Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson performing at the Superbowl.
His death brought the internet to its knees.

For half an hour this morning, Google responded to what it believed was a denial of service attack - as millions of fans around the world Googled to find out if the rumours of the death of the King of Pop were true.

Twitter ground to a halt and went down as the rumours flew, and the gossip websites TMZ and Perez Hilton crashed under the weight of requests.

I wandered over to Amazon while writing this blog post, thinking I should get a Michael Jackson DVD to add to my collection, and it's pretty clear that rather a lot of other people have had the same idea. His DVDs currently hold the positions 1 to 7 in the Bestsellers in Movies & TV rankings.

From Wikipedia:

In the hours following Jackson's death, his record sales increased dramatically. His seminal album Thriller climbed to number one on the American iTunes music chart, while another eight have made it into the top 40. In the UK, where Jackson would have performed less than three weeks after his death, his albums occupied 14 of the top 20 places on the sales chart with Off The Wall topping the chart. In the UK iTunes store on June 26th, 25 of Jackson's songs were in the Top 100 best selling songs list.

I was never what you'd call a massive Michael Jackson fan (although I do confess to having a bunch of Jackson 5 tracks on my iPod), but I've spent this evening watching his top 15 music videos on MTV, and I've developed a new-found respect for the man and his art. Perhaps it's having the rare opportunity to watch so many of his videos together that brings home just what an incredible talent he was.

I remember how awed I was when I first saw the video for Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody on Top of the Pops in 1975, and how that one video defined the music video genre for an entire generation. It was clear to me this evening as I watched one MJ video after another, that Michael's work redefined the genre in a whole new - and extraordinarily creative - direction.

There are so many common themes and emotions running through his videos, and I felt an enormous level of pent-up tension in all of them - it was like watching a tightly-wound spring ready to explode.

Bad is a perfect example...

It's not just the subject matter, it's the choreography, the sound effects, the snappiness of the moves... everything. Amazing. The video featured 18 professional dancers and 35 real gang members recruited for authenticity. UPDATED 28/06/09: Oops got my facts wrong - the video for Beat It featured 18 professional dancers and 80 genuine gang members (from the Crypts and Bloods, apparently!). Anyway, even without the authentic gang members of Beat It, Bad is still a very cool video.

Michael at his most beautiful (IMHO) - if only he'd stayed at that point and not continued his journey into self-parody under the surgeon's knife.

Here's the very wonderful Billy Jean performed live at Motown 25 - including the moment when MJ unveiled the moonwalk for the first time (listen to the screams!):

...and here it is again re-created (to the uncontrollable delight of the audience) in 2001 for Michael's 30th anniversary special. This one made me weepy, for some reason:

I found myself thinking back to Fred Astaire at his perfectionist best, or Gene Kelly dancing round the lampposts in Singing in the Rain. Perhaps it isn't until you see all the videos together - and particularly right at this moment - that you realise what an incredible body of work Michael created, and what a genius he really was.

The choreography is stunning - and I can only imagine how long it took and how hard the dancers worked to get every move exactly spot-on. The massed dance section that characterises so many of his videos just blows me away, every time.

There's a level of intensity and aggression in many of his later videos which goes beyond the simple subject-matter. The sexual moves are more overt, and in some, The Way You Make Me Feel, for example, there's almost an underlying sense of anger within the sexuality.

But there's also an innocence too. At the end of TWYMMF, when Michael gets the girl, they don't dive into a passionate embrace, tongues akimbo - instead she walks into his arms and he simply holds her.

The street fighting themes of Bad, Beat It, The Way You Make Me Feel or even Thriller to some extent, are so reminiscent of the dance sequences in West Side Story, and the contrast with the sheer joy and exuberance of the earlier Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough is quite striking:

It's hard to reconcile the many different facets of Michael's life. The obsessive perfectionist blessed with a beautiful singing voice and stunning dance and choreographic abilities doesn't jibe with the Peter Pan "Wacko Jacko" that many in the media and beyond preferred to focus on, and yet they are found within the same man.

This is a man who has given away millions of dollars over the years - and was listed in the book of Guinness World Records in 2000 for his support of 39 charities, more than any other entertainer or personality. He's also a man who can blow $6 million in one shopping spree in Vegas on tacky oversized pots, gewgaws and sparkly tat that no-one would ever actually need (and which, by the look of them, only he could ever like).

How do you get your head around understanding someone whose relationships with children, and young boys in particular, certainly raised many eyebrows, and may well have been inappropriate on occasion; and how does that relate to a man so obsessed with his appearance and so lacking in understanding of how others perceive him that he spent 20 years having bits of his face lopped off and re-sculpted in an attempt to - what? - become someone else?

Knowing what we now know about Michael's early life, and his abusive relationship with his father, helps to put his childlike behaviour as a man into perspective, even if it does not excuse it. Perhaps he was attempting as a grown-up to recreate the childhood he never had - and as a re-created child, he related most easily to other children.

Perhaps, as at least one psychologist who testified at his trial believes, the man was so damaged by his father as a child (and by 40 years of living in the intense spotlight of superstardom) that as an adult he regressed back to being a 10-year-old boy, complete with the emotional and developmental limitations of a child of that age.

Here's Michael with the Jackson 5 when he really was a child in 1969, with I Want You Back. I find it delightful and sad at the same time:

Here's another couple of variations on a theme. The first is the official "Brazilian" video for They Don't Care About Us, which I absolutely ADORE because it was filmed in a favela in Rio and features the completely awesome Brazilian group Olodum front and centre, accompanying the song with a strong samba reggae groove. - and you'll know if you read my blog on a regular basis that Batucada is something that's very dear to my heart.

I also love this video because it's obvious that Michael is having the time of his life making it, and again I think it gives us another glimpse into two contradictory aspects of Michael's personality. Look at how strong and self-confident and aggressive he is in this video - and then think about his shy retiring breathy press conferences where he looks like he'd fall over if you sneezed on him. I find it fascinating to compare the two:

And here's another version which also kind of sums up the dichotomy of Michael Jackson. It's a (much faster) remix of They Don't Care About Us, with a remixed video to go with it. The video is a mashup of both the controversial and violent "Prison" video and the exuberant and joyful "Brazilian" video - and it's completely awesome.

Let's close with something that again epitomises the weirdness that was MJ - or perhaps the weirdness he inspired in others - the famous Cebu Prisoners version of Thriller - where 1,500 plus CPDRC inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, Cebu, Philippines, do the complete dance routine from the video. 23,633,154 views on YouTube - and counting...

I would absolutely hate to be famous. I wouldn't last 5 minutes in the spotlight, and I'd no doubt end up becoming an eccentric recluse somewhere. Imagine what Michael's life has been like the past 40+ years. No wonder he ended up so divorced from reality.

Rest in peace, Michael. I think you deserve it. Thank you for everything you gave us. You'll be sadly missed.

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Carolina Clay said...


Awesome tribute to Michael Jackson! I'm going to pass along the link to a couple of OFC fans who are really hurting.

Thnx for the thorough look back at the many different facets of MJ's life and music. May he rest in peace.


kimmstarraiken said...

True to her word, Carolina Clay has passed this blog on to an OFC fan who is hurting.

Thank you for being honest, as well as, objective in your assessment of MJ's life & death.

I agree that no one could possibly begin to understand what his life may have been like considering he lived all but 5 years of it in the glaring and ever present spotlight. So we have no one else's life to compare it to.

Great blog.


Mike Henden said...

WebWeaver - congrats on a well-written piece! Your reflection on Michael Jackson is well-researched and really thought-provoking. While I'm not a great MJ fan I agree with many of your sentiments. Love the blog – it’s looking great!

Yawar said...

I loved your write-up. So perfect and so complete. I wished to express my thoughts about MJ in the same way but you did such an amazing job, I'm just going to come back and visit this whenever I need to read up on him. =)

Real Estate Christchurch said...

I must say that this has been the best tribute so far. MJ did left a great legacy in the entertainment industry. From his dance moves, songs, to the videos - A true performer. I didn't know that "Beat It" had real gang members. I guess I learned something new today. Great post! Keep it up!