Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and Musical Convergence

Obviously, the death of Michael Jackson has been a huge deal culturally speaking, with much of the focus on the idea that we’ll never all be united in adoration of a performer in the way that people unanimously loved him back in the 80s. I was born after the release of Thriller, so I missed Michael’s biggest years, catching him in some early 90s performances, like his Super Bowl performance and I do vaguely remember watching the debut of the “Black or White” video when I was younger. So, I’m probably not the best authority to say whether someone could reach the heights that he had.

But, I do think that the notion of a unified, racially transcendent pop superstar doesn’t necessarily die with Michael. People point to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” replacing Jackson’s “Dangerous” as a sign that the times had left him behind, an era of “authentic” artists replacing the pop spectacle that Jackson represented. But, nearly twenty years later, who has the more enduring artistic legacy, whose sound has been more influential? Sure, there were a legion of Nirvana knockoffs in the 90s, but listen to the music that’s out there today, both mainstream radio popular stuff and the hottest indie bands and you’ll hear a lot more Jackson than Nirvana.

In a lot of ways, I think we’re in a post authenticity age. While I have a lot of issues with hipster culture and values, I think one of the good things it did was pave the way for a broadening of taste, by making it acceptable to like popular songs, at first through the pretense of irony, then through straight up embrace. Songs like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Justin Timberlake’s “Rock My Body” were just flat out great pop songs, so good that they forced people to embrace them.

Timberlake is frequently cited as one of the heirs to Jackson’s title as King of Pop, and his career followed a similar trajectory. Starting out in a heavily packaged pop band, he branched out into solo work and took artistic control of his music, creating dance floor hits so solid they basically forced people to enjoy them. Pitchfork, the arbiter of hipster taste, ranked his “My Love” as the number one song of 2006, a choice with no irony behind it.

Artists like Timberlake and Kanye West draw on Jackson’s legacy of music that’s simultaneously personal and danceable, rewriting the notion that only in an acoustic or rock setting can real feeling be expressed. And, I think their songs are so transcendent and popular, they fill that cultural need for music to unite us. I enjoy loving a band no one else knows as much as anyone, but there’s a certain joy in connecting with people over a popular song that everyone knows, and I think that’s why even in a fractured audience MP3 world, we’re still going to have blockbuster songs that everyone knows and loves. You need those songs that a DJ play and everyone will know, and even as radio loses its influence, those songs will still find a way to become known to people.

Over on the rock side of things, the major thing that’s changed in 00s popular “alternative” or indie music is the infusion of dance rhythms and instrumentation into rock music. Sure, there’s still non-dance bands, but the sound of the 00s is definitely the 80s style, synth driven electroclash, like MGMT, Phoenix, etc. That’s a sound draws on the pop aesthetic of Michael Jackson, not the dour heavy atmosphere of bands like Nirvana. To some extent, I think there’s been a re-embrace of fun and style in music. MGMT is a very image driven band, a stark contrast to the “anti-image” approach of 90s bands, like Nirvana or Radiohead. And, songs like MGMT’s “Kids” are breaking out in a huge way, uniting people across genre lines in a way that Jackson’s stuff did in the day.

Personally, I love the embrace of fun and pop structures in contemporary music. I think the 90s was a nadir for music, as pop and rock radically diverted, leading to lame work on both sides. Now, we’ve got pop stars like Kanye West creating really ambitious, challenging albums, and rockers making danceable fun stuff.

Sure, Jackson lost his own footing in mainstream culture, but I think he was one Timbaland or Neptunes produced album away from a return to mainstream prominence. I’d have loved to see him do something along the lines of Jay-Z’s Black Album and bring in a host of huge producers, all with the goal of doing the best possible Michael Jackson song. But, I guess we’ll never get that.

I also think much of the furor surrounding Jackson’s death is due to the totally bizarre life he led. I saw him called the first post-human celebrity, and if you see video of the guy, it’s hard to believe he is of the same species as us. He seems more like an alien playing a person. I don’t think we’ll ever see a celebrity as bizarre as Michael Jackson again, but I do think the potential is out there for someone to drop another Thriller, and the time is more conducive for it now than it’s been since the 80s. Barriers between music are breaking down, in an MP3 age, there’s not that strict allegiance to one subculture or genre. Songs can break out and becomes sensations on their own terms, and the distinctions between what’s popular in the rock world and the rap world are lessening everyday.

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