Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The King of Pop

Michael Jackson. The gloved one. The self-proclaimed “King of Pop”. The man who was once briefly married to the daughter of Elvis, “The King” himself. Maker of albums and singles that sold in the millions. He who made one of the most expensive videos in the history of popular music videos. He who helped break the MTV colour line. He who made music that was popular and touched people the world over from Memphis to Moscow to Mozambique and to Melbourne. He who sometimes looked more like a "third world" dictator than a pop music icon. He whose later life sometimes seemed like an eerie rerun of Elvis's last years. He who was a figure of ridicule and scorn in the tabloid media, the same tabloid media who made a mockery out of his plastic surgeries and skin bleachings when they labeled him, in one of their typically memorable turns of phrase, “Wacko Jacko”.

I was never much of a fan of Michael Jackson nor of the Jackson Five even though they, like me, once lived in Indiana (I'm no booster). I like my rock hard. I did kind of like “Billy Jean”, “Beat It”, “Human Nature” and “Dirty Diana”. I hated “Thriller” both the song and the video. In a world where pretentiousness, narrative sophomoricism, and movie ripoffs are supreme “Thriller” was one of the most pretentious, sophomoric, and incredibly derivative (or intertextual to use a fancy academic term) music videos ever made in my not so humble opinion.

The media has long tried to figure out why "Jacko" is so "wacko". The list of explanations for Jackson's behaviours has included a difficult family life, being a Jehovah's Witness, or “artistic genius”, a phrase being thrown around all to readily to describe Jackson by the media now that "the gloved one" has passed away.

If I wanted to get intellectual and academic I guess I could reflect on what Jackson's attempts to make himself White means in a nation and a world that is still incredibly racist. I could muse about whether Jackson's attempt to remake the way he looked so he didn't look like his father says about male violence in American society. Or I could speculate on what it must have been like to apparently never have much of a “normal” childhood (whatever a “normal” childhood is). I mean look at the long list of child stars gone bad from Gary Coleman to Todd Bridges to Dana Plato (the whole of the "Diff'rent Strokes" youth crew) to Danny Bonaduce to Britney Spears to Lindsey Lohan. Compare that to the list of child stars who apparently turned out “alright”. Well there's Ron Howard and there's Ken Osmond. Then there's ..., hmm. I guess I could ask what all this say about the cult of personality in the United States, about parents wanting to live their dreams through their children, about parents out to make a buck by farming their children out as “talent” chattel to the entertainment industry. I guess I could ask what this has to do with capitalism for in capitalism, at least in the type of capitalism we have, everything, including childhood, has been commodified. Finally I guess I could ask what it says about us. Why is it that most of us prefer to hear more about the train wrecks like Ms. Spears than the apparently more stable Mr. Howard?

I guess it's not so ironic that TMZ, which has made a living out of covering the train wrecks, was the first "media" outlet to announce Jackson's death. Why is it that so many of us want to live our lives vicariously through, what Richard Schickel, in a wonderful turn of phrase, called intimate strangers? Are these celebrities who we vicariously live our dreams of wealth, fame, and adoration through the only way we can get through a life that promises but rarely delivers on "the American dream"? Do they allow us to continue to believe that everyone has an opportunity to make it when we must realise, at least on some level, that someone like Paris Hilton is in movies and is making albums not because she is talented but because her Dad has lots of money and money opens doors, doors that are often barred to people without money and power and wealth and elite networks to draw on.

One of the things I find most troubling about capitalist commodification is commodity aesthetics. Commodity aesthetics is the practise by which "great" "art" is determined by how well "art" does in the marketplace (“free market capitalism”, by the way, comes complete with notions that markets are free and in the process forgets this little thing called manipulation through advertising, spin, and public relations that is an inherent part of modern consumer capitalism...now that's quite a trick..get yours now). Commodity aesthetics, of course, dominates perceptions of art of all kinds in capitalist society. Just watch Entertainment Tonight where films are spoken of only in terms of the money they made over the weekend.

Is commodity aesthetics why Michael Jackson is considered a great artist by some? Is Jackson the “King of Pop” because he moved so much product? Is the obverse true? Is James Joyce a mediocre artist because Ulysses doesn't sell well in a marketplace dominated by the bottom line, product sales?

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