Friday, June 26, 2009
HYPE or GENIUS
|'It's all hype'|
says CHRISTOPHER HART
|'He was a genius'|
says RAY CONNOLLY
He made me 'believe in magic,' says P. Diddy. 'His wonderment and mystery make him legend,' gabbles Steven Spielberg. He was a 'genius', claims Justin Timberlake.
Really? What, like Shakespeare and Michelangelo? With the best will in the world, I don't think anything in Michael Jackson's back catalogue can quite compare with Hamlet or the Sistine Chapel.
As for those who are now comparing him to Mozart and Beethoven - on Radio 4's flagship Today programme, of all places! - the only explanation is that they have never actually listened to the great composers. Amid all the hysterical gush about Michael Joseph Jackson, including toe-curling contributions from our own celebrity suckers, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, some gentle reminders might be in order.
Back in the Seventies and Eighties, Jackson wrote some pitch-perfect dance pop songs which will never be surpassed. If you've never tapped your toes to Beat It then you must have no sense of rhythm, and if you've never hit the dancefloor to Billie Jean, you haven't lived.
But let's keep things in proportion. For the past 20 years of his sad and tattered life, Jackson was a walking zombie, a ghastly realised version of the living dead in his Thriller video. Life imitates art and, in this case, it was a most gruesome fulfilment.
Despite the Peter Pan image, Jackson's lonely death in an LA hospital was a pure rock 'n' roll cliche. Where were his celebrity friends then?
And the painkiller that he seems to have been taking just before his death, Demerol, is no junior aspirin. It's an immensely powerful synthetic morphine, chemically similar to heroin, and known to be potentially lethal. What on earth was going on?
Unfortunately, a miasma of squalor, mystery and downright dishonesty has swirled about Jackson for years. Despite the weirdest and most implausible denials, we all know the star long ago set out to look like a white man - or even a white woman.
Yet he and his croneys always insisted his changing skin tone was due to the condition vitiligo - this causes patchy depigmentation. It does not turn black people white.
Jackson was an influential example of that terrible form of self-loathing called cosmetic skin whitening, and his contribution to the cause of black equality was wholly negative.
Comparing the crumbling, ravaged pseudo-features of the middle-aged recluse with the happy, smiling little black boy of the early Jackson 5 is heartbreaking. But in Jackson's childhood, glittering with early fame and fortune but sadly lacking in the normal pleasures of careless play and anonymity, the seeds of his later ruin were sown.
He spent the rest of his life trying to avoid adulthood through gross self-indulgence and vapid fantasy. Even creepier than the plastic surgery were the rumours from the Neverland ranch, the 'sleepovers' with barely pubescent boys, which he described as 'a beautiful thing'.
Jackson was acquitted of child abuse in 2005, but after previous allegations in 1993, he paid out a vast $22 million to the boy's father in exchange for their silence.
These uncomfortable facts have conveniently been forgotten in the Niagara of celebrity twitter, grotesque exaggeration and false sentiment that's scaling heights of mawkish sentimentality not seen since the death of Princess Diana.
Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears have made their feelings known - not in private, to Jackson's family, of course, but to the world. And the basic dishonesty continues. Geller, the famous spoon-bender, says his close friend Jackson had recently been 'terribly fit and basically in good shape'. No he wasn't. He had a chicken bone for a nose, was in and out of a wheelchair, and looked increasingly like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
Black civil rights campaigner Rev. Al Sharpton has hailed him as a 'historic figure', like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, and said he 'made culture accept a person of colour way before Tiger Woods'. Didn't the Rev. Al ever notice anything funny about Jackson's colour?
Enough of this delusional postmortem hype, please. A handful of Jackson's tunes will last as long as people love pop music - that's no mean achievement - and at his peak he could dance like Fred Astaire.
But he was also a deeply flawed individual who lived a life of consistent and cowardly denial and evasion. For whatever messy psychological reasons, Jackson could never be honest about himself. At least we should be.
Personally I think he was all hype. I know it is not nice to speak ill of the dead, but I always hated his clothes.
| || |
Jackson's death on Thursday might have taken his fans by surprise, but in any musical sense, the Michael Jackson who once mesmerised the world had died more than 20 years ago.
At least now his deserved heroic status in popular music won't be further sabotaged by those ill- conceived ' comeback' concerts he was soon to give in Britain.
Because no matter how loyal his fans might have been in overlooking Jackson's own self- destruction, they were virtually certain to have been let down had he ever taken to the stage again.
Like so many other rock stars, Jacko's best work was done well before he was 30.
And like Elvis (who, had he survived, would briefly have been Jackson's father-in-law) his death was preceded by years of madness, reclusiveness, financial problems, scandal and ill-health.
But let us set aside the troubled personal life for one moment.
Who was Michael Jackson, the musician?
At his peak, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when working with the legendary producer Quincy Jones on the magical albums Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, Jackson was inspirational.
And I mean that in the truest sense of that word.
He literally inspired the following generation of rock stars to consider their music as part of a whole theatrical experience of dance, acting and costume.
Without him, the captivating stage performances of singers such as Madonna and Beyonce wouldn't have been the same.
But then nor would TV music channels such as MTV, which, prior to Jackson, had aired far fewer black stars.
His extraordinarily inventive dancing for his Billie Jean video, when he looked like a moonwalking vaudeville artist and spinning robot combined, changed the look of rock music on TV.
It was no longer enough just to stand there with a guitar and sing.
Stars had to give a show - in the old-fashioned movie musical sense, aided by modern digital techniques. And no one ever did this better than Jackson.
At the same time, reflecting the ever-growing change in cultural attitudes, the music Jackson performed was colourless.
It wasn't black or white.
It wasn't soul or rock.
It was Michael Jackson music.
Pop at its absolute pinnacle of expression, and timeless, as evidenced by the 38 million people who have looked at his Thriller video on the YouTube website in the past two years alone.
I don't go along with describing rock stars as geniuses - and I've known a few from my four decades as a music journalist - but Jackson, perhaps because of his overall oddness, was a true original.
Yet, deep down, he was also a real old-fashioned song and dance showman. In that sense, he always struck me as a leftover from another age of bornina-trunk travelling artists.
Ultimately, Jackson's is the saddest of stories.
Extraordinarily gifted, even as a child star singing Rockin' Robin and ABC as part of the Jackson 5, he outclassed all his musical peers - not least, his own siblings.
But the seeds of his self-destruction were sowed deep within him.
How much they were the result of his being famous since the age of 11, or how much his eccentricity was simply the other side of his creativity, we'll never know.
One thing is for sure.
All those fans who bought tickets to go and see him this summer won't be going home disappointed having seen the sad reality of Jackson's lost talent.
And they'll always have their DVDs of happier times.