Michael Jackson:Sign of Times

Michael Jackson Chronicle


The funeral and memorial services are now over; now one can take a cooler look at Michael Jackson.

At death he was 50.  The current generation is just discovering him since he was already burnt out during most of the last decade.  When he had burst upon the rock music world – it wasn’t much of a burst, a yet another arrival really – in the late seventies / early eighties, his own generation had iconised him.  Therefore at least two generations – although in the current era of marketing – overkill the generations get quite fudged – would not have experienced the legacy inherited by Jackson and, arguably, sold away and finished off by him.  In his obituaries he is rightly remembered as a pop star, but he started his claims to fame as a rock star, which is a deeper and much more venerable stream within pop music.

Rock music escaped from its deep and brooding Negro netherworld (and I use the word negro in its historically full, uncluttered, un-American, respectful sense) when Elvis Presley sang it on American stage without having to blacken his face by burnt–cork black paint.  Before him many other whites had played rock music, but they had to blacken their face to play “black music” in white parlours and bars –because actual negros could not be allowed in. Presley unlocked this huge genie of the music market and brought in for the first time rich whites as customers.  This was 60 year ago, a liberation of the industry in a sense.

And what distinguished rock music ?  Being negro in origin it had, obviously, a powerful mixture of sadness, anger, dissent, rebellion, and a quest for newness and change.  It had gone beyond the world of Blues and even Jazz.  It was quintessentially 20th century; it was a thrusting popular music in the social sense, even global and civilizational.  The musician-artist spoke in the name not of him/ herself but of the whole people.  It may not be so well understood today, but this was something new in music – the  going beyond personal.

From Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, to the Beatles :

imagine there is no country,

no religion too


we all live in a yellow submarine

Jimi Hendrix with his social utopias in:

all along the watch tower


purple haze…

Eric Clapton’s lyrical angst in :

change the world


i shot the Sheriff

Rolling Stones’ anarchic pyrotechnics like :

i cant get no satisfaction


paint it black

and so on through to Bob Seger, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, etc. —  I have just picked up names randomly, without any order or hierarchy.  Those who were there and are still here today will remember wistfully how powerful, densely packed and pervasively iconoclastic was the world evoked by rock music then.  It seems an ice-age ago! So when Michael Jackson came with his:

I am bad

it had the tenor,  angle, and stance of the huge tidal wave of rock music that was just turning to ebb.  But as his later music showed, his “badness” was not ironical or even italicized, it was merely personal.  Michael Jackson got an entry into rock on a false pretence of rebellion, which he quickly encashed by going away from rock music`s bedrock – into the realm of purely personal.  He finished off rock n roll’s soul – for thirty million pieces of silver.  I remember I had watched his rise with a sense of betrayal and loss.

Today’s obituary writers are unconscious of the irony, and are certainly unabashed, when they recall with admiration how Michael Jackson changed “marketing” of his music – what would today be called the business model.  He transformed himself into a “brand” – a whole package made up of persona, music, performance, merchandise, memorabilia, etc which was professionally premarketed, marketed, and post marketed.

Thatcher and Reagan had got hold of global policymaking space by then ;labouring classes of the world were in retreat. Michael Jackson’s t-shirt or cap was as much an item as his song.  Earlier nobody bothered what cap or shirt a Lennon or a Hendrix wore – in fact noticing all that would come in the way of rock! In short, instead of financial mavericks and amateurs that the titans of rock were, Jackson was their antithesis – as MJ Inc.  Investments in MJ Inc. were huge; so were the returns – it was the first true transnational enterprise in music industry.

A character in an Ian Rankin’s novel – or is it Robert Wilson’s ?  I forget – says that capitalism killed off music.   He is half right.  Investments in Beatles, Clapton, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc were very capitalistic indeed – and most often these sucked them dry.  But it was competitive capitalism; it had as many ”promoters” as there were bands; it took chances, it dreamt and hoped of making it big , of hitting the musical and financial jackpot.

In Michael Jackson’s case it was monopolistic capitalism which is an entirely different animal indeed; it is incorporated and syndicatist notindividualistic ; it pre-empts and undercuts and almost eliminates investment risks – by the expedients of rearranging the product to its lowest common denominator , by packaging it with much other merchandise, and by this , and by that ; in short by turning it into a widely tradable commodity.

Here is the dialectic then: when the size and scope of investments/returns becomes too large it changes its character of competitiveness by losing  grasp on its own product , becomes speculative and then tries to eliminate competition by subverting, suborning and rigging the market – thus smothers itself eventually by abandoning its life-blood : competition. Latest big example is the US icon General Motors, which killed itself by rigging fuel and taxation policies in US congress/senate while producing inefficient, large, and polluting cars. It was this monopoly capitalism, maturing since 1980s, that had killed rock music through Michael Jackson (of course there were others too, but he was the icon).

It has done the same to heavyweight boxing, toy-making and films (remember Kurosawa could not get money to make films in a prosperous Japan!). It is in the process of doing it to cricket (20*20), computer-games and novel writing. It has failed, so far, in football, because despite everything the very nature of the game itself produces in contrast to Germany champagne football of Brazil against all odds– and also enables a Slovenia , or  Egypt to sometimes beat Brazil !

And what is the essential nature of Jackson-era pop music ? It is the music of the purely personal space ; its artists have no singularities, no overreach, no astonishment, let alone a vision to give.

When someone sings “I love you, baby” at the age of 18, it is fine; when s/he sings “ I love you, baby” at the age of 48 its is also fine; but ifs/he has been singing only this during the intervening 30 years, it means something else – it is not fine ! Today’s pop music is a gigantic and severally packaged commodity of soft porn, consumerist, perennial pre-teenagehood. It is predigested Pap music; it is music for the hotel lobbies, waiting rooms, lifts, for corporate and government ceremonies; it is general in character, global in idiom ; it is muzak. How poorly nourished are the souls of today’s youth!

What Michael Jackson did to music market is much talked about, not so much what this market inevitably did back to him. He was made to cross fundamental boundaries; he was made to break with old semiotics.

He was obliged to undergo advanced medical surgical operations on his face, skin and body so as to get the look of a smooth, hairless, hermaphrodite creature – both male and female. This doubled his sex-appeal and revenues. Before him rock stars were overwhelmingly male– an occasional Donna Summer, etc were exceptions — working with phallic guitars as their main instrument. Michael Jackson with his hermaphroditic instincts opened the field for females, but instead of giving them truly innovative female instruments he gave them too the phallic guitars ; in imagination or otherwise an hermaphrodite is after all , fundamentally half-formed !

Without Michael Jackson, a Madonna would not have been possible. Of course, after some time women pop stars had the good sense to drop the guitar – some tellingly took up the cello, but most went the only available Michael Jackson’s way : of being “entertainers”, not messiahs. What a loss ! Imagine, a female Lennon, a female Hendrix, a female Jagger…

This was not all. The early white converts to rock music of the blacks, had to acquire legitimacy by painting their faces black while performing. Michael Jackson did the dialectically opposite. After entering the legitimacy of rock music as a black star, he surgically turned his face and body white in order to have double market-appeal and revenues — and thus lost legitimacy. In this Faustian deal, he had to pay by abandoning the contrarian spirit of rock. He was forever driven by the very market forces he worshipfully brought into rock music , seeking to be both black and white, both male and female, both boy and man — as the grossest business model possible. These forces turned him inside out; they were too much for his small self. In the end that is what he was reduced to – skin, hair, guts, falling apart.

But there is this little wonder of an end-note struck by Michael Jackson. Nearing his end he converted — secretly, because otherwise his market would have been hit — into Islam; a well trodden path of many a venerable American blacks. This speaks volumes, about blacks, whites, faiths, and America. But this is not the time or place for going into that.

Except this bit : after the collapse of Soviet Union, what remains in the world`s ideological space as the “principal contradiction” of the times — in the place of capitalism vs socialism? Perhaps none other than capitalism vs islam, however debased and lumpenized both are today and however sad such a denouement may be. While losing his beloved money, and senses, and everything else, perhaps the dying old rockster’s spirit had made a final true  leap to grasp what he should have always held fast to : people’s verities.


About ctaposh

Cartoonist, poet, social activist, development banker, documentary filmmaker, reader of books and realities, ponderer of questions milling around.
This entry was posted in Culture, Dialectics, History, market- mythology, People, Society and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Michael Jackson:Sign of Times

  1. knolquest says:

    terrific post. Frankly have read such a sharp commentary after a long time.

  2. mike says:

    Pretty nice post, I really enjoy read your blog, I Miss you Michael

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