Friday, February 10, 2012

A little light culture

And when I say light, you'd better believe me. As the cliche has it, swallow any liquids you might spray over the keyboard before reading any further.

After pointing out that lots of music stars got onto the cover of Rolling Stone more often that Michael Jackson, the writer of the piece I'd like us all to focus on today says:
Is it really possible that Michael Jackson, arguably the most influential artist of the 20th century, merited less than half the coverage of Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna?
 And, in case you are wondering if he really means it, he links to another article by another writer who gives us a list of just some of the people he feels Jackson is more important than: F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner,  Picasso, Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick.

And the thing is not that this is ridiculous, heck, I'll give him Kubrick, the problem is that it couldn't help but be ridiculous.

So who wrote these two pieces? Here are the mini bio that appears with the articles (both published by The Atlantic):
Joseph Vogel is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. He is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the Department of English at the University of Rochester. 
Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.  
 And that probably tells you everything you need to know about music journalism in 2012.

But there is something else really fascinating that happens in these pieces that is worth noting because it tells us exactly why not just most pop music journalism but most pop music, to steal a line from Bart Simpson, manages to both suck and blow.

Vogel's piece is called "the Misunderstood power of Michael Jackson's Music". "Music"! But the thing about it is that it's not about music. The piece is about Michael Jackson's image as a popular entertainer. For example, Vogel is impressed that Micheal Jackson was the first current star to appear in the Super Bowl half time show. That's an interesting historical fact, although we might ask whether the real credit doesn't belong with the NFL for asking him. What it isn't is any sort of musical innovation.

And Jackson was a huge star when he appeared. It wasn't any risk on his part, although, again, the NFL were taking a chance.

But let's get back to the music. Look at this line that Vogel cites from a 2002 speech that Jackson made, for example,
All the forms of popular music from jazz to hip-hop, to bebop, to soul [come from black innovation].
Quick test, name one musical innovation pioneered by Michael Jackson? I'll save you the trouble, there aren't any*. But even if there were, neither Vogel nor Stevens would be qualified to tell us. They are both really fashion journalists and if you read both their pieces above, you'll see that what they talk about is Michael Jackson's personal style. They like Jackson for what he represented.

The embarrassing truth about Michael Jackson is this: when he worked with great producers such as the Motown production team or Quincy Jones he cranked out quality material but when he worked with anyone else or, especially, produced himself, he cranked out mediocre material.

That doesn't make him unique. The same could be said of lots of other pop stars: lots of style, no substance. And style is nothing to sneer at. If you think you could do better, go right ahead.

If we want to judge the man fairly, we should judge him as a style icon. He doesn't belong with great innovators such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby,  Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Lester Young or Thelonious Monk. And even though he was a very good performer he doesn't even belong with great performers such as Jimmy Rushing, Ella Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire or Frank Sinatra. Jackson belongs with the style icons and he, unlike Vogel and Stevens, grasped this. (Astaire and Sinatra were also style icons but they were great performers first.)

That is why he was so interested in Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley. He knew full well that he, like them, was famous for being something rather than doing something. He knew full well that he hadn't made any actual innovations in either his music or the way he performed it. His achievement was in style. He embodied something. The only other baby boomer to rival him in that regard is Madonna.

And both share something else in common in that they are both moral weaklings and Jackson much more so than Madonna. Although we can probably explain some of Jackson's failings in terms of his odd childhood. But explain as we might, there is no moral substance to either. In both cases, however, the really painful truth is about the audience that made them famous rather than the sad, incomplete beings that Madonna and Jackson are.

* This, by the way, is true of almost all contemporary pop music. In strictly musicological terms there is no good reason to divide rock and roll, hip hop, soul and country into different categories. Elijah Wald has a good analogy here: linguistically speaking, there is less difference between Dutch and Flemish than there is between the Arabic spoken in Egypt and Morocco and yet we think of Dutch and Flemish  as different languages and the languages spoken in Egypt and Morocco as different dialects of the same language. Why? Because the people in Egypt and Morocco see themselves as part of the same larger group whereas the people who speak Dutch and Flemish see themselves as distinct groups. So while the people who listen Jay Z believe that they are part of a different group from people who listen to Taylor Swift the musical language used by the two stars is identical.

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