MJ Echoes

I’ve been reading the generally excellent The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson (or, as my back cover claims, The Resistible Rise of Michael Jackson), a recent publication from the wonderful Zer0 Books. Great to see his many chimeras being treated with the intelligence they need; patterns of body-mapping, neo-liberalism, metonymic symbolism, and Stalisnism are identified and explained through MJ’s life and career, alongside more straightforward critical and historical-biographical accounts.

A general tendency in the book seems to be to assume a certain canonic consensus which runs roughly as follows: Off the Wall – artistic peak, Thriller – inconsistent but occasionally wonderful, the rest – severely diminishing returns. To my mind, though it is certainly the case that from Bad onwards the volume of confusion that piled up around the music became staggeringly distracting, the number and quality of great songs — many of them autobiographical (particularly on the second disc of HIStory), despite what Paul Lester says — dispels any easy dismissal of late-Jackson (for a late style is certainly what those hiccuping, lacerating, self-regarding but genuinely tense tracks represent). Like Brian Wilson, it seems Jackson will be remembered for his early, zeitgeist-defining music, more than he will be for his later work. (Though it has to be said the ratio of quality for early/late, and in Wilson’s case late would have to be defined as post-Pet Sounds, despite his young age, is much more evenly balanced for the Beach Boy than it is the Jackson).

Still, ‘In the Closet’, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Liberian Girl’, ‘Butterflies’, ‘Remember the Time’, ‘Stranger in Moscow’, all these counterbalance the horrible turgidness of ‘Earth Song’ and the rest with a creative zeal that, in its force, actually serves to chart Jackson’s sad decline much more potently than do those vacant simulations of affect. The book could have done with a little more in the line of the alternative-canoning of Marcello Carlin, or Owen Hatherley, who gives a wonderful cultural/psychoanalytic reading of ‘Stranger…’. In addition, though it seems generally to be a discourse on the cultural impact of Jackson, the collection could have done with much more in the way of actual musical analyses. Too often an album gets dismissed with a word, or a song is interpreted with a series of adjectives and genre-citations. The general standard of the writing is extremely high, but from my point of view a book about a musician (even one whose cultural impact was so peculiar as was Jackson’s), should really have more music in it. Still, when the writing is as perceptive as, for example, Reid Kane’s is, or as downright dazzling as Mark Fisher’s (who totally re-invigorates ‘Don’t Stop…’ and ‘Billie Jean’), it would be silly to grumble too much.

The climax of the book (in every which way) is Ian Penman’s ‘Notes towards a ritual exorcism of the dead king’, which really needs to be read to be believed. There’s as much invention and wit there to charge a novel. Even still, I can’t help but be distracted by Penman’s obvious disinterest in both accuracy (many wild rumours are promoted-by-inclusion, even as they are denounced), and MJ’s music (which, admittedly, is acknowledged from the start, and, indeed, can be seen as a uniquely valid theoretical vantage point from which to be coming). However, the level of the thought developed in the piece is such that any political discomfort has probably been intended by the author; as with the best pieces in the book (Fisher, Clover, Sinker) Penman’s writing is provocative, dense, and never lets you settle into a critical mode that for lesser writing would be its ruin. It seems as much satirical (of the myth of Jackson, and the myth of ourselves that we place around him, and of writing in general) as anything, and it gleamingly crowns a really fantastic collection.

The immediacy of the moment of Jackson’s death suffuses the book, and thus justifies the quicksilver publication. But the pall of the demise, however powerful, cannot obscure recent events that render (just a little) inaccurate many of the authors’ accounts of the singer; the This Is It film — though it should be viewed with a great deal of scepticism — presents a Jackson whose creative and performative abilities were still running high (at least, much higher than expected), certainly higher than the spectre imagined by the book. Still, great, great collection.

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One Response to “MJ Echoes”

  1. MJ Echoes – 2 « Robots Dancing Alone Says:

    […] Robots Dancing Alone Plugged in Musicology « MJ Echoes […]

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