Welcome to the third part of a long look at the last music Michael Jackson released within his lifetime. The introduction is here, and the playlist that illustrated that here. Today's concluding column looks to the world beyond his death, where we live.
other kings other worlds
The days after, feeling a bit cheated and regretful, I guess, I found myself musing on how all this could have worked out differently – in parallel michaelverses, if you like:
...if he'd refused to settle the Chandler case out of court.
...if he'd accepted the songs offered to him by the Neptunes (instead successful on Justin Timberlake's Justified).
...if Jermaine had succeeded in converting him to Islam (if his family could detox him).
...if he'd recorded and released (as agreed) the songs written by his Bahraini prince business partner.
...if he'd gone to prison in 2005 (would he still be alive?)
future sound of late artist
Next: expect more books, repackaged collections, further revelations and legal challenges. Most tantalisingly, there's the alleged stockpile of 100+ unreleased songs saved as intellectual property for his family. For someone so financially illiquid, it's a neat solution, and with the unheard material including a solo piano piece that long-time collaborator Bruce Swedien calls his 'greatest work', recent tracks with will.i.am, Akon, Ne-Yo, archive stuff which didn't make albums... sorry, even reporting this makes me feel like a fucking vulture.
In the here and now, Motown will release its third posthumous collection of his work with them before the end of the year – inglorious remixes of middle-aged songs to follow the 'stripped' recordings. This business doesn't stop for anyone.
I am at least relieved my initial (ok, overdramatic) certainty he'd be followed by copycat suicides has proven false.
the making of hubris
In at least one other michaelverse, the grandiloquent promo campaign for HIStory finished his career long before, a Greatest Hits Plus translating into another Case Against. Though content to swallow universalist anthems ultimately too neutered to be construed as political, the public were eventually spurred into reaction by Jackson's hubris in appropriating the historically-sensitive imagery found under cults of personality.
It was idiotic. But understandable. Stick with me:
Since the Sixties, the pop artist has been encouraged to write about the minutiae of their lives. The better they do at this, the more they're willing to express (or expose) the more the world cares. Naturally enough, their ego swells with every close-up acclaimed, consumed, memorised.
No one was so successful at winning attention as Michael Jackson. He was so successful the rest of us can only empathise theoretically. Imagine your every appearance drawing crowds (5,000 people could faint per night on his later tours), your every action making the news. Imagine this every day, from childhood on.
In retrospect, it seems he redesigned himself perfectly for the age of TV. And to that magnified, exaggerated, replicated remade self, the mass media came to function like a feedback mechanism (sometimes triggering antibodies: see 'Leave Me Alone'). Of course he gave his opinion on world problems – they shared a place in our culture, were more his peers than normal people were.
Ethan Hein has corralled as many Michael Jackson samples as he could into one infographic – from SWV to NWA, Grandmaster Flash to Rihanna, Three 6 Mafia to Public Enemy. Hopefully this rubbishes the idea he was more for white suburban audiences than the culture he emerged from – the best thing about pop – even, if not especially, the most aggressively ambitious – is it's still always for everyone.
And a little Michael goes a long way – ask childhood friend Rockwell, whose best-known single benefits more than a lot from the dude singing the hook (the verses are all Rockwell's...)
Also note that the moonwalk was not the first dance craze Michael popularised...anyone up for some hot retro-futurism?
It's true he didn't write all his own songs, but he contributed to most, and was responsible for 'Billie Jean', 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough' (see below), 'Another Part Of Me' (my favourite, maybe), 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You', 'Smooth Criminal', lots of the more obvious hits...plus! 'Do The Bartman'. All hail.
One for the hardcore unconvinced. Below (because the DiS link function seems to hate YouTube, sorry) is Michael, Randy and Janet made for 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough'. If any of those disco not disco acts had made it, it would be the best disco not disco track ever. But they did not. No studio tech, no teams of audio engineers, so much talent.
Oh, by the way, as an – entirely uncontrolled and probably immeasurable – experiment in perception and influence, I've been calling him 'Michael' whenever it's related to something positive, and 'Jackson' any time it wasn't. Just so you know. That's what we media do.
beyond guilty and innocent
Considering all the thinking I've reportedly been doing, and all the writing you've had to wade through, I suppose you might have expected some kind of conclusion in post three of three. Sorry to disappoint, but – although I mooched through 14 depressing weeks of court recaps – I came out just as confused as I started, and blinkier, too. Indeed, I'm planning on stopping thinking about it again once I've typed the last word.
It seems to this total non-expert that he easily could have been convicted, had the legal teams been reversed, though that would have been in spite of an eventual lack of objective evidence. I certainly don't feel I have the facts I'd need to say much beyond that. The whole thing was a tragic mess, whether abuse went unpunished or a family were really willing to destroy an innocent for money, whether exploitative capitalist aristocracy proved above the law or a high-functioning eccentric was terminally misunderstood.
Anyway, any verdict on the artist must be ruled irrelevant to the art – “in no way do our virtues minister to its worth, in no way do our vices impede its triumph” as the evergreen Whistler would have it. Morals and aesthetics are not synonymous – and, for the record, I'm not someone who believes treating even convicted child abusers as subhuman unpeople is going to solve any of the problems they cause.
My inconclusion is emotional. Sometimes I fear he did it. Mostly I hope he didn't.
witness for himself
'Childhood' is perhaps the oopiest ballad Michael Jacskon ever penned. I hate it. But I'm giving it a mention, 'cause the lyrics devolve into prose for his most direct statement in song: “Have you seen my childhood? / I'm searching for the world that I come from... people say I'm not okay / 'Cause I love such elementary things / It's been my fate to compensate / For the childhood / I've never known...” This would be immortalised as the piped soundtrack to Neverland's carousel.
Additionally, I spent some time on MJ fansites while researching, and can confirm – how to put this diplomatically – 'their fervour is undiminished'. Balanced and honest as I've aimed to be, I don't think they'd like these columns much. I think they'd quote 'Tabloid Junkie' at me: “You say it's not a sword / But with your pen you torture men / You'd crucify the Lord...don't go and buy it / And they won't glorify it / To read it sanctifies it”. That last, especially, is a killer lyric, I don't care who you are: “To read it sanctifies it”!
no more kings
In 2009 and beyond, with music recast as information rather than object, it's barely conceivable Thriller's sales will ever be overtaken. And with the top-down media of MTV long since outflanked by the internet's endless openness, it seems equally unlikely any entertainment industrialist will ever match the global recognition of Michael Jackson.
It's even possible that the era of the A-list celebrity is coming to an end, that in a decentralised media landscape, all stars must downsize, may amass relatively mammoth grassroots networks, but never again tower above all. And that feels a healthier, more human-size future.
Michael Jackson won't be there to see it. One in the vanguard of those who'd literally rebuilt himself for cameras rather than reality, his body is the ultimate relic of an unsustainable attempt at global monoculture. No one should be so elevated. No one should be so scrutinised, so turned inside out. No one given such power, such credit, such debt, asked to stand for so much. No more kings, for their sake and ours.