The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson

The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson

Where did it all go right – and wrong – for Michael Jackson, asks Peter Rosser.

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Reading The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, it’s difficult not to marvel at the thrilling sense of perceptual and temporal derangement its subject causes in all those who look too closely. Whatever the levels of greatness Michael Jackson may have displayed as musician, dancer, and songwriter (and many of the twenty-four essayists presented here want to put Jackson down a peg or two in this respect) his prescience was never in doubt. Jackson is the personification of the late 1960s cult of youth, the embodiment of 1970s disco-superficiality, the agent of the globalisation of cultural exchange in the 1980s and the symbol of the free world’s victory over Soviet-style totalitarianism in the 1990s. Even in the end the timing is spookily apposite, his death last year occurring precisely when capitalism, the system that loved him so much, could no longer deny its own inherent contradictions. And yet this is the man who never quite belonged in his surroundings; a man who denied time to the extent that he could never escape from his own childhood, and could never leave behind the belief that his existence was central to the world. It is an endlessly fascinating subject and this book of new writing, assembled only a few weeks after Jackson’s death in June, finds itself in the intense after-shock of a phenomenon.

There are many ways to approach Jackson, and the theorists, bloggers and journalists brought together here take him on through music, culture and politics. Most profitably they engage the myth as perpetuated by the singer himself. He was the self-styled ‘King of Pop’, after all, a ‘monumental gilded throne with trumpeting putti, cupid heads, horses, lions, sea creatures, and scrolling foliage’ to prove the point at his Neverland estate. So the idea of kingship, and indeed kingdom, become the central metaphors in this book edited by journalist Mark Fisher. Mark Sinker, in his essay ‘What about death, again’, is most revealing here as he compares Jackson with James Brown. Brutish and inarticulate off-stage, the ‘Godfather of Soul’ was an irresistible force when performing; his craft emerged from gospel, from ‘call-and-response’, and it demanded a reaction. Compare this with Jackson’s music, a clean, disembodied narcissistic display of otherness. Where Brown’s ‘Godfather’, especially after Coppola’s 1972 film, had associations with power, influence, potency, criminality, religiosity and politics (‘no black church, no Civil Rights’), Jackson’s ‘King’ is associated with subservience, duty, heritage, benignity – the apparels fit perfectly, however extended the metaphors.

When Jackson and MTV found themselves, surprisingly, with the exact same aims (world domination) and the exact same view of the masses (post-racial, homogeneous, and therefore ripe for the picking) pop was born as a means of control on the effluence of culture and as an unstoppable commercial force. Think about Paul Ricoeur’s take on contemporary culture, with its ‘too much remembering’ in some places, ‘too much forgetting’ in others. Soul, funk, jazz and folk are all about remembering when they’re at their best, remembrance at their worst. Pop is all about forgetting. How much of the spirit of South American ritual and rhythm, or New York dance academy gusto is actually apparent in a Michael Jackson performance, despite the fact that it’s probably a simple transference of both onto a larger canvass? Not any. What ‘Thriller’ has, says Dominic Fox in ‘Serious joy: Michael Jackson against the spirit of gravity’, is ‘a certain infectious excitement about itself.’ When Jackson performs on stage, he says, ‘emotional seriousness is held in abeyance by invention: lightness, speed, and infinitesimally precise timing… If “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” defied emotional gravity, “Bad” and almost everything that came afterwards denied it.’

Jackson becomes the most perfect expression of Reaganomics, of the neo-liberal speculator economy – transaction trumps content. Elsewhere, Joshua Clover in ‘Michael Jackson at the Restaurant Vingtième Siècle’, portrays the prophet-musician in 1983 as ‘the spectacle of becoming-digital in a world that wasn’t yet.’ Pop music, he argues, is divided into three periods: analog acoustic, analog electric and digital. Bing Crosby was the genius of the first period, Elvis of the second and Jackson of the third. The first CD was sold in the US in 1983, a matter of months after Thriller was released and although that album was mostly enjoyed on vinyl, at least to start with, its creator’s stop-motion, robotic dance routines and ‘languageless phonemes’ (his insistent ee-hees) speak on the threshold of a new micro-logical world of bit-technology.

Jackson also manages to become the first self-referential, post-modernistic pop star. His subject was almost always fame itself (see ‘Billie Jean’) and the intrusion it exerted on his otherwise sane life (see ‘Stranger in Moscow’). At the same time he was happy to receive ceremonies in India that are usually reserved for deities (he becomes the ‘Maharaja of Pop’ in Geeta Dayal’s excellent essay on the cross-influences of Jackson and Bollywood) and to see his image take the place of the most monumental sculptures of Stalin in Eastern Europe (see ‘“Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be”’: Michael Jackson as despot’ by Owen Hatherley). He did this with the kind of humourless irony that only a postmodernist can command.

There is no doubt that most of the contributors in this instant obsequy regard Jackson’s demise to have installed itself very early on, in the wake of Off the Wall (1979), perhaps, when the singer was just 21, or around the time of the Jacksons’ Triumph (1980); at any rate, before Thriller (1982) the most commercially successful pop music product in history. Thriller was the non plus ultra, the game-changer. Nothing would be the same again, and for the sceptical, worried, traditionalist rock journalist, opinionated blogger or leftist academic, whatever was gained on this album was outweighed by all that was lost. Suddenly the channels of communication through which American culture was assimilated were forced through the eye of a needle, the appointed medium, Jackson, and his supporting cloak-and-dagger technological apparatchiks. Jackson was the figurehead, in other words, but the parliament, the agency of power, was elsewhere: in the dollar and pound of the consumer, perhaps, but more concertedly, and more poisonously, in the boardrooms of Sony, MTV and PepsiCo Incorporated. Jackson carried on for another decade or so as ceremonial head of state, disembodied, virtual, and powerless.

Most of the writers in this book believe that pop died, finally, belatedly, on 25 June 2009, and although tinged with sadness, this realisation is mostly welcomed, even celebrated. The king is dead… vive la république!

The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, Edited by Mark Fisher, is published by Zero Books, Hampshire. 

Published on 1 February 2010

Peter Rosser (1970–2014) was a composer, writer and music lecturer.

He was born in London and moved to Belfast in 1990, where he studied composition at the University of Ulster and was awarded a DPhil in 1997. His music has been performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and by the Crash Ensemble in Dublin.

In 2011 the Arts Council acknowledged his contribution to the arts in Northern Ireland through a Major Individual Artist Award. He used this award to write his Second String Quartet, which was premiered in 2012 by the JACK Quartet at the opening concert at Belfast's new Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC).

Peter Rosser also wrote extensively on a wide range of music genres, with essays published in The Journal of Music, The Wire, Perspectives of New Music and the Crescent Journal. 

He died following an illness on 24 November 2014, aged 44.

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