Thursday, July 9, 2009

Michael Jackson's Death Was Tragic, But He Was Little More Than an Icon of Mediocrity

Damn! And double-damn!

It seems that one more person has come to bury Michael Jackson rather than to praise him. The battle over Michael's legacy continues.

Courtesy of Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez on Alternet:

I have watched the fawning nonstop media coverage of the death of Michael Jackson with skepticism this past week.

Yes, premature death is tragic. Upon that we can (mostly) all agree.

What I cannot agree with, however, are the repeated claims that Jackson: was a musical genius; broke down racial barriers; was a brilliant singer; was a great dancer; changed American culture.

The book African American Education by Walter Recharde Allen details the rampant double-standards applied by the US school system to black children. Too many teachers still hold negative stereotypes about blacks. When a white kid says two-plus-two is four, the teachers nod and move on; when the black kid does the same, they stare in disbelief, express surprise, or praise the student for high achievement. In other words, lowered expectations lead teachers to praise mediocrity in black students.

I believe something similar is going on in the US media regarding Michael Jackson.

As a musician (I hold a bachelor's degree in performance from Berklee College of Music) and as a music critic and historian, I can tell you with a clear conscience that Michael Jackson's musical abilities, placed upon the spectrum of human accomplishments in this field, are mediocre at best.

Yet everyone from the London Telegraph to People magazine have gone to great lengths to tell us Jackson was a literal "genius".

Jackson, whose vocal range was limited and who sang often insipid pop songs that rarely ventured outside of a basic pentatonic scale, was no musical genius.

Cannonball Adderley was a musical genius. John Coltrane was a musical genius. Charles Ives was a musical genius. J.S. Bach was a musical genius. Hector Berlioz was a musical genius. These were human beings gifted with uncommon genius in musical understanding, interpretation and expression.

To compare Michael Jackson's twitchy, strange pop singing to the accomplishments of people such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky or Charlie Parker is downright insulting; it is rather like saying the guy who designed the Tilt-a-Whirl is on par as an architect with I.M. Pei.

That the American press have been so quick to jump on the Jackson-as-genius bandwagon speaks to the dismal state of excellence in our culture. As more and more artistic and journalistic decisions have been left to MBAs and accountants, quality has fallen by the wayside. True musical variety has died with the radio monopolies of Clear Channel and others, as we are force-fed the same Lady Ga-Ga tune until we Lady Ga-GAG. Our standards, in other words, have sunk to new lows, and not just in music.

If Jackson is a musical genius, one realizes, it is not such a great leap to imagine Sarah Palin as presidential material, Lauren Weisberger as a great author, or Lou Dobbs as a substitute for real reporting and news. The Simpsons lampooned the growing cult of idiocy and mediocrity in our nation in the character of Homer; sadly, hardly anyone noticed because they were too busy relating to him.

As a culture, it appears that we have accepted the lowest common denominator as the highest we ought to aim. We are told Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, when in reality he is the Clown Monarch of Mediocrity.

Again and again we have heard the Jackson also "broke down racial barriers". ABC News told us he was the first black artist to do so. This is as nonsensical as the claim that he was a genius, for several reasons.

First, Jackson was hardly the first black person to find popularity in American pop music. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis - the list of those who came before is seemingly endless to anyone whose sense of US musical history goes back further than the 1970s.

Second, Jackson worked very hard not to be black. He hated being black. His self-hatred was deep and public. To somehow now consider him as being some sort of racial trailblazer is ridiculous and incomprehensible; it also shows that people see what they need to see, rather than what is there.

Did white people like Jackson's music? Sure. But they came to love him not in the respectful way audiences came to love, say, a young Wynton Marsalis, which is to say observing his unmistakable genius in stunned silence. Rather, it was to say "lookie there, what a cute negro child singin' and dancin'" as the very young Jackson sang age-inappropriate love songs in a shuck-and-jive style that brought to mind vaudeville blackface.

This type of admiration is nothing new in a nation that has a long tradition of white folks watching black folks perform mysterious and embarrassing works for their entertainment. The young Jackson was, to most white Americans, like a singing version of Buckwheat from Our Gang.

Jackson hardly embraced his race. Quite the contrary. If he sought to break down racial barriers, it was only to have surgery to make himself white. When it came time for children, he found a sperm donor who was white, because he knew that no matter how much surgery he had, his DNA would still make black babies - and he hated black people. Both his marriages were to white women.

Jackson's dancing, so often heralded as brilliant, was not so. He was an unusual dancer, yes. But not a brilliant one. A brilliant dancer is someone like Mikhail Barishnakov, Alvin Ailey, or Gregory Hines. Jackson was a weird dancer, and a good dancer, but he simply wasn't great.

We Americans have become so accustomed to inappropriate superlatives that we scarcely notice when they are applied to the middling.

As for Jackson changing American culture? Maybe he helped justify our increasing voyeurism and obsession with celebrity by being so publicly and tragically screwed up.

But did he singlehandedly change music? Nope. The uptempo songs are fun to dance to, but the slow songs are excruciatingly insipid. I can't see any of it mattering ten years from now or, for that matter, ten years ago. We knew this a month ago; that's why no one was listening to his music. Now, we pretend we care about his music when the truth is more about the selfish communal realization of mortality among Generation X, who in Jackson lost their first big star. If he can die, we are thinking, then holy shit, so can we.

This still doesn't make Jackson a genius. It doesn't make Gen Xers geniuses, either. But maybe that's the problem. We were the ones with the hippie parents who told us all that we were great. The truth was, most of us, like most people of any age, weren't great at all; we were average. We just thought we were great. Maybe we're projecting.


blaqbird said...

Oh Lord help us Jesus...I don't have much to say about Bill O'Reilly because...well...he's Bill O'Reilly. As to the other article, I guess she had to throw around her music degree to prove that she's legit, but it just made to realize how ignorant she is. I feel sorry for her professors at Berklee and I feel sorry for her. I could say more, but I won't. Not now anyway...

Thelonious said...

Not to speak ill of the dead, but it's about time somebody said this.

A.Smith said...

I don't know that it's fair to call him mediocre. To call him mediocre would also say he brought nothing to music and that he didn't change anything about it. Coltrane isn't a fair comparison either. No one will be that amazing...

As well, what MJ did for pop (and I do emphasize pop) music, Coltrane (and some of the others you mentioned) did not. Perhaps he wasn't a genius the way they were, but he was a genius in some other respects. Who cared about music videos before MJ showed up? Who made thorough entertainment important before he went on his own tour?

It's true, we always sing people's praises above and beyond what they really did when they die, but these praises for Michael are not too far above and beyond what he deserves.

And you mention his skin... people always bring that up as if that one thing proves he didn't like black people. Michael clearly had issues with himself, but I don't think his blackness was chief among them and I think it's a well-known fact he had a legitimate skin disease that he took medication to speed up it's process (that is remove the melanin). Also, the assertion that Michael, because he married white women, doesn't like black people isn't necessarily true, either. I've dated non-black men in the past... I love black people (even when they drive me batshit crazy). As for his kids... we don't know what went on there. Yeah, it's hella sketchy that he chose to have two white people parent his children, but again we don't know what it was. All the while, Michael preached about how much he loved Africa, look at what he did to combat AIDS in Africa... this man had issues and maybe being black was one of them but it surely wasn't chief among them and of the evidence you point to, I'm still not convinced.

No, it's not fair to make it look like before Michael there were no black performers who contributed positively and heavily to music, but it's also not fair to suggest Michael didn't either, just because some people are ignorant to black musicians pre-1970.

I think we should be careful that the praises we give him are factual and in-line with what he did, but we also shouldn't act as if he did nothing at all.

C.R. said...

as a music critic, she should know that musical ability, craftmanship or mastery aren't categories to grasp the genius that lies within POP music. her critique is as reactionary as those of art historians who accused the modernists of not being able to paint in the old masters' style.
but i'm just stating the obvious ...

Max Reddick said...

Perhaps it would be easier to sum up the author's critique with one word--hateration.

I am not a learned critic of art, but I do know what I like. Furthermore, regardless of his level of talent, regardless of his mastery of technique, someone who so profoundly touched the whole world, as evinced the outpouring of love and adulation from all corners of the globe, deserves the attention given him.

RiPPa said...

I'm beginning to think that everytime someone bashes Michael Jackson, Chuck Norris kills a kitten.

This one was one of the harshest I've read to date. That said, I completely disagree with the authors opinion. Which is a shame because I happen to love

luclonde said...

I'm glad somebody said this. I have no ill will toward Michael, but I have zero emotional attachment to his passing. Pop music is mediocrity incarnate; the majority of MJ's popularity and success is due in large part to the record companies that pushed him into the limelight, as well as the advent of music video marketing. I study music, as well, and I find the fact that his music his held in such high regard to be insulting. What's even more insulting is, as mentioned in the article, MJ wasn't an harbinger of black culture in pop music (and this is coming from a white guy). For that I look to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin... Stevie Wonder, even.

But it's ok if you liked MJ's body of work; because when it all comes down to it, the only thing that matters is what you like.

But even YOU should be insulted by the maelstrom of media coverage surrounding his death, because for one more glorious time the fat cats in the entertainment industry are making a buck off of a poor soul that probably never saw it coming.

Wizzy Jr. said...

Reading this, she probably thinks that the Osmands were musical geniuses. When she changes the Pop Music Game and changes the way we do VIDEO'S, she can holla at us with this shit. Until then, she needs to find something to put in her mouth so she can shut the fuck up.

Unknown said...

A man with mediocre skills, makes millions of dollars and gets millions of people give a crap about his existence has genius in some part of his existence.

By the way, he was not trained in music which makes it amazing that his natural sense of timing, pitch and rhythm were so spot on.

Maybe he was a potential genius without socio-economic standing to be afforded a music geniuses education.

Just saying.

P.S. I don't know too many REALY talented people that are not weird.

Trey Stone said...

think C.R. pretty much nailed it. and i don't know why this "he wasn't the first black artist to gain popularity" talking point keeps getting repeated as if it's an argument. no one's saying he was. but obviously the scale of his success in his prime was unprecedented.

Unknown said...

as much as i fell off mj after 'remember the time' there is something about the way his music grabs you.. even now i hear an into and tap my feet and smile - totally involuntarily..
my nephew is 16 and the first time he watched an mj video was a priceless moment.. mouth open awe..
how genius is that?? who else can do that hit after hit after hit...
my nephew now knows every mj hit... he studied his dancing.. he has copies of all his videos...don't get me wrong.. he is into uk grime and rap like all other kids but his first musical 'experience' that was not 'imposed' by adult tastes was michael jackson.. he wanted it upon hearing it..
mj defines popular culture of our times...
he was the predominant soundtrack to my youth.. and i had punk, ska, jazz, classical.. all of it..
this must be the same for millions of people who mourn mj's passing.. from 60's to now and in the future..
just as elvis is, just as frank sinatra is, just as the beatles are

popular culture matters and is not to be dismissed from an elitist an narrow minded point of view...

my analogy was to be the same as cr's with modern artists and old masters...
so i give you this..

is madonna an icon yes.. i cannot abide her music but i do recognise what she has done for popular culture and her massive global following...
is madonna less white because she loves a black baby or two.. no
does madonna hate herself because she has changed her look so often.. no

these people need to get over their prejudices and stop using mj's death as a way to get their 15 minutes worth...
give credit where credit is indeed due..
and quite apart from that..snarking is never attractive...

Jonathan said...

If this lady thinks nobody was playing MJ's songs before he died, she needs to get out more. Lord help the poor DJ that shows up to the party/BBQ/wedding reception without a couple MJ records in tow. smh

MilesEllison said...

To call Michael Jackson an icon of mediocrity is harsh. Saying that Michael Jackson is a musical genius and innovator is going too far in the other direction. Granted, Michael Jackson sold more records than almost anyone. But people are confusing popularity with musical innovation, musical genius, and musical impact.

Comparing a pop singer like Jackson musicians outside of that milieu isn't fair. Pop music has been a flavor of the month art form since at least the 80's. SInce the 80's at least, it's been a disposable commodity with limited long term impact. Despite the fact that Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, or other Jazz musicians were never as POPULAR as Michael Jackson, they were much more influential and had a much more profound impact. And they created an entirely new genre of music which is still learned and played by successive generations of musicians.

Contrast that with Jackson. Sure, a lot of people liked his songs, but they weren't anything new or revolutionary. They were combinations of proven formulas from different genres, that were marketed and promoted well. There are many that consider his music videos innovative, but honestly, who watches music videos anymore? Music video was irrelevant before the 80's ended. MTV stopped playing videos not that long after Jackson's domination of MTV, in large part because they had alienated the audience that actually LISTENED to music. Jackson's influence on popular music is not based on any kind of musical substance, it's based on promotion, popularity, and spectacle, and profit. The Victory Tour practically created the concert ticket price gouging model (remember having to buy a minimum of $120.00 worth of tickets with money orders?)

The fact is, despite the worldwide popularity of Michael Jackson's songs for much of the 80's, nothing was said about his musical impact in the 90's. The media was more interested in his plastic surgery/surrogate mother/marriage for publicity/child molestation allegation freakshow than they were in his music. That's what makes the sudden worship of his musical impact both ridiculous and disingenuous. Nobody in the media EVER cared about Jackson's music. They cared about the spectacle his life provided.

Anonymous said...

I am a writer, art critic, and philanthropist—if (I’m sure it does to you) titles and such are deemed worthy when criticizing the genius that is Michael Jackson. However, titles mean nothing to me and with this in mind, I find it quite difficult to agree with your opinions, as they are undoubtedly a biased reaction of your Ivy league education.

First and foremost, my definition of a genius is one who evidences an extraordinary natural capacity of intellect or creativity. In that respect, an individual who-- at the age of say 7 or 8-- has the ability to dance with the precision that encompasses collective dance forms and is able to project the likes of Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and so on, with his voice, is indeed extraordinary, intelligent, and creative. Furthermore, to call his voice "limited” and “twitchy/strange,” are factors that lead me to believe you have not studied Mr. Jackson's work or maybe you are too young to fully understand his . If you are to rightfully criticize him, I would advise you to actually listen to his entire musical anthology. To compare Michael Jackson to another artist, especially in a different genre i.e. John Coltrane, does not constitute your degradation of his talent or character. The same can be applied to the impact made on racial barriers and/or philanthropic activities.

As someone who clearly is a fan of Michael, I am saddened by his untimely passing and am even more disgusted that you, among others, are unjustifiably spending valuable time demeaning him after death and refusing to give credit for the selfless acts of love that he shared with the world through music and most importantly, as a human being. And for what, may I ask? There are thousands upon thousands of adults who were raised on The Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and Michael Jackson’s music, including myself— we have become successful musicians, visual artists, business owners, lawyers, doctors, and so on— to say that Michael had no influence on our success or the sheer courage to embark in unknown territories is a complete oxymoron. Anyone, even you for that matter, can influence someone, but how your impact is weighed is the question.

You kindly mentioned Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, all of which are respected musicians, but they are not pop artists. Being that you hold a BA from the esteemed Berklee College of Music, it is expected that you have the capacity to differentiate musical genres, which is not evidenced in this article. Secondly, you have the audacity—to the point that one must, if not already, should dismiss your opinions—to claim that Michael Jackson was “a cute negro child singin' and dancing,” shucking/jiving vaudeville blackface act. Perhaps every act that Motown Records signed was a vaudeville act, right? And the kids who begin to wear their hair in afros were not influenced by the Jackson 5, because it was not an example of embracing your heritage as an African American? Based on your understand or lack thereof, I suppose Michael Jackson has always hated himself, his race, and did not possess a unique talent or befittingly earn the countless amount of awards and accolades that were given to him for over 4 decades.

Anonymous said...

Last, but not least, the last paragraph of your article is my sole reason for writing a response. You stated:

“This still doesn't make Jackson a genius. It doesn't make Gen Xers geniuses, either. But maybe that's the problem. We were the ones with the hippie parents who told us all that we were great. The truth was, most of us, like most people of any age, weren't great at all; we were average. We just thought we were great. Maybe we're projecting.”

However, the problem is within you and other like-minded people. If our parents told us that we were average, would it require much of an effort to stay “average?” If we did not think of ourselves as great or worthy of such grandeur, what good would it be to strive for the avant-garde? Are we not to reach for the pinnacle of success that our ancestors and great leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who once said “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity”— sacrificed their lives for? It is such narrow-minded thinking that caused Michael to subject himself to surgery and sadly, there are children and adults who have killed themselves or lived in misery because of your elitist philosophy.

In the end, God is and will always be the only one who can judge. According to Him, each of us has the capacity to become great. Our talents, once seeds, are only to grow from hard work, faith, and purpose. We become great when that talent is used for the good of others. Michael Jackson did that.

Anonymous said...

Musical genius is unquestionably a matter of opinion. It depends on your taste in music, you background, you childhood upbringing along with many other personal traits. All genres of music have their own genius’s as far as I am concern and if you cant relate to a type of music that does not give you a right to put that music down or any of their artist or “genius’s”

That being said in Pop Music I feel that the amount of records you sell do help in getting the title genius bestowed upon you. Such is the world of Pop Music. Now I like a few different types of music pop being one of them so let me turn you on to someone that in my opinion was a genius but was never given the respect he was do. He is not even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates had a better voice then M.J., wrote all the lyrics and music to his songs and played keyboards and guitar. He may not have sold as many albums or singles as M.J. but he did have as many hits, and if you listen to their whole albums I would say his non-released singles where way better then M.J. On top of that he could sing/play a more diverse style of pop. Lastly at 60 years of age he still has it. Please do yourself a favor and go to the site livefromdarylshouse (all one word) you may not agree that Daryl was the genius M.J. was but you will find a professional and artist.