Friday, 31 July 2009

Michael Jackson and the Black Heart of Music

Even people who were not fans of Michael Jackson would have to concede that he was uniquely original and innovative, as a composer, a vocalist and as a dancer, not to mention his pioneering work in video clips. He sometimes kept us waiting a while for a new album, but the wait was always more than worth it. His was no cardboard cutout, formulaic musical entertainment for people with two brain cells or less. It was the real deal, on all levels and across several genres. Surely this is how he would want to be remembered.

Anyone who has ever striven for excellence in any field knows that once it is attained it becomes a double-edged sword. One of the first things it breeds is envy. The good is the enemy of the best, and mediocrity can be surprisingly vicious. MJ was not the lowest common denominator. He was the yardstick. The black yardstick.

Surely breaking the music industry records of such icons as Elvis and the Beatles makes MJ the best the industry ever had. But this is an industry that throughout its entire history has taken the best of black music – blues, jazz, R & B, soul, you name it - and rehashed it with white faces in front of it. Without black music, white music would be as dead from the neck down as it all too often is from the neck up. And then along comes Michael Jackson and reinvents all the categories and ups all the benchmarks. How very inconvenient.

The fact that this is nothing new does not make it any less true. The history of western culture is strewn with examples of black culture being bleached out of sight – going right back to black pharaohs of Egypt and the Sudan. Our cultural roots, black and white, lie there. Anything, if suppressed for long enough, will eventually turn into a monster. Here perhaps lies the key to the black heart of the music industry - and the demise of its king.

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Michael Jackson - Moonwalking with Dionysus

An obsession with trivia at the expense of essentials can be the mark of a mind out of its depth. While the concept of a media mind can often prove to be a contradiction in terms, where MJ is concerned it is a mind in need of a lifejacket before it drowns in its own sleaze. Rarely has a celebrity been the target of such vicious or gratuitous mudslinging, whether regarding his appearance, or his sexuality. I would suggest that these aspects of his persona were not just plucked at random out of the air, but rather represent unresolved issues in our culture that we have projected on to him. At was as if he lived out a dynamic reconciliation of opposites – black/white, male/female - that our culture, often hypocritically, insists be kept separate. The most problematic of these was the polarity between sexual magnetism and innocence. In a society where sex sells and is for sale, it must of necessity be perceived as diametrically opposed to innocence. To the pure all things are pure. To the corrupt all things are corrupt. If we really find it so difficult to believe that a man can be both sexually magnetic on stage and innocent at the same time, does this not say at least as much about us as it does about him? By the same token, underneath the relentless, morbid obsession with his face lies perhaps the uncomfortable truth that his face would never have fitted, no matter what he did with it. It was as if his body became a battlefield for our mainstream culture, a culture that has a notoriously ambivalent relationship with the body.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Michael once described himself as a ‘force of nature’. In his work he seems to have tapped into primordial energies that for the most part lie dormant in our post-modern culture, which is crudely cerebral and cynical, yet oddly puritanical. In ancient times, Dionysus, often also equated with the god Pan, was of all the gods the only one who had a human mother. He was described as eternally young, fully male yet with an androgynous mystique, dual-natured, enigmatic, a god of many faces. A master of performative intoxication, he was beloved of women, the powerless and outsiders, but viewed with suspicion by the establishment. I find this analogy resonant.

Every society has its blind spots and hypocrisies. Where these lie can usually be gauged by the amount of venom unleashed when they are exposed. For example: if skin color were really no longer an issue for us, why would a pale-skinned Michael pose a problem? Does an African American cease to be an African American when his skin lightens beyond a certain shade? And who decides what that shade is? We are talking here about the first ever African American to be “allowed” to perform on MTV! Am I the only one who detects a touch of paternalism here? Why would the color of his skin deserve more media attention, say, than the fact that he burst through the cultural frontier between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music? Were we not through this media pre-occupation with his skin in fact displacing an anxiety that we were not prepared to admit that we still had? We so love to believe that we are tolerant and egalitarian, but when the chips are down what we really want is for everybody to conform. It is perhaps because of our closet obsession with conformity, wrapped in the rhetoric of tolerance and freedom, that we crave, and devour, our celebrities to the extent that we do. We want to benevolently bestow our tolerance on people of all races, creeds, sexual orientations, etc., but we are only willing to do this as long as we keep control of the categories and the yardsticks. And we let the media do our dirty work for us. They have this power because we let them have it.

If Michael reclaimed and lived out the Dionysian mystery for us, he paid a tragically high price for it, both in life and in death. His message of reconciliation was dearly bought. Paradoxically, in the mystery tradition of Dionysus, for all its compelling, hypnotic music, the most reliable sign of a person inspired by him was, we are told, a melancholy silence.

Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.
(Lao Tzu)

Continue Reading...

Friday, 24 July 2009

I'll be Home Late Tonight: We're Having a Revolution

A new book of essays by writers from central and eastern Europe, called The Wall in My Head, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is due to be published in November. See here for my own essay (published under my other name!). Like other contributors, I can't believe that this was already twenty years ago! We knew at the time that we were in the middle of history, but we didn't expect the history part to come so soon.... Humbling.
Continue Reading...