Thursday, July 09, 2009

Michael Jackson

I've been reading all the Michael Jackson coverage and it's fascinating, particularly in the apparent need to police his artistry - to locate a true innocent Jackson that is the great artist who then descends into a superstardom of grotesquerie and criminality.

It is interesting to me how the condemnations are so similar to condemnations used in the poetry world: shallow, grotesque, surreal, childish and most of all, excessive.

Also: I saw this spread with his clothes and stuff and it was so reminiscent of the displays of Joseph Beuys pieces that you can see at the Walker, or their room devoted to Matthew Barney relics. Life as performance.

Also: Perhaps the saddest part of the whole thing was when his parents got to his kids and finally unmasked them. Michael seems to have spent his life turning his own face into a mask and then to constantly cover up the faces of his children, but as soon as he died there go mom and pop and uncover the faces.

Clearly there's something really interesting going on with faces, fame and the grotesque. I just don't know enough about this subject matter to make an interesting observation.

I never liked Michael Jackson as a music composer or singer. During the "thriller" era of the early 1980s my Swedish friends an I were listening to Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Kraftwerk and such. (We were pretty uncool in retrospect. Though we thought we were very cool.)

However, I watched a documentary made a few years ago by a British guy who followed Michael around Never Land and it was really fascinating. I especially liked when the guy got Michael to bust out and do some dance moves and the moves just blew me away.


Blogger rodney k said...

Hi Johannes,

Part of what's on display with the Michael Jackson outpouring, I think, is how the grotesque, excessive, surreal, etc. become something more than interesting ideas when they're rooted in pain. The whole Michael Jackson persona (who knows about the person?) seemed to depend on a "therapeutic" narrative about pain--he was pretty explicit about his motives for some of his more outrageous behavior (wanting to stay a kid forever to make up for a brutal childhood, for example. Less forthcoming about race, though that was always part of the backdrop.)

Because the pain's so up front in the MJ narrative, it tends to drag us as observers into the morality tale; you're sort of complicit in the tragedy by simply looking at it. I feel icky for being interested in parts of the story (the display of clothes you mention, the exaggeration of conventional feelings around "family values" and childhood that amounts to a sort of giant rejection of them, etc.). Whereas in poetry, I'm more apt to read displays of the grotesque or exaggerated as gestures of empowerment, asking for laughs, not tears. Or at least assuming enough distance from the tears that it's safe to laugh. With MJ, as far as I can tell, no one's laughing. How come?

9:50 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

On your aside on coolness -- isn't there some unspoken Hegelian law of cool, that the uncoolest thing to do in a time is always, in retrospect, the only cool thing there was to do?

That said, I've never heard anyone describe Yaz(oo) as uncool -- they, like Deee-Lite, are beyond cool and uncool. D-Mode, on the other hand, were always incredibly dorky, so you may have a point there.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

i liked that documentary too... saw parts of it the other night.. (by Martin Bashir i think...)... I particularly liked the discussion of the nickname "Blanket" and then the part when Bashir goes with Jackson to the Vegas mall antique store where he's reserved millions of dollars worth of "stuff."

"Is this Apollo being bathed??"

MJ: a trainwreck that's hard to stop watching....

but don't mention the negatives. o, no. let's just talk about the positives. (not directed at you, Johannes).

11:15 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

It's customary to accentuate the positives about a person after he's just died.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

i hear ya, Matt. but some customs suck.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...


I think you have an interesting point, in that culturally we did a complete 180 w/ MJ at his death. Of course, as Matt points out it is normal to promote someone’s positive traits when they die, but I do think that this is more than that. I would even venture that people were relieved in a way when MJ died, and in this excessive, over the top way that cements his legend and buries the questionable living being (pedophile) while resurrecting the legend. Now we can celebrate him without feeling like it implicates us in condoning his actions…I think all of this goes back to the public spectacle of his trial.

It also seems to me that with MJ (as with Marilyn Monroe or Elvis) it will never be as easy as lauding the positives while also recognizing the negatives. That’s the nature of the beast of Celebrity. We can’t get to MJ behind all the masks, nor, I would argue, should we attempt to. The negatives and positives are constructed by the media machine, and like all celebrities, MJ operates as a receptacle of our cultural desires and fears (none of which anyone is willing to own up to, instead now blaming the media for demonizing the poor “innocent” during his life as if the media operated apart from us).

That is why MJ’s more popular dead. Now we can all construct our own personal MJ myths to masturbate to. There’s no longer a living person there to muck it up.

He was a complicated person, no doubt. And drawn in every way toward excess. Impossible to sort out the good and the bad for the reasons outlined above, and that we can’t do that with anyone, ever—how can we ever sort out even a “simple” life lived out of the spotlight? And how can we ever know what really happened behind closed doors?


P.S. Also, Rodney, I like what you say about MJ’s pain—I think we connect with it so deeply b/c it is our own pain, our own lost childhood that we see/project in the young MJ…

6:01 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Rodney --

I think it was never as simple as all that with MJ's music. Many of his big hits were pained, emotional expressions that incited dancing and joy from his audience ("Billie Jean" being the best example).

Of course, people were laughing for many years as well ... at MJ's expense. I think part of the reason why they're not laughing now is because, in their moment of hubris, they'd never thought of MJ as a person who could die. And now that he's dead, all the cheap jokes that were rarely ever funny in the first place seem especially crass and low. And of course, his death makes us feel different now about the pained, emotional aspects of the big hits that made us dance before.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Kate -

I don't think it's really a 180, though. I think there's always been a place for praising Jackson's legend (awards ceremonies, serious discussion about pop culture/history) and denigrating his "grotesquery" (late night shows, comedy routines, social conservative punditry). It was fairly common to see people revere MJ, in public interviews etc, in the same way that people revere The Beatles. That was the really strange thing about the perception of MJ while he was alive, that depending on the context, we had complete license to hail him as the greatest pop legend, or to crack jokes about or hate on his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

In death, the adulation for MJ has just reached a fever pitch, and there has been an overwhelming contextual flux that would make even late show jabs seem crass and vulgar.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

Henry Miller:

"but with a guy like that you can't afford to be honest; you have to buy a wreath and go to the funeral and pretend that you're miserable."

11:24 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also,as far as Rodney's comments, I don't know of any instance of "grotesque" being empowering, though it is often humerous. Also often very painful - see Artaud's late poems for an extreme version of this scenario.

I think also that the most interesting part about the sadness expressed for Jackson is almost always reserved for the precarious child he was, not the androgenous creature he became. See for example the cover of I think it is Time Magazine, which just shows his 10-year-old face, as if there was something tragic about his childhood. Here the tragedy is not the death only but also that such a sweet child became such a grotesque figure. This dynamic is then replayed/reconfigured for his children (the news kept showingthatone child who cried at the memorial concert etc).


11:56 AM  
Blogger Kristen Iskandrian said...

johannes, i like this post, and the discussion it's generating.

6:39 PM  

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