What thou lovest well remains,
The rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Ezra Pound, Pisan Cantos, LXXXI
The stories were whitewashed, the statements overblown, and many of the sentiments mawkish. In many ways, Michael Jackson’s memorial was much like any other funeral service anywhere else in the world. What was less ordinary, though, were the Christ-like images summoned onto the backdrop, or the quotations like biblical testaments that overlaid them, or the attribution to his music of achievements ranging from the election of Barack Obama to Magic Johnson’s famous basketball victories. Of course, it’s hardly surprising, for a man who floated a giant statue of himself down the Thames and, for reasons that we will never know, couldn’t bear to leave his own face in the loving hands of nature that, in the same way that his personal life came to overshadow his talents, the over-enthusiasm of some of his mourners came to upstage the sweeter tributes on display last night. Like this, from Smokey Robinson.
Nevertheless, for every Al Sharpton trying to convince us all that we have just lost our greatest saviour, there was a Queen Latifah laughing affectionately at her childhood attempts to dance the robot, and for every Usher arrogantly laying his hand on Jackson’s casket and reminding us of why we all miss Michael by wringing every last agonising morsel of false emotion out of his song, there was a John Mayer (no, I’m not a fan either) quietly strumming away while Human Nature, devastatingly sans vocals, played quietly in the background. For every congresswoman massively overstating his political importance, there was Smokey Robinson good-humouredly acknowledging that Jackson’s childhood rendition of Who’s Loving You was better than his. Needless to say, though, within minutes of the memorial finishing, self-proclaimed ‘voice-of-reason’ writers, bloggers and comment-section-trawlers were coming out of the woodwork to ridicule the admiration of his fans, snort at the testimonials of his friends, and shrug their shoulders at the grief of his family; put it all down to rampant populism and celebrity-obsession gone wild, or the backslapping of a bunch of self-publicising harpies. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News’ tirade last night might have been the most high profile on the right, but liberal pundits were just as guilty. Comedian Marcus Brigstocke claimed on The Now Show (BBC Radio 4) that he was about as sad about Jackson’s death as if Quincy Jones had broken his favourite trumpet, which was funny, but Brigstocke is considered something of a pressure valve to thinking liberal Britain, and his comment was probably representative of the feelings of many. (This dichotomy of responses has been particularly interesting to me. Having grown up in a working class and multicultural part of East London, the sadness and nostalgia that I shared with my friends there has been bettered only by the rank disdain heaped on me by my middle-class, largely white university friends if I ever dared give voice to the inexplicable sense of loss I experienced for days after hearing of Jackson’s death.) Their response was as predictable as the eulogies, and totally missed the point. Because as easy as it is to let our offended sensibilities dismiss the whole affair as a grotesque (the current adjective of choice) waste of time, the fact is that some of those speakers had a point. He did matter. His death is historical. Most irritating of all, though, is that one of the most explicit statements of the night, Berry Gordy’s assertion that Michael Jackson is ‘the greatest entertainer who ever lived’ seems to have been thrown out with all the other rubbish. Watch from about 7:50 below to see the offending comment.
So I ask you to think, what is so ridiculous about that statement? This is after all, a man who has the biggest selling album of all time. He has sold out every show and live tour he has embarked on since the release of Off the Wall. At the time of his death, he had sold 750,000 tickets in a matter of minutes for his final live shows. 1.6 million people applied to attend his memorial service, and that only takes into account those who expected to be able to make it at such short notice. His huge 123-date Bad tour received rapturous reviews. His dance moves and singing style utterly changed the face of pop music and are imitated across the globe. Now, you might say that Elvis has equal claim to the title. You might favour an actor, or mention Houdini. Heck, you might pick Richard Pryor but, given the evidence, that distinction becomes a (perfectly acceptable) matter of preference rather than any more substantial objection to the statement. Put it in its historical context and it seems even less peculiar.
The discomfort people feel with this comment probably has something to do with the feel of eternity it has about it. Michael Jackson is not the greatest entertainer of the eighties, or of modern times, but the greater entertainer who ever lived. Still, though, this is not entirely unreasonable. Distribution has always been the key to recognition, and in truth the twentieth century was the first time that we could realistically present mere performers and entertainers for commitment to posterity. In times gone by, actors might certainly have achieved some renown in their immediate locality, and Kings and Queens undoubtedly summoned their favourite musicians to Court on a regular basis, but their abilities and charisma were impossible to communicate to a mass audience. That was left to the composers and playwrights who could commit their words and music to paper and send them far and wide to be reproduced in performance the world over, by different people every time. Even if you had heard of a performer, you only had second-hand sources to tell you whether they were any good. Margaret Hughes might have been the first actress to perform legally in England, but as to whether she had any talent, we could only ever take other people’s word for that, which doesn’t quite equate with the thrill of seeing an artist, firsthand, in complete control of their audience. You could, perhaps, launch a spirited defence of Nell Gwyn out of historical accounts of her interaction with crowds, or Samuel Johnson who, if Boswell’s biography is to be believed, could have been an early kind of stand-up comedian, but we still cannot see that effect for ourselves and you have to wonder if Nell was helped just a little in her reputation by her position as mistress to King Charles II. The problem is, as with so many others, we’ll never know.
But now, things are different. Like the renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer studied the humanists and Italian masters to inform his art, it was Jackson’s close study of every kind of performance from James Brown to street kids (the inspiration for the moonwalk)
that informed his unique and thrilling style. But just as Dürer used the revolution in printing to get his work out across Europe, it was Jackson’s (or those around him) smart manipulation of the media of his age that really made him a living legend. That influence has continued after death. Now, it is not just words and an artist’s impression that can be recorded, transported and shown, but real images, moving images, and sounds. They can be passed on in seconds via the internet, so that soon after news of his death had spread, people were watching footage of Michael Jackson’s videos and performances on YouTube over and over again. They don’t just need to be told that he invented the moonwalk, they can watch the moment that he introduced it to the world and see the rapturous response of his audience. They can hear the astonishing depth of his vocal performances as a child, and see the progression he made from being a young man who danced with infectious energy and spark to being a machine of rhythm and groove. They can even watch interviews with him and his producer, Quincy Jones, and see him choreographing and rehearsing the iconic dance moves to Thriller. Naturally, a more negative side effect of this glut of images is that we can also see, repeatedly, the tragic transformation of his face from one of boyish good looks and charm (Stephen King described him as ‘extraordinarily beautiful’) to something pale, and alien, but with the rehabilitation of his reputation already underway, his talents are shining through again and will likely continue to do so. His otherworldliness will only add to our fascination with his art.
Particularly ironic, as well, has been the repeated pronouncement ‘I mean, he was hardly Mozart, was he?’ Well, no, Jackson wasn’t a classical composer and he never wrote ‘The Magic Flute’, so it would be fairly bizarre to claim that his compositional skills were in the same league. ‘Billie Jean’ is certainly not a Piano Concerto. He was, though, like Mozart, transported around the world as a child prodigy by his father to play to the great and the good, his fate written out for him before he had a chance to choose. Mozart and Jackson’s fame and popularity within their own lifetimes are certainly comparable. Like Mozart, he was a sponge for the popular styles that surrounded him. Just as Mozart had a preternatural grasp of harmony and mood, Jackson had a natural sense of rhythm and an inexplicable lightness of touch that belied the intensive hours of work that went into his performance. Just as Mozart dealt with his lifetime of stardom with excesses of drink and spending, Jackson descended into an increasingly surreal spiral of surgery, debts and addiction. And like Mozart, Jackson died shortly before his final work would have been completed and just as he faced a potential reprieve from his financial woes. We shouldn’t take the comparisons too far, especially since, unique vocals aside, Quincy Jones takes much of the credit for developing Jackson’s trademark sound, but Peter Shaffer‘s presentation in the fictional Amadeus of Mozart as a childlike eccentric whose genius is ensured by his sheer inability to consider his own limitations does make you wonder if Mozart’s similarities to a man who intended to live to 150 might be even more striking. Their trades were different. Jackson made dance routines where Mozart wrote compositions but, in both cases, commentators remark on the powerful relationship they could build with an audience in the course of a performance. Time may still prove that their influence on the popular music of their age belong on the same table.
No one is claiming that Jackson’s technical abilities as a dancer outweighed those of a professional ballet dancer (although they are pretty incredible), or that his voice had the range of a classically trained singer. What is undeniable, though, is that watching his live shows, we are transfixed by his complete immersion in the performance, not to mention the oddly contradictory sexiness – in light of the impressions we have of his personal life – that he conveys in every move, and the tautly balanced emotion that he infuses into his vocals. This, combined with his seemingly boundless energy was capable of working a crowd of thousands into a hypnotised frenzy. And he did all this consistently, from childhood, and for a good twenty-five, maybe even thirty, years. That is something special.
I say again, Michael Jackson may not definitively be the greatest entertainer who ever lived and yes, there might have once been much better performers than him. There might have been a better playwright than Shakespeare (yes, I have put Shakespeare in the same breath as Michael Jackson. This is not a direct comparison). There are likely people living today with skills that Jackson never had, and some of them may have been pretty successful, but it is utterly futile to object merely on the grounds that fame should not be its own recommendation. Many legends’ places in history comes partly because they managed to stretch the contemporary boundaries of fame beyond anything before imagined and so communicate their art more widely than anyone else. Yes, this makes any attempt to rank artists according to talent largely arbitrary. When has the case ever been otherwise? The fact remains that Michael Jackson is one of the few people recorded so far that could reasonably make a claim to the title of greatest entertainer, and to imply that saying so is merely the ravings of a deluded has-been is pure self-important vanity. Roger Ebert wrote in his blog recently ‘When I had been a film critic for ten minutes, I treated Doris Day as a target for cheap shots. I have learned enough to say today that the woman was remarkably gifted.’ I expect that, as our proximity to his death (and, indeed, his life) dwindles, a great many of the naysayers will come to see Jackson in the same light. There is a, now hauntingly prescient, moment in Jackson’s own cathartic revenge-fantasy dance film Ghosts in which, having repeatedly failed to impress the suburban masses trying to run the ‘weirdo’ out of town, he resignedly kneels on the ground and crumbles into dust. As the full force of what they have lost starts to hit the assembled crowd, Jackson reappears in a doorway. ‘Did I scare you?’ He asks. The townspeople nod shakily. Jackson smiles. ‘But did you have a good time?’ Their answer is resounding. Hell. Yes.
Let’s not be blindsided by the hysteria that his sudden death has induced in parts of the media. Let’s make our peace with posterity, because in the long view, Michael Jackson is already there.
And to finish, here’s two of his best performances available online. Michael Jackson singing ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and ‘Man In the Mirror’ at the 1988 Grammys and, courtesy of Laura Vickers’ blog, (check her comment below) his unstoppable medley at the 1995 MTV awards. Part one is below. You can watch part two here.