Monday, June 29, 2009

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Laugh away: