Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was an A grade singer-songwriter, an A grade performer, and an A grade weirdo. After 1993, the balance started shifting decisively in favour of weirdo. He gained fame as a child, developed into the biggest star of the MTV generation, and burnished his credentials further in the era of globalisation. His last good album, Dangerous, came out when Russia and China were open for business. As the tallest figure in the entertainment industry at that moment, Jackson could with justice claim to be the first truly global superstar since Charlie Chaplin. Half the sales of his greatest album, 1982's Thriller, had come from North America; in the case of 1991's Dangerous it was less than a third.
The best-known video from Dangerous, Black or White, advertised the new era. It took in sub-Saharan tribesmen, Thai, Indian and Russian dancers, and climaxed with people changing faces and races in front of one's eyes as if by magic. That magic was the technique of digital morphing. It is so commonplace now that the public incorrectly believes any image can be seamlessly replaced by any other. Watching the video today one can identify points where the transitions between actors are rough. Back in 1992, though, one viewed it with wide-eyed wonder; it seemed a perfect match of cutting-edge technology, style and content.
In Jackson's homeland, a number of commentators noted that the singer's recourse to cosmetic surgery to lighten his complexion and sharpen his features cut against the grain of Black or White's message. The weirdo side of his personality had begun to harm his songwriting. When the first allegations of child sexual abuse came out in 1993, things turned ugly. This was not any more a matter of personal eccentricity. There were lawsuits, attacks in the media. Jackson, who never understood why a gentle person like himself who would not physically harm anybody was being hounded for sleeping with his young boy friends, developed a persecution complex. The new songs in the 1995 album HIStory merged his personal grouses with injustices being perpetrated on a global scale. The videos highlighted the uneasy marriage of public and private complaint. When Jackson sings 'They don't care about us' in a Brazilian favela, he implies he belongs with the underprivileged of the world. Who could swallow that?
Beginning with HIStory, joy and playfulness were swept aside in favour of melancholy, tedious ballads, a sententious attention to this or that cause. The life became more interesting than the music, its trajectory spiralling relentlessly downwards: the divorces, the debts and, finally, death. Many fans insist the O2 performances scheduled to start later this summer in London would have afforded Jackson some redemption. I seriously doubt it. I don't believe he had the mental stamina to complete anything close to 50 shows. The weirdo had taken over too completely from the consummate performer.

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