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.

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