Monday, June 29, 2009

Want to see an exhibition?

Of course, there is some good capitalist analysis of Michael Jackson's career out there. After a thought-provoking if rather scattered article in which he perfectly articulates the lure of Off the Wall and "Billie Jean", K-punk quotes Nietzsche on the artist, whose natural state is not freedom of the neoliberal variety but obedience to laws beyond conceptual formation. He goes on: "dancing is precisely a question of subordinating the body to "arbitrary laws" - and eventually, after the punishing dedication that Jackson put in, that subordination yields an inspiration that grips and micro-directs the body." While such subordination does not necessarily threaten Dionysian art, Greil Marcus suggests that Michael's art stagnated. It's a question worth asking: when does a performance become too rehearsed to honestly be called dance? Where is the line between commitment to dance and commitment to spectacle?

I just want you to recognize me in the temple

After a night on stage, Michael Jackson would sometimes sit in his dressing room drinking water and reading Sufi poetry, perhaps Hafiz. The sobriety, the Sufi poetry, the isolation: unsurprisingly, this picture brings Friedrich Nietzsche to mind (of course, he’s always within my mind’s reach these days). The parallel may be apt – men seemingly eaten by their own genius turned insanity – but I’m even more interested in the possible parallel between our recently deceased pop icon and the Dionysian artist towards whom Nietzsche gestures.

In Michael Jackson we see someone whose art was physiologically manifest, who gave himself wholly to rhythm and melody and was remarkably light on his feet. Even when the lyrics turned towards what could have been heavy-handed moralizing, the primal (?) rhythm and melody were still dominant. In a world of celebrities busy playing parts – perhaps pop stars more than all – Michael Jackson seemed to be one of the only performers not acting. “Let your self be in your deed,” says Zarathustra, and MJ’s songs, videos, and (most notably for me) his time on stage might well be perfect examples of what Zarathustra meant. More shockingly, Michael also seemed to inhabit his own system of valuing. He did not live within society’s moral code. He may have been courageously evil, or at least courageously fucked up.

Yet it is widely known that Michael Jackson strove not only for musical honesty but for worldwide popularity, courted through the sort of false affect Nietzsche scorns. My earliest enthusiasm for Michael had as much to do with Carl Orff, stellar editing, and ecstatic Romanians as it did with his musicality. The Dionysian artist, on the other hand, is eternal precisely because he is not timely, because his peers do not embrace him. In one sense, the world has not embraced anyone more than it has Michael Jackson. But it may be equally true that his peers did not or could not embrace him precisely because he was without peer. The best articles I’ve read in the last several days point to Michael’s near total isolation. Hua Hsu notes a “prominent, persistent loneliness in his music”:
Of course there were songs like "Leave Me Alone," "They Don't Care About Us" and "You Are Not Alone"--obvious expressions of distrust. But is there a more gruesome tale of going-it-alone than "Billie Jean," a more conflicted take on macho fierceness than "Beat It?" "Black or White," a pop ode to integration, ends with four minutes of Michael-as-Panther by himself, feeling himself (literally) and rampaging through a city block. One could never imagine him horsing around with the posses of "Bad" or "Thriller." The moonwalk was always a one-man-dance.
Michael Jackson was not one for celebrity chumming and that sort of social jockeying. His collaborations, rarely as popular as his solo work, were with icons of another generation, more his objects of study than his peers. I remember saying years ago, after I first watched his duet with Siedah Garrett, that he had more charisma with his own hat (and if Gotham Chopra is to be believed, Michael was just as nervous and unsure in his off stage relationships).

Consequently, I’m not much interested in reading Michael Jackson as a product of his time. Yes, everyone is historically situated, but I couldn’t give a crap about “post-racial” this or “monoculture” that, or even the claim that his celebrity destroyed him. People have spent millennia destroying themselves and each other without the help of the late capitalist media machine. Michael is interesting to me as a fellow human being, one who makes obvious both the depths of struggle and the heights of beauty possible for our species, and how the latter is rarely found without the former (I don't understand the pressing public desire to either deify or vilify, as if these are mutually exclusive options). I see in him the wonder and the terror that comes of determination and single-minded commitment to one’s art. In short, I see tragedy and... life.

So if they say “Why? Why?” Tell them that is human nature.

Friday, June 12, 2009

S-So Much Betta

When it comes to music, there are many people whose tastes I trust more than my own, people who might easily persuade me to love x or denounce y. Such is the case for most of the arts. The exception is dance. I have unwavering confidence in my appraisal of dance. Some dance is good, some plainly is not. Some choreography is good, some plainly is not. And now that the new season of So You Think You Can Dance has begun, I have a chance to exercise my most robust of aesthetic sensibilities on an even more regular basis.

The best routines on the show are, without fail, by choreographers who actually care about music, who choose the piece carefully and allow the music to work itself out in the bodies on stage. Unfortunately, Wade Robson is the only one who does this with any sort of consistency (unless they get Dmitri back to choreograph more samba: his dances are always brilliantly percussive). Of course, in my dream world, all the contemporary pieces would be set to Xiu Xiu, The Dirty Projectors, or the Talking Heads (the songs are so interesting that most of your work is done for you), and not to sappy singer-songwriter ballads that only know how to emote in one way (why did anyone ever think it was a good idea to dance to Lifehouse?). I fully realize that this world will not find its way onto prime time television, but what excuse do the hip hop choreographers have? My favourite hip hop dancers and choreographers are booking the best gigs there are (namely Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson) and these people do ridiculously interesting and intelligent stuff. Some people call it “new style” (think solo Justin Timberlake), and some hate that label, but whatever you want to call it, these dancers and choreographers know how to listen to the subtleties of the music and make the sounds visible.

Segue to this post’s actual purpose, to pimp my favourite dancers. First up: Misha Gabriel. He was recently hired for MJ’s London shows this summer, he choreographed an excellent video for Korean superstar Boa, and he can do this (he’s on the left):

Second: Jillian Meyers. She dances for Janet and comes up with sick choreography (note: after watching hundreds of dance clips on YouTube, I have come to the conclusion that “sick” is universally acknowledged as the appropriate term to express enthusiastic approval of dance… I like this). She’s the red head:

This is good dancing; this I love.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I can’t bring myself to write about music without a disclaimer, so here goes: I don’t know how to write about music. First, any attempt I make to categorize the music I like – even for the sometimes-worthwhile purpose of naming its ancestors and current intimates – falls horribly flat. (I once called Elliott Brood bluegrass?!?) Also, the ‘criticism’ I really like, the kind that translates aural experience into a similar prose experience, requires writing abilities beyond my ken.

But approximately once a year I write about music anyway. This year’s lapse is long overdue.

I first heard The Dirty Projectors last summer. “Rise Above”’s pacing and vocals (both back-up and lead - I love Dave Longstreth's voice) drew me in immediately, and the LP of the same name became one of my most listened-to albums of the last year. The concept – a re-writing of a presumably much loved album from Longstreth’s youth (Black Flag’s 1981 release also titled Rise Above) – is nostalgia put to creative use, and the delivery sounds vaguely (to use someone else’s discarded words, more for their awesomeness than their accuracy) “like Prince playing Prokofiev with a juju orchestra”. Their new album, which has not yet had official release, contains the same stuttering African guitar, similar idiosyncratic rhythmic shifts, and even better vocals from the duo/trio of beautiful women. But Bitte Orca contains fewer moments of powerful stillness and I miss lyrics like “this fuckin’ city is run by pigs” – such simple punk despair in conjunction with the band’s tentative hopefulness brought much of the magic on Rise Above.

So I was disappointed that their short set last night, opening for TV on the Radio at Toronto’s Sound Academy, drew only from their new album. There were some standouts – “Two Doves” was a brilliant opener, and “Remade Horizon” included a brief vocal prelude that really should have been included on the album – but I was not as moved as I had anticipated. The venue’s poor sound was partly to blame, as was the crowd’s serious lack of enthusiasm, the latter of which made Amber Coffmann look mildly desperate as she jumped around the stage during set-closer “Stillness is the Move” (a track that, despite its buzz, did not survive more than a few listens for me).

TV on the Radio suffered even more from poor acoustics (it really ruined the mix) and Toronto’s drowsiness. It should have been amazing but was not. Still, I’d never been more than a casual fan of the band until now and the show prompted me to pay more attention. And, predictably, “Wolf Like Me” provided at least one moment of euphoria.

It didn’t help matters that I’ve seen two of the best shows of my life in the last few weeks. I spent Monday night at The Casbah, Hamilton’s intimate little venue, seeing the Constantines for the fourth or fifth time. They remain my favourite live band, and hearing them in a room that small, with hardly a raised stage, standing just a few meters away from Bry Webb, the audience around me screaming along every word… hell, I could do that every night. All of their albums are dynamite (though Kensington Heights creates a rather smaller explosion than the rest), but the songs are still better live, particularly the standout tracks from their debut: “Justice”, “Young Offenders”, “Hyacinth Blues” and “Arizona” all far surpassed their recorded counterparts.

On May 19th I sat in the centre of the 14th row at Leonard Cohen’s Hamilton show. Cohen’s thoughtful sensuality is an interesting contrast to Bry Webb’s brazen virility, though both work to keep the audience breathless. Cohen’s own longings became the longings of all present, a whole stadium caressed into feeling together as a septuagenarian made love to us all. The players were awe-inspiring, the set list was perfection, the man himself was all grace and lightness (he actually skipped across the stage on more than one occasion), and even Copps Coliseum could not ruin the delicate sounds. I have no way of talking about that evening that does not rely on hyperbole and open-mouthed wonder, so I will stop there.

And thus endeth today’s attempt to talk about musical experience. I think it went rather well. I may try it again soon.