A Message From Dr. Guy
With the unbelievable news that nova-star Michael Jackson had died of a cardiac arrest at the untimely age of fifty, a stunning array of issues from American music history exploded across the global media. As a historian of African American music culture I spend more time than the average listener hashing over past black music cultures. But like everyone else, my mind scrambled to understand the rambling impact of this sad information, very present, unavoidable. As many apparently did, I found the whole thing surprisingly visceral.
Of course there were some basic lessons to take away from Michael’s passing. For one, we learned once again that the larger than life, the immensely talented, the rich, the inaccessible were, in fact, just like the rest of us: finite and mortal. I can’t think of anything that represents the downside of accessibility as the results of one’s autopsy or a postmortem search of private belongings being made public. And the visual image of Michael Jackson, the charismatic dancing machine, on a gurney transport, unceremoniously covered head to toe with a matter-of-fact white sheet, was in a word, surreal.
A constant stream of intense media coverage amplified the shock of it all with a coterie of informants answering the same questions ad naseum together with the requisite up-to-the-mili-second speculation after speculation. We heard it all, apparently, because news directors and the advertisers that pay them thought we demanded to know it all. Without Michael able to run interference the public could finally, it seems, explore its curiosities unfettered, indeed, satisfy this intense interest in his mystery that had been hugely orchestrated by he himself. And it all surfaced with a dizzying force that only a 24/7 news cycle could generate. Drugs, money, sex, cosmetic surgery, baby-mama-drama, baby-surrogate-drama, stardom, and fandom formed a cocktail of tantalizing issues worthy of a summer Hollywood blockbuster. But this was real life, and all of the alphabets—CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, BET—worked overtime as diligent publicists for the saddest show on earth. I suppose Michael Jackson, the King of Pop deserved as much.
Yet in the midst of the mad scramble for all the details of Michael’s demise we heard the music. Yes, the music. His music. Michael’s music framed the commercial breaks of newscasts, it was downloaded and listened to with an unprecedented intensity, it was played constantly in public spaces, and it even poured from the most pre-canned, predictable radio formats (who knew that these “corporations of sound” had an ounce of spontaneity and variety in them? Goes to show you they can do better.) Hearing all of the various strains and stages of Michael prompted me set aside all of the controversy and to think musically about his artistic output, a task that is always an easier exercise once a musician’s body of work becomes a finite and discreet entity.
Hopefully as the months and years past, they’ll be as much rumination about MJ’s body of creative work as there is about the more prurient aspects of his legacy. Not that the reception history of this music can (or should) be easily divorced from its context, its life as a function of the pop music industry, one in which the creation and dissemination of artistic production involves a well-oiled machine that sells “image” (good and otherwise) as well as the song. But we can, I think, productively consider what we perceive as his musicianship, his work as a singer, songwriter, entertainer, dancer, and producer.
Michael Jackson – Man In the Mirror from “Moonwalker”
….To Be Continued with Part Two: This Is It – Michael Jackson, From the Beginnings to the End
Dr. Guy Ramsey