, is astute, but those moves map the beats so literally Jackson almost disappears in them -- one way he does stand out is in the flamboyance of his costumes. Sheffield's comment about Jackson playing the underdog is also apt, but it wanders into cliché ("renouncing the privileges of machismo" as if machismo was anything but posture). I'm tempted to go further: Jackson was an underdog because deep down he always felt so pathetic, which produced a tremendous, miraculous release when it all worked.
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