Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Last Look in the Mirror

I was originally going to talk about Michael Jackson and his place in music history. That really doesn’t matter now. What people will remember ten years from now are a handful of songs, primarily from the albums Thriller and Off the Wall.

Everything else that was reported and drooled over in the last week will be trivia on some future version of Jeopardy. Yes, Jackson made the most important and widely-seen music videos ever. Music videos, once seen as a way to bring songs alive (while being free ads to sell those songs) are dead. Few performers had any kind of physical presence, acting ability, or the desire to become interesting on video. Music videos were mostly egotistical directors running wild, creating spectacular frames for passive and unappealing performers. No matter how well they sang, most didn’t have it in them to play werewolves, suicidal lovers or post-apocalyptic warriors. Jackson did. Nobody else does.

Jackson’s scandals were a product of his sad, warped childhood. Without sensationalism, without the later child abuse claims that took over the Michael Jackson Story, it was all covered in the neglected book by music critic Dave Marsh, Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream. Find it if you can and read it. It’s critical and severe, but Marsh cared about Jackson and wanted him to fulfill his potential. Jackson never did.

Not the King, but the Bing
Don’t look to Elvis Presley as an example of the role Jackson will achieve in American cultural history. Presley did a lot more, and was a lot closer to his fans than Jackson cared to become. There are dozens of Elvis movies that established a comfortable identity for Presley; the simple country boy who could sing and charm women. Jackson made only one theatrical film I can think of, The Wiz, where he played a simple dancin’ boy. His music videos usually cast him as a demigod. Neither persona was loveable.

He won't be remembered like Elvis. Look, instead, to Bing Crosby.

Crosby’s biggest cultural mark, the only thing people remember him for, is his song “White Christmas,” and the two movies in which he sang them. The original was Holiday Inn, and the song had tremendous meaning; it was sung during World War II, when most Christmas dinners had fathers and brothers missing. The remake, White Christmas, is cute and in color but less meaningful.

Crosby did a lot more films, but he didn’t play a dynamic character. He was a casual partner with Bob Hope in the Road pictures. He made dozens of other films without much impact. Do you remember High Time (1960) where he played a millionaire who went back to college at age 50, and showed young people like Fabian and Tuesday Weld how crooning was better than that silly rock ‘n’ roll? How about Dr. Cook’s Garden (1971), his last film, playing a country doctor who killed off people he didn’t like?

Crosby, like Jackson, had scandal in his life, although in those days the studios squashed scandals better. Crosby abandoned his first wife when she was dying of cancer, to play golf in Europe. Two of his sons committed suicide. He told Barbara Walters, in a TV interview, that he’d disown his daughter if she had an abortion and betrayed his strict conservative Catholic views. The best biography of the man defined Crosby’s persona in its title: The Hollow Man.

From the Hollow Man to the Man in the Mirror isn’t much of a leap. Jackson’s sweet, simple calls for change and hope and love may not have been hypocrisy, exactly. But they didn’t sync with someone who priced his “Victory Tour” tickets deliberately high, so that “troublemakers” – code words for blacks – couldn’t easily attend the shows and bother the white suburbanites who could afford $100 for four tickets. Brotherhood and friendship didn’t mesh with a guy who, no matter how much he gave to charity, spent a fortune on his child-trap Wonderland. He blew through a personal fortune and went into poverty at a rate surpassed only by George Bush. He mutilated his body to such an extent that, in a famous “secret” meeting with Howard Stern, Jackson’s face seemed to be melting.

But that won’t be remembered. It’ll just be Thriller, Billy Jean and maybe We Are the World that will be remembered in a few years. All the personal crap that the gossip TV shows are drooling over now will recede into the vaults to be forgotten.

Give The People What They Want And They’ll Turn Out

I mentioned that months ago, when I was standing in a queue to see Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith, the guy in front of me was only there because of obligation. “I want to see it and get it out of the way, so I never have to deal with Star Wars again.”

You might consider this cynical of me, but I think that’s why 1.2 million people wanted to attend the Michael Jackson memorial.

From where I sat, Jackson was desperately trying to build some sense of excitement about his career in his last years of life. That excitement did not result from his music, which hadn't been exciting or interesting in years. It wasn’t about his personal appearance. He tried to generate audience enthusiasm with a new, unfortunate slogan – “This Is It.” He had mobs of backup dancers in his planned London show to distract from whatever deficiencies in dance his aging body had.

It was Jackson trying to attract attention again. And no matter how many tickets were sold in advance for the London shows, the overwhelming impression I got was “who cares?”

I think the many people interested in mourning Jackson were simply giving him what he wanted. He got one last audience to gather in awe of him. And having given him his last ego boost, that audience will put him out of their minds. If they think of him any more in the future, it will be accidental, and probably all they’ll think of is Thriller, Billy Jean and maybe We Are the World.

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