The Mash-Up of Michael Jackson


The death of a major cultural figure is always a time for taking stock.

This is true in part because an entire generation, now aging, helped to create their self-image in the reflection of that figure – and thus that individual represents a powerful source of nostalgia. At the same time, subsequent generations, who may have never seen that figure in his or her prime, still recognize him or her as emblematic of an era now gone, but perhaps better than the present.

So it is with Michael Jackson. Given what we already know about what kind of shape the singer was in when he died – indeed, he may not have even been able to sing anymore – his exit just before what now looks like a catastrophic 50-performance comeback at the O2 Arena outside London – begins to look like what cynics would call “a good career move.”

Now, instead of cancelling shows, or being exposed for lip-synching, or worst of all, looking decrepit on-stage, Jackson is now enjoying his biggest chart-run since “Thriller”. His reputation gets to enjoy the mass mourning of fans still young enough to succumb to hysteria, and, with the record downloads in the last few days of his songs as MP3 files, he also gets a brief toehold in the new world of Internet-based entertainment.

If Jackson’s ghost is watching all of the proceedings taking place, its one solemn prayer must be that the Web also doesn’t become the medium for global distribution of any morgue shots of his emaciated, surgery-scarred, balding corpse – because that would be the ultimate immortality buzz-kill. Michael Jackson can endure forever strange, but not forever old.

Like almost everyone else, Jackson’s death got me thinking about another era in my life in which his music was part of the soundtrack . . .and of the unrelenting passage of time.

I’m old enough to have seen the arrival of the Jackson 5, not as the last great Motown band – which it seems today in retrospect – but initially as a kind of novelty act, a Barry Gordy Hail Mary to try to prop up his musical empire as his established acts (the Temptations, Smokey and the Miracles, the Supremes) grew older, and the most talented acts (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) began to rebel under his heavy thumb.

It is also largely forgotten that the Jacksons weren’t alone as pre-adolescent singing prodigies: we’d already had the Cowsills and Partridge ersatz-‘Family’ a few years before, and little Michael Jackson had his squeaky-clean little white counterpart in Donny of the Osmond Brothers, also burning up the charts.

So, in that respect, the Jackson 5 really weren’t anything new. We’d already grown bored of those choreographed moves and matching costumes after a decade of the Temps, Pips, and every other R&B group. Even the songs were straight out of the Motown catalog, already the best in popular music – though the idea of a fourth grader singing about lost love with a carnal twist was a bit creepy.

But all of that was quickly swept away by the sheer talent of Michael Jackson. Not only did he seem to float across the stage as he sang, but he sang with all of the power and soulfulness of the great R&B singers. That was what enabled the Jackson 5 to ultimately rise above the clichéd costumes and the already anachronistic dance moves, and become a great band.

Ironically, you can use those same words to describe Michael Jackson’s entire career – cliched, creepy and hugely talented. I think the essayist Mark Steyn captured this best the other day:

“. . .Even at his peak – the Thriller videos, a quarter-century back – [Jackson] was mostly a shrewd mélange of pop culture allusions: the hoofer’s hat, the Fosse gloves, the Sgt Pepper uniform… Surely the only thing sadder than living in a fantasy world is living in a second-hand fantasy, looking for J. M. Barrie’s Neverland at a California ranch.”

I think that’s exactly right. Great popular music acts – at least in modern times – seem to have about a five year run at the top. Think Elvis from Sun Studios to the Army, the Beatles from Ed Sullivan to the last note of “Abbey Road”, the Stones from “Satisfaction” to “Sticky Fingers” and Bob Dylan from “Blowing in the Wind” to the motorcycle crash. Everything after that is, to one degree or another, self-parody and aftermath. Hence the argument, if you are rock/pop god, for dying right near the end of that half-decade arc: Jimi, Janis, Otis, Buddy, Kurt — no one ever has to picture you fat and dying on the toilet, or doing oldies tours, or wearing a long wig, eyeliner and pancake make-up.

You can make the case that Michael Jackson’s five years were from 1979 to 1984 – from the release of the “Off the Wall” album, where he became a fully-rounded solo artist, to the recording of “We are the World” (a cultural, but hardly artistic, triumph) and the Pepsi commercial fire. In between, the two peaks – the twin zeniths of Michael Jackson’s career – were the release of the “Thriller” album in 1982 and the “Motown 25” special the following year.

With “Thriller”, Jackson (with Quincy Jones producing) accomplished that one thing that always defines great pop artists: he merged multiple pop genres into one. That’s what Sinatra did with swing, jazz and Tin Pan Alley, what Elvis did with black and white music, what the Beatles did with rock, R&B, classical music and the music hall. With “Billie Jean”, Jackson fused funk with pop; with “Beat It” he bolted, miraculously, Motown with hard rock and West Side Story; and with “Thriller”, particularly the video, he re-married pop with B-movies. It was an astonishing tour de force, unique for that generation, and the record deserved every award and platinum award it got.

With the Motown special, Jackson took it all up one final notch. His dancing had always been a cause of wonder and admiration, but that night on television, Jackson put on a show – including his first ‘moonwalk’ – that made viewers think of the greatest dancers of the century. At that moment – and not for much more than that moment – Michael Jackson was, in critic Mick LaSalle’s words, the coolest person on Earth.

After that, it was just a long, long decline, ending last week. Sure, there were huge hits and multi-platinum albums and record-setting concerts, but Michael Jackson never again made another important contribution or added substantially to his repertoire. He just grew creepier and odder – the world’s greatest Michael Jackson impersonator, but even that only on his good days.

As it happens, I was a rock music critic during Jackson’s brief arc of greatness. I can remember being hugely impressed by “Off the Wall” – and awestruck by both the ambition and execution of “Thriller”. Like half of America, I was shouting at the TV during the Motown Moonwalk.

But I never even bought “Bad”, and the videos, to my mind, quickly became a collection of puerile subjects, silly lyrics and predictable dance moves (strut, spin, pose, grab crotch, repeat). The only Michael Jackson song I listened to during the next twenty years was 1991’s “Black or White” – and that was only to hear Slash’s guitar riff.

The deaths of loved ones lead to introspection, while the deaths of famous public figures lead to retrospection. Now that he’s gone, looking back over Michael Jackson’s career, it seems obvious now that he was a transitional figure. He began in the Top 40/LP/Network television era with the Jackson 5. Then he reached his peak as a solo performer – indeed, briefly, the “King of Pop” (though not later on, when he claimed to be) – by mastering better than anyone else the newly emerging technologies of MTV/Music videos/modern studio recording. During that brief interval, he made a handful of seminal contributions to popular music.

But, unlike say Dylan or Lennon/McCartney (even though he owned their music), Michael Jackson was not a genius, merely a supremely talented entertainer. And so, around his small bag of tricks, Jackson essentially built a persona and a musical empire out of pieces borrowed from more creative sources. Unfortunately, the copy is never as good as the original – and once you got past the small corpus of great songs and the moonwalk, Michael Jackson’s shtick grew tired and shopworn real fast.

And, remarkably, even in that, Michael Jackson became a creature of this new era. Ours is not an age of originality – at least not at the level of art. Television, YouTube, the Web, digital music, not only have ferocious appetites for content – making sure that every plot device, every character cliché is repeated a million times each day — but they also make omnipresent every filmed, photographed or recorded piece of creative art. As such, the idea of anyone coming up with something so fundamentally new and appealing that it knocks on the world on its collective ear – as Michael Jackson did in the early 1980s – is almost absurd.

Instead, we now largely live in a “mash-up” culture. We snatch up bits and pieces of other people’s creations, old and new, and glue them together to create something distinct, fun, shocking and entertaining – but almost never truly original. Or we toss up bits of cultural detritus into the blogosphere to watch them be speared by hundreds of clever comments – creating in the process a new, but ephemeral, creative artifact.

Even here, Michael Jackson was, one final time, a transitional figure. On the one hand, and culminating in “Thriller”, he was the last artisan Pop Superstar. What he and Quincy Jones created still has the feel of a hand-wrought masterpiece. But even then, Jackson was also fast becoming the first modern Mash-up Entertainer – a shiny assemblage of other people’s inventions designed to hide (though with ever-less efficiency) the increasingly grotesque, decaying and pathetic operator within.

Now that unsteady pilot is gone – to the unstated relief of even many of his fans. But the Mash-up Machine called Michael Jackson remains, free at last to be polished up and regularly rebuilt to moonwalk for the entertainment of generations to come.