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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Just what the world needs, another Michael Jackson opinion...



...but hey, if everyone else is doing it, why not me?

I have been quite affected by Michael Jackson's death, much more than I thought I would be. It really was a shock, which is strange to say since the warning signs have been everywhere for years now. Still, Michael always seemed superhuman, and it somehow doesn't seem possible for him to die. What makes it doubly strange for me is that I literally do not remember a time in my life when Michael Jackson has not been famous.

Like so many others, I grew up with his music, and can remember watching the Jackson 5 on the Mike Douglass Show back when I was a kid in the seventies. I had to double check to make sure my memory and reality jibed ("was it REALLY the Mike Douglass Show, or am I confusing it with something else?" As it turns out, according to the Mike Douglass Show web site, the Jackson 5 appeared on the show three times: April 3, 1974; November 12, 1975; and February 8, 1977). I was mesmerized by the young dynamo that was Michael Jackson, and looking at those old clips it's hard for me to square images of the young, beautiful Michael and the one transformed, by plastic surgery, into some sort of three-dimensional manga cartoon character. (Enough has been written about Michael Jackson's appearance, so I'll leave it at that).

When MJ released "Off the Wall," it was the one gift I wanted more than any other for my twelth birthday. (Thanks mom, you really came through on that one. I still have that LP I received on March 1, 1980). I can still remember playing that album on my junky little record player up in my room, MJ looking dazzling and handsome on the album cover with his frizzy afro and sharp tuxedo, the music evoking a place far more sophisticated and fun than my small town in the thumb of Michigan. Looking back at it now, "Off the Wall" provided needed escapism for me, still trying to get used to my family's move from Detroit to the small town of Caro.


Going back to the Jackson 5 for a moment: As a young kid, the enthusiasm and excitement of those Jackson 5 TV appearances was infectious, but looking back at it as an adult, and with the benefit of hindsight, I see the Jackson 5 as the first fruit produced by the aftermath of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. It was truly the voice of young Black America finally allowed to express itself to the nation, and showing the world what the possibilities were.


Like most of the world, when his next album, “Thriller,” was released I looked forward to seeing every new video on MTV and enjoyed all the singles from that mammoth album, “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” P.Y.T.,” “Human Nature,” etc., etc. Strangely, I never did ever own a copy of “Thriller,” probably because the music was ubiquitous during the years 1982-1984 and I eventually burned out on it, as fickle teenagers often do. By 1984, I’d moved on to Prince and “Purple Rain,” and by the time I reached college in 1986, I’d “graduated” to the oh-so-hip “college rock” of R.E.M., the Smiths, the Replacements, et al. By the time I was 18, Michael Jackson definitely was not cool. As Michael seemed to remain a perpetual child, his music (at least from the cursory attention I paid it) did not seem to evolve.

Doesn't it seem that it's not until a person dies that we take full note of what they accomplished during their lives and careers? Probably because with the death, the story is complete, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end (and the fact that the excessive media attention focuses your attention on the deceased, if you had any interest in the person in the first place). On that note, I recently saw a performance video for Michael’s song, “Stranger in Moscow” that a Facebook friend recently posted. The song was fantastic, and Michael’s dance movements and vocal performance were haunting. I’d guess that the video was from the late nineties, a time when I was completely ignoring Michael’s music and only aware of the ongoing sexual abuse allegations and MJ's increasingly strange behavior. I had never heard of this song, and only later discovered it was from his album “HIStory.” To see this now is to be reminded that despite his ever changing appearance and bizarre private life, his genius as a musician and performer never left him.
I hope that Michael is at peace now. Regardless of the plastic surgeries, the bizarre behavior, and whatever went on behind the gates of Neverland Ranch, MJ's music and performances will last forever.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Billy Joel vs. R.E.M.

Awhile ago, a friend of mind sent me, via a Facebook message, the "assignment" of comparing and contrasting Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." This friend is someone I've known since about sixth grade, and we often go back and forth about music and pop culture. Anyway, this is my extemely off-the-cuff reply to his challenge. Thought you might find it fun:

Billy Joel's “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a litany of baby boomer-era cultural touchstones, and in the chorus Billy basically, in typical curmudgeonly Billy Joel style, says, "look, if you're pissed off about how f***ed up things are now, don't look at us (i.e. the boomers), it was already f***ed up when we got here, but we've been trying to make it better, so there!--and you know what, it'll probably continue to be f***ed up after we're dead." Billy Joel is the official apologist of the Baby Boomer generation.

REM's "It's the End of the World..." has the same rapid-fire vocal delivery as "...Fire", but with lyrics considerably more obtuse and stream-of-consciousness (gee, real shocker that Stipe would be obtuse and stream of conscious, eh). In the chorus, REM (befitting their age--tale end of Baby Boom generation and pretty close to Gen X) go for full-on irony with "the world's falling apart, but we're having a blast." This seems a good commentary on the Reagan-era, where everyone seemed to be basking in materialistic yuppiedom (except for bohemian hipsters like REM, who were casting a critical eye on the proceedings).Stylistically, of course, both songs are pretty darned similar--machine gun verses and choruses that summed up what the verses were getting at. However, Billy's song is smoothed out and shiny, Phil Ramone- produced MOR, while REM is clanking, slightly spastic/slightly punky alternapop college boy music.