Monday 29 June 2009

Some random thoughts on MJ

It’s not just that I’ve found myself unable to join in the apparent mass grief at news of the death of Michael Jackson. It’s also a familiar feeling that, yes, it’s a shame, but like Princess Di and Jade Goody, why is everyone overreacting with such abandon? To try and make sense of this, here are some random thoughts on what I think is going on

ONE: Jackson may have styled himself the ‘King of Pop’ but this is hardly aiming high. It’s like being the king of, I don’t know, biscuits or ice-cream. Pop music isn’t supposed to deep and meaningful – it’s supposed to be throwaway, disposable and fun. That’s the point of it. It’s doesn’t need to have great storytelling or poetry, you just have to be able to dance to it, to have some direct and immediate emotional response to it.

Jackson’s music was particularly disposable: most of the tracks on the Thriller album became singles, three minutes of radio airplay, and worked best with the videos and the man’s greater talent for dance. But take a hard look, for example, at the lyrics for ‘Bad’:

The Word Is Out
You're Doin' Wrong
Gonna Lock You Up
Before Too Long,
Your Lyin' Eyes
Gonna Take You Right
So Listen Up
Don't Make A Fight,
Your Talk Is Cheap
You're Not A Man
You're Throwin' Stones
To Hide Your Hands

You're throwing stones to do what? What does that even mean? Actually, it really doesn’t matter, it’s no more or less meaningful than Blur’s Damon Albarn singing “when I feel heavy metal.” It’s pop music. But to claim that a series of entertaining, joyful songs makes Jackson a ‘music genuis’ is stretching things way too far.

TWO: “But”, as one of my friends on Facebook said, “Michael Jackson provided the soundtrack of my youth.” Personally, I think back on a whole range of different performers and songs that provided the musical background to my teenage years. Nevertheless, I do think this is a powerful reason why so many thirty and forty-somethings in particular have reacted with such mystifying passion at the news of Jackson’s death.

This is an age group, especially the over forties, that in the main has never heard of Bats for Lashes, White Lies, Gaslight Anthem or other ‘young people’s music’. They look back with increasing sadness and longing on their lost youth and have been responsible for the phenomenon that is the ‘Eighties Revival Tour’. If Jackson had died in ten years time, most may have got over the nostalgia and regret of middle age and maybe shown a greater sense of perspective. But right now…

Still, I doubt whether there will be the same fuss if Phil Oakey of the Human League suddenly shuffled off to the great nightclub in the sky, although I bet there will be for Madonna. Which brings me to…

THREE: Jackson’s death has been a gift to the media and explains its role in the furore that has followed, even that of supposedly serious sections like Newsnight, whose coverage was unbelievably excessive.

Jackson’s troubled life, the courtroom dramas, the unstable behaviour and the apparent uncomfortable relationship with his race provides great copy. The US media is gluttonous when it comes to this sort of thing, but in Britain, following week after grinding week of MPs expenses and the media’s inability (owing to reporting restrictions) to do justice to the Iranian elections, journalists suddenly had a story with hours of material that was ideal for print and broadcasting.

Given that Jackson had produced little of musical significance since the early 1990s, his death may have attracted far less coverage, certainly not the endless retrospectives and tributes, had it not been for the prurient interest in his lifestyle.

There are few musicians who can match Jackson for a level of celebrity that is unrelated to their music, the most obvious example being Madonna. Her marriages to Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie, the terrible films, the flirting with Kabbalah and the African adoption scandals, all pretty much eventually guarantee the same excessive treatment, although less so, as we can only hope, if she lives to a ripe old age.

So let’s be honest for a second. Jackson’s death is very sad for his immediate family and friends, but for everyone else, lurid expressions of grief are about as inappropriate as they were for the Princess of Wales.

And neither has Jackson’s passing really caused an explosion within the music world, as one of my friends claimed in an e-mail over the weekend. As explosions go, it’s a mild one, more like a bomb made of jam and feathers.

Friday 26 June 2009

Was Michael Jackson Murdered?

No, probably not. It's just that I have been reading David Aaronovitch's book " Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History" and I wanted to be one of the first to ask the question.

Aaronovitch's book isn't that good, by the way. It's reasonably well-written and the chapter on the conspiracies behind the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is not bad, but in general the book says more about the author than it does about the subject it sets out to tackle. Like much of Aaronovitch's writing, it picks on some fairly easy targets (faked moon landings, 9/11) in order to sneer at anyone who refuses to accept an officially sanctioned version of events, a practice that Aaronovitch refined in his trenchant support for the US and Britain in the approach to the war in Iraq.

Evidence that there was a massive conspiracy to manipulate intelligence in order to engineer a war against Saddam Hussein, which so-called 'muscular liberals' like Aaronovitch once wrote off as the ideas of fantasists, now looks increasingly compelling. We shall see whether the government's shambolic Iraq Inquiry is any more informative than the investigations carried out by Butler or Hutton. But because Aaronovitch appraoches history not as a way of understanding the past but as a way of reinforcing his prejudices, and also because he actually isn't that well read, he is prepared to lump together those who believe that Elvis is alive with those who ask serious questions, for example, about the complexities behind the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Governments do conspire in secret. Sometimes, like the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, we find out. Often hundreds of people keep a secret safe for years - it was not until 1972 that the secret that British intelligence broke the German Enigma machines during the Second World War was finally revealed. To imply therefore that every inquiring mind is a 'conspiracy nut' is unfair and sloppy, but it is, I'm afraid, 'classic' Aaronovitch. I would recommend the amusing "How to write a David Aaronovitch column" for a breakdown of the technique.

NB: my letter to the Times attacking Aaronovitch's description of Jean Charles de Menezes as the "53rd victim of 7/7" can be found here.

Monday 22 June 2009

Video of FITWatch arrests at Kingsnorth

Police footage of Emily Apple and Val Swain being arrested by surveillance officers after asking for their badge numbers at the Kingsnorth climate camp last year.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Rethinking Afghanistan - Civilian Casualties

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Nottingham Police shoot man with Taser

The mobile phone video taken by a bystander and passed to local radio station Trent FM

Thursday 4 June 2009

Boris Takes a Dive

This makes me laugh and laugh, every time I watch it:

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