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July 2, 2009

       "He's oxygenated, his nose is deflated/ And he thinks he looks good to you."---from Frank Zappa's tune about Michael Jackson, "Why Don't You Like Me?"

          If I become ill mid-way through writing this, please bear with me. Yes, that’s correct, I’ve been lured into writing about the late, and getting later, Michael Jackson. He has not yet risen from the dead, but I wouldn’t argue that prospect with his fans.
          Michael Jackson is not the biggest nothing ever to inspire fall-down-and-slobber worldwide prostration. Not the most over-hyped non-entity to prompt people to chuck all shame, dignity, intelligence and run around in circles on the floor like Curly Howard at the mere mention of his/her name. (You wonder: Jackson must have stolen some moves from Curly.)
          No, that honor would probably go to Madonna, who has far less talent than Jackson had, or than any number of music/dance majors to be found at universities around the world. Or, for that matter, far less than members of chorus lines on Broadway. (Do they still have chorus lines on Broadway?)
          Jackson, without a doubt, had a good deal of natural ability, when it came to singing and what has come to pass for dancing. But as the corpse of this psychologically and physically mutilated adult child is at least figuratively wheeled to Neverland, let us pause for a little perspective.
          Dancing and singing are very common talents,
yet somehow, the world has come to respond to them as if they cure beriberi and brain cancer. Don’t misunderstand---I appreciate dancing and singing, and their power to lift the spirits. I even dance a little, myself, when drunk. There is a difference, though, between lifting spirits and throttling mass psyche on a hypnotic, Pavlovian level.
          Jackson, or rather, Jackson-Product, sank its fangs into the fetlocks of what passes for human consciousness, and never let go. The scope of this astonishing marketing feat is unprecedented in human history, and would have fried the brain of Edward Bernays, an early pioneer in public relations and influencing of mass subconscious. If only modesty could be purveyed as effectively. . .

Wonder if he can beat it up there?

          Yes, there was Jackson, and there was Jackson-Product---two different things.You all know the tired fable of Jackson, of Little Michael, the kiddie prodigy literally whipped into becoming a performer by his Grendel of a father, denied a childhood in the process, inculcated with all manner of trauma that would later emerge as what could gently be termed eccentric behavior, and is better characterized as mental illness. (There are reports he was treated for schizophrenia in his teens.) This sad fellow is only to be pitied, yet if the current sympathy for him were marshaled for, let’s say, the victims of genocide and starvation in Darfur, or child-slaves in China, or the degradation of the forests, rivers, oceans, and sky, wouldn’t that be a bit more constructive?
          Fuhgeddaboudit. Jackson is not just a so-called "world icon," as the TV gosspimannequins recite, but a private little imaginary friend to untold numbers of humans, never mind his dying. Fans speak of “Michael” as if they grew up next door to him, as if they shaved in the bathroom with him, as if they roasted weenies with him at Scout camp. It’s much like the loons who speak of “my personal relationship with Jesus,” as if a little invisible Christ perches on their shoulders, whispering sweet scripture in their ears.
          And the Christ cliche is well warranted here, as it often is for titanically popular personalities of history, but in this case, not just in terms of scope. Devotees came to rabidly defend Jackson as nothing less than a would-be savior of humanity---a messianic pose that the adult Jacko melodramatically struck, and possibly, in his dementia, believed. It must be hard not to believe such insanity when all the world acclaims you as if you are a god. (Note: the saccharine "We Are The World," which raised $63 million for African famine relief, was the idea of Harry Belafonte and Ken Kragen, not Jackson.)
          But Jackson-Product is the operative reality in all this disquieting business, not Wacko Jacko. Without Jackson-Product, there would have been no Jackson phenomenon, no Jackson-Jesus. Remember: this “giant” didn’t write his songs alone, didn't play instruments, didn’t produce his albums, didn’t conceive of his albums in anything other than a sketchy sense. He had showbiz savvy, to be sure---and his early singing skills approached the likes of Sam Cooke’s---but he essentially became a vehicle for commercial assault on the marketplace by the hyper-slick music industry (key word: industry) "dream team" of producer Quincy Jones, songwriters Marilyn/Alan Bergman and Rod Temperton.
          Do I exaggerate? Consider Jones’s account of completing the biggest-selling album of all time, “Thriller.”
        “I told Michael that we needed a black rock 'n' roll tune -- a black ‘My Sharona’ -- and a begging tune for the album. He came back with ‘Beat It’ and Rod came back with ‘The Lady in My Life.’”
          What more evidence does one need? This was fill-in-the-blank, commercially designed product. We need a begging song. We need a black “My Sharona.” Says who? Says Quincy. These songs were not written out of inspiration, heart, sincerity, artistic impulse. They were contrived and invented by committee, made to order for mass appeal, as sure as Tucks and Cheetohs. I mean, did The Beatles sit down and say, “We need a begging song?” Did Jimi Hendrix?
          Jackson was not, in short, a songwriter, not a skilled musician, not a poet, not a lyricist---certainly not in the vein of actual musician/poet/lyricist/songwriters such as Sly Stone, Hendrix, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Charlie Pride, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Stevie Wonder, perhaps even Barry White. "Thriller" was a Quincy Jones album. One of Jackson’s final “songs, " not incidentally, was a simple computer-generated Muzak-y demo that sounded like good background for a diaper commercial. He sent it to Deepak Chopra for lyrics.
          Of course, none of this matters to the millions (billions?) of hapless, gullible, worshipful music-product consumers, who blather and weep about losing a “genius” who “tried to save the world,” or “who brought so much joy,” and other outbursts. And it has never mattered to the primary enablers of the pop music hype machinery---the so-called music critics and reporters who have worn out their Thesauruses---well, their on-line Thesauruses---in feeding the ridiculous Jackson myth. (One venerable pop music writer just referred to Jackson's "Motown 25 Live" rendition of "Billie Jean" in 1983 as "the single greatest moment in popular music's history of public performances." Huh? Perhaps he never heard of Hendrix, The Beatles, Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Bobby Darin, and on and on.)
          And so Jackson the promising kid became Jackson-Product in adulthood. You know how it happened. After the mainstream pop success of the winning, but bubblegum hits of the Jackson Five, fans were primed and ready to see what their friend “Michael” would do “when he grows up.” Disco was dead, thank goodness, and commercial pop music in the early ‘80’s was a grisly amalgam of horrid “punk rock,” derivative, lightweight “new wave,” grotesque “heavy metal.” Enter Edgar “Quincy Jones” Bergen and Michael “Charlie McCarthy” Jackson.
          Recipe: take handsome former child idol with flare for soaking up and mimicking the work of great singers/dancers from Jackie Wilson to Sammy Davis Jr., pump up his voice to enable broader range (accomplished with lessons), tweak the keys to give him more oomph, add veteran commercial musicians, hire mainstream song-product hitmakers, bake minds with barebones hypertrophic beats, lunatic asylum guitars, and synthesizer-laden production glitz. Result: “Thriller.” Jackson-Product.
          Of course, it’s probable that Jones and Jackson could have recorded something primitive, flashy, hollow, with words varying from nonsense to treacle, and it still would have been a hit. Wait a second---come to think of it, that's what they did.
          The rest is a tale that out-weirds Howard Hughes and Elvis combined. Evidently, contrary to his song, “Black or White,” it did matter to Michael whether he was black or white, as he gradually transformed into a pallid, skeletal, spidery figure competitive with Max Schreck in the silent “Nosferatu.” A red hourglass tattooed on his chest would have been entirely fitting. Not even Lon Chaney (sr.), the "man of a thousand faces," could have pulled off the changes Jackson accomplished. Those required scalpels and stitches, and kookiness along the lines of that madwoman who remade her face as a lioness. If Jackson was in fact diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen, he physically manifested it as an adult, via surgery. The avaricious cutters who indulged his whims---from Diana Ross’s nose to who-knows-whose chin---should have long ago been stripped of their licenses.
          But this is not to rehash the kiddie fixation, the death-defying ingestion of drugs (well, almost.), the test-tube (Caucasian) babies claimed as offspring, the countless millions of bucks tossed around like used toilet paper, the reclusion, the Louis XIV excess, the broken contracts and sponging off Middle Eastern royalty, the child molestation charges, the chimpanzee, the rest of the Wacko Jackopalooza. Living with relentless press coverage of this nutcase all these years has been nothing but depressing, like having a demented relative in the cellar pacing endlessly through habit-trails. Jackson’s death would be a relief were it not for the fact that Jackson-Product is now bigger than he ever dreamed it could be.
          And that raises the central point I’m trying to find the stomach to make here. Michael Jackson is not the culprit in this American tragedy. Neither is the sonic assault of his music-product, nor the genital-grabs so astoundingly acclaimed as artistry, nor the once-artful voice perverted into shrieks, hiccups and castrato-yodeling that suggested a live electric wire up his rectum.
          The fiend in the Jackson saga is capitalism amok, the same phenomenon that has crashed the world economy. From his father to his record companies, from promoters to doctors to endless sycophants, the devil in all this has been the perversion of basic capitalistic principle into amoral, all-consuming profit-frenzy, abetted by demographic exploitation that would have left Joseph Goebbels drooling. Even allowing that Quincy Jones, Jackson, and the hired songwriters involved might have (mistakenly) thought they were making great art, they were nonetheless creating pop product---product designed specifically for mass-marketing; dumbed-down product that traded on celebrity, mystique, pose, machine-made beats, punishing volume, shock value, nursery-rhyme-level lyrics. What art? What heart? The average unsophisticated music-consumer was as helpless against this stuff as a dolphin in a drift-net.
           Yes, yes, I hear you: it’s always been this way. People are forever suckered by artifice and image. True, but what has changed is the degree, the worldwide technological penetration of marketing claws, the automatic response of pop-culture-anesthetized consumers trained to crave new excitement, new idols. Not only do people in India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paraguay, Zambia, and Peoria not know that they are being manipulated, conned, rendered cheap-stimulus addicts--- they wouldn’t care if they did. Media and pop culture say “Bend over,” and humanity says, “Hands around ankles?”
          Give the public what it wants? This is the standard defense offered by marketing types, corporate martinets. But no, Jackson-product was a case of giving the public what it would respond to. King of Pop? King of Poop. Thank you, Quincy Jones.
          So when I read last week that protesters in Iran planned to wear Jackson T-shirts because, as one proclaimed, “He represented the best of America,” I wanted to grab my crotch and scream.
           Not just because the statement was disturbing, but because I suspect this has become the truth.
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