Friday, June 26, 2009

Thoughts on Michael Jackson

I awoke this morning to the Today programme playing Michael Jackson's Thriller. So I knew he had died. He was taken ill during Newsnight last night and one had the sense that it was serious. Radio 4's flagship news show, normally awash with grey men talking about affairs of state, rang with the sounds of Jackson's back catalogue and a slightly awkward James Naughtie interviewing a range of people from the world of pop.

And how do I feel about all this? And where do I put him in the pop pantheon? I only ask that second question because someone asked me earlier this morning.

I feel that Jackson's death is truly tragic, the end to a life that has been lived in three stages - as Paul Gambaccini said on Today - the child star, the megastar and the freak show. The third part would be swiftly forgotten, he said, leaving only the memory of the electrifying performer at the height of his powers in the trilogy of albums he recorded with Quincy Jones.

I wasn't a fan of Jackson's music - though I sat up into the wee small hours to see the world premier of the Thriller video (all 17 minutes of it) on Channel 4 - but I recognise his talent. Beat It, Billie Jean and Thriller are great pop songs, superbly crafted and produced.

But I do find it hard to disentangle that from the freak show Jackson became - his eccentric behaviour, changing facial appearance, his family life, allegations of abuse - both to him in his childhood and by him at his Neverland ranch.

When he launched his come-back tour - 50 consecutive nights at the O2 - I thought 'who's he trying to kid?' He looked frail, wild-eyed, unable to string sentences together. Surely this waif wasn't going to manage ten nights, let alone 50. It seemed a surreal final fling in an increasingly bizarre drama. And so, tragically, it turned out. His close friend Yuri Geller (that says something about his judgement) seemed to suggest it was the stress of the impending tour that killed him!

I suspect it'll be wall-to-wall Thriller, Billy Jean, some of the Jackson 5 hits over the next few days, pages of obituaries and memories of his 'friends in show business' and then the dust will settle. Like Elvis the myth makers will get to work, the cult of Jackson will arise, wacko will live on in a sub-stratum of the wacko celebrity world he inhabited.

But the music will stand. The Thriller album is probably one of the ten best pop records of all time (for all that I don't really like it) with it's strong tunes, infectious, machine-driven rhythms and crisp, clear vocal track. It has been hugely influential on the development of pop in the 25 years since it was released.

The tragedy is that Jackson never seemed to find the peace and friendship he so obviously craved. In that he is a true icon of celebrity culture.


Starbucks said...


Superb analysis, interesting and sensitive narrative, well written blog.


Ben said...

That last line nails it brilliantly.

Something about the snowballing strangeness of this story (a continutation of the cruelty which Jackson seemed both to attract, and, perhaps, to commit) has upset me slightly. The mythologising, the process of fabulation, in fact has already begun; as this article- from a paper of which I know you do not approve- details.


Very enjoyable article, thank you.