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.