Thursday, July 9, 2009

Michael Jackson Spoke to Our Spirits

Our spirits are frustrated, if not repressed, in different areas of our lives: and art is a realm of freedom and confirmation.

For days after the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death it still seemed like a mean-spirited rumor, or a painful dream, regarding this man, a man of great talent and great conflicts, a man who wanted to be less and less real and more and more art.

I remember being a boy, and with my sister and cousins, listening and dancing to Michael Jackson’s music, enjoying his televised performances, and devouring magazines featuring he and his brothers—we knew their names, likes, and dislikes. When I was 18, I liked French film, modern art, rock music, Chekhov, jazz, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Gore Vidal, African music, Tennessee Williams, Bob Marley, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson. Now, years later, I no longer read John Irving or listen to much Bob Marley, but I still like the music of Michael Jackson. Two weeks ago, I was lying in bed in my mother’s house, after many years of being away, and looking out the window, trying to think about goals for my future, listening to NPR when the news came on, Thursday at 6pm, that Michael Jackson had suffered cardiac arrest at his rented home, been taken to a hospital, and pronounced dead.

I liked that immediately radio programs hosted by Brian McKnight and Keith Sweat contained tributes to Jackson’s music. Flipping the radio dial, I was amused to hear the song “Pretty Young Thing” played over and over; and I wondered if anyone had a sense of irony about that (I recognized that it was being heard, very obviously, as a heterosexual male affirmation of desire). The Steve Harvey show on Saturday also contained warm tributes. (NPR had good interviews with Ann Powers, Jason King, Lenny Kravitz, Bryan Monroe, and Kelefa Sanneh, who was perceptive enough to note a particularly inventive song on the Invincible album.)

However, some media took it as an opportunity to revisit in detail whatever controversy and scandal had existed in Jackson’s life. Of course, public reputations are developed not only in response to observations and reported facts but by the monotonous repetition of certain attitudes and myths that force human ambiguity and complexity into caricature or demonology. The tabloid trash the public (and journalists) had dined on for years was being vomited up and digested anew.

In an interview Al Sharpton insisted that Michael Jackson was a genius not a freak—a claim that was made with a voice of strength rather than sentimentality, even more touching for that reason, but not entirely convincing. Does anyone know a black man is gifted if he doesn’t turn himself into a spectacle, into some kind of freak? I mean, Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince all loudly announce their difference—yielding larger than life images and larger than usual spaces in the dominant culture.

Yet, and yet again, it is Motown that produced black artists who embodied a recognizable humanity, a fullness of personality and potential: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Their work embodies an intelligence, sensitivity, and sensuality—not only significant artistry but a humanity and civility—that is the very best of virtues available in any civilization. That was Michael Jackson’s inheritance. Did he claim enough of it?

Great claims have been made for Michael Jackson’s ability to surmount barriers, but others hurtled across some of those barriers before he did: not only the greats of Motown but also Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole and Lena Horne and Ethel Waters and …. It is not necessary to diminish or disrespect the accomplishments of others in order to praise Michael Jackson, who was great and whose greatness is only beginning to be defined or understood. Michael Jackson was, for instance, both a subtle and a passionate singer, as he was both a subtle and dynamically expressive dancer. He was a maker of new images and a synthesizer of old images. He seems to have sold more recordings than anyone in history. It is humbling, as well, to realize that often, for an artist, the same amount of belief, energy, and time goes into a work that is perceived as a failure as goes into one perceived as a success.

It was startling to hear on the day of Jackson’s memorial service a discussion on NPR featuring rock critic Bill Wyman and music journalist Nelson George in which Wyman claimed that Jackson was less significant than Elvis Presley because Elvis had created rock and roll: such a ridiculous assertion—that dismissed (black) Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, on behalf of a popular (white) latecomer; and which flies in the face of Presley own declaration that he was doing what the colored people had been doing for years; such a ridiculous assertion should have been enough to disqualify Wyman from any further comment: but when has arrogant stupidity ever disqualified a white man from anything? One can look around and conclude that arrogant stupidity is a job requirement. Speaking of which: the vain and spiteful Robert Christgau, who produces online posts full of dumb self-obsession and uncontrolled self-promotion and makes a habit of complimenting well-placed colleagues and disdaining less successful ones, made a statement in which he suggested that based on the claim that he and his wife did not hear any Jackson music or discussion while on vacation in Vermont, Michael Jackson is less universal and universally acclaimed than has been declared by some. What an idiot! Christgau and Wyman and their ilk should have retired long ago. Luckily no one depends on these people for fundamental insights of any kind. Nelson George spoke of Jackson’s distinctive use of his voice, of his innovative creativity in video, of his cultivation of a global audience.

It is important to critique both the artist and his audience and his critics—as the values brought to art are ideological as much as aesthetic and personal. Some critics use (white) rock music to affirm white male appetite and privilege and they find various claims with which to dismiss black popular music. Black music tends to be valued for its relation to roots (a form of primitivism—a celebration of the noble savage, though this is masked by dubious notions of authenticity) and it is also valued for commercial sales (the ability to make money, rather than the ability to carry a style and content—values and virtues—that appeal to many). Often, Black music is valued in ways that do not support black authority or black intelligence. And, black critics tend to abandon black artists who are embraced by mainstream culture—though this is often when black artists need them most, both for their loyalty and for their critical clarity. How many black artists and black critics have a recognized critical authority—able to define ideas, styles, standards, and projects, as important? Wynton Marsalis insisted on his own critical authority and infuriated many, including arrogant stupid white men and black musicians who wanted to work without thinking of a wide range of concerns. The brilliant, idiosyncratic (and sometimes troubling) Armond White has infuriated many for similar reasons. Few black artists and critics are brave enough to make critical assertions in as direct a manner: rather, they hope that the work they do will speak for them, though that work sometimes goes unread or unheard and is sometimes, not infrequently, misperceived and misrepresented…

Michael Jackson has inspired much attention, emotion, and thought; and he will inspire more. Why? He was unique, he was great. Why? Our spirits are frustrated, if not repressed, in different areas of our lives: and art is a realm of freedom and confirmation.