Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fame/Post-Avant/Michael Jackson

There was a not terribly interesting article in the NY Times today arguing that Michael Jackson's incredible fame would not be possible in today's pop music world because there are so many different "channels" for getting one's music and there is no central MTV which everyone watches (or Sullivan Show for the Beatles).

This reminds me of the "greatness" discussions that went around a few months ago, starting with Gregory Orr's [is that who it was?] article (also in the NY Times I believe) mourning that there was no longer any Great Poetry as in the days of Lowell.

The obvious similarity which the Jackson article understood but Orr apparently did not was the change in the interface of Greatness. Lowell was great in large part because the Academic Poetry Establishment decided that he was to be the great poet of the moment. A lot of folks in poetry still wish this was the case and they try their darndest to make it happen (such as with the Dickman brothers), but the whole process of dissemination has obviously changed, become more fractured.

In a comment to a previous post of mine, Max harrangued me for suggesting that poetry will not exit the academy. And I think it's true that poetry has had ties to some version of the academy (an idea that has of course changed substantially along with our idea of the role of poetry in that academy) and will continue to have those ties. And I don't think it's inherently bad. But I do think it's important to keep criticizing the dynamics of the institution.

But it's also true that a lot of poetry happens outside of the academy and always has. Many of the reoccuring commentators on this blog do not teach in the academy - I don't think Andrew Lundwall, Blake Butler or Ron Klassnik have teaching gigs - . There are many channels of poetry and writing these days on the Net and elsewhere, it's impossible to get everyone to gather around a Lowell-like figure (they failed too back in the day - see San Francisco).

Folks in grad school now seem to have access to a less hierarchical view of poetry, and have more access to poetry as it's happening, than I did when I went to grad school. So this has changed the nature of poetry in the academy substantially and will continue to do so.


There was another article about MJ yeterday that I disagreed with; it made the argument that Michael Jackson became less of a good dancer starting with Thriller and moonwalking because he lost his naturalness and spontaneity. Michael Jackson natural? I thought that the whole appeal of MJ's dancing was how freakish he was.


One more thing: I get a lot of comments and emails who work under the assumption that I despise The University of Iowa and MFAs in general. Neither is true. I think the MFA is a potentially good thing. But like everything else I think we should discuss what's going on at these places. Etc.


Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

i teach moonwalk dancing down here in puerto vallarta (the locals have absolutely no rhythm!)

7:20 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

If an MFA was a bad idea, I assume you would have either tried to talk me out of it, or you really really dislike me.

Now that I think about it, you might have tried to talk me out of it.

This point on channels is fascinating. For the generation that grew up in the sixties, The Beatles and a few other bands were impossible to escape. Nowadays, it's possible to avoid just about any pop phenomenon (The Beatles were pop stars until Rubber Soul, I'd say) simply by following other "channels." Don't like Top 40? Listen to your classic rock station and you never have to move past 1974 musically.

How it all relates to poetry is also fascinating: how often do you run into "Have you heard of X?" and have never heard of the person even though, it turns out, there's a shrine to the person and some papers somewhere? I imagine it was the way people feel about Parland or Ceravolo, or a dozen others. I suppose now it's not about THE canon but rather WHICH canon you choose to follow.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Some "greatnesses" are better/worse than others. I think there was something great about the Michael Jackson monolith, if only because music is so diverse and popular to begin with that, even if everybody in the world knows the name of some huge artist, there's plenty of room for other things to grow, and even to be monolithically popular in themselves, within different genres, etc.

Also, I feel like Jackson was so big that nobody even dared to directly imitate him, lest they appear immediately absurd in doing so. In this way, I feel like his "greatness" was not one that precluded different artistic voices.

So it may not be a good idea to equate the two worlds. There's room for multiple "greatnesses" in music. Jackson was "The King of Pop." Elvis was "The King of Rock 'n' Roll." Great, iconic figures can exist side by side in music, whereas they always seem to be tussling with one another in the literary world.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Brilliant write up on MJ at k-punk"

9:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Multiplicity of channels and distribution as it relates to celebrity, in the 60’s it was not solely that an artist would have a lock on the main channel but that even if a person were not paying attention various acts went viral throughout the culture and it became nearly impossible to miss them – if you did not see the Great Act then someone would tell you in person.

As has been pointed out here nowadays as each individual becomes their own channel with creative aggregation there is greater individual control over what each person desires to receive on their personal channel. It is not solely that we switch the radio to Oldies but Goodies; it is that we can switch the player to 17th c hurdy gurdy or Tibetan long horns -- and when we tell our friends they look at us, Like what?

W/ MJ what always amazed me, more than his artistry, was anyone that could so enormously live their lives while being plugged in to as many channels seemingly 24/7 as his publicity machine made him out to be.

3:06 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Also, I always felt like the appeal of MJ's dancing was how incredible he was at it. I'll always be hesitant about dethroning Fred Astaire, but I think Michael Jackson was definitely in that realm, as far as technical skill and the original, iconic quality of his choreography. It's kind of hard to top this, though. It's one of the most amazing production designs ever, in my opinion.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, Max, but the greatness was not to seem 'natural'.


4:59 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

yeah, as Mark says on k-punk it's the inhuman nature of the movement that is so enthralling

10:17 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Actually, MJ seems completely "natural" to me, in the sense of a natural singer, natural songwriter, natural entertainer. He was doing it from five years old or something, after all.

I think the origins of his dancing style are many and varied. Much of it was based on popping & locking, and was sort of proto-hiphop/urban dance. That's where the smooth, robotic, semi-illusory stuff comes from.

But then of course he did a lot of takes on classical stuff as well, like tap dance. All the theatricality, like the "lean" move from "Smooth Criminal" is straight up Fred Astaire influence. Nothing particularly "unnatural" about that, either.

It's not like MJ was a contortionist or something. He was just brilliant at choreographing very natural illusions, kind of the stage version of Michel Gondry.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I don't thinkyou understandwhat Imean by unnatural. The NY Timesaraticleseemed to want him to have you know raw spontaneous moves, and felt his laterstuff was too stylized and choreographed - that this is somehow unnatural. BUt I would say that it is this "unnatural" stylized quality that is so great about the way he dances; andalso, itbreaks down this sense that stylization is unnatural etc.


7:08 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I guess I don't see any real transition in MJ's dancing from unchoreographed to choreographed, or from spontaneous to micromanaged. What I see is a transition from boring to visionary.

I think the thing with MJ is that what eventually became his style was raw and spontaneous the first time through. And then of course it became instantly iconic, which meant it could never be those things again.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Speaking of other channels, and expanded badwidth, blogging itself is a form of publishing. Even if one counts the online journals as well as the print journals, or the journals that do both, there is still the (democratic-anarchist) blogosphere in which a great deal more happens.

One thing both the publishers and the critics have been lamenting is that they are no longer the sole gatekeepers of access, nor the sole arbiters of taste. It's an open game, now.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

MJ said he picked up many of his dances, in particular the moonwalk, from little black boys in the ghetto. Similar to how vogueing started with poor drag queens in Brooklyn, before Madonna lifted it.

That's not directly related to the whole natural vs. unnatural debate, but it's interesting that the dances came from those who might be considered "unnatural" socially...

10:03 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

On a Michael Jackson/Post-avant sort-of note, there is a totally fun discussion unfolding on Flarf and Conceptual poetry (perfectly re-tagged as "F-Con Po" by Dale Smith) over at Possum Ego blog:

As is their habit when discussion breaks out, the solemn, moon-walking, snowmobile-suited Flarf poets are bunkered... They've got their media stuff down to a T, jsut like MJ, MIA in the Neverland playhouse!


5:47 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Ur, I checked Johannes blog this AM and was glad to see the comment below (sent last night) had not gone up. So I wrote Johannes a note, saying I was glad he hadn't put it up because the reference to MJ sounded as if I was sarcastically referring to his death-- which I didn't intend at all. So I just checked back now and noticed that Johannes put the comment up-- after I'd written him to say I was glad he hadn't!

Well, anyway, check out the F-Con Po discussion.


8:48 AM  

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