Monday, 6 July 2009

Michael Jackson: now the dust has settled

A few thoughts:

- Jackson's initial potency in Britain (much less so in the US, where everyone always knew that pop had been created on their own doorsteps and it was always much more omnipresent) was born out of the romanticism of pop (a concept which I think is absolutely central to much of what I have written about pop and its slowly-dying emotional hold, but which like so much of my work is emotionally alien to most Americans, with the exception of those who really do understand the wider world) and yet it was his own success which did more than almost anything else to crush it. It is certainly not coincidental that the Thriller phenomenon - gathering more strength and making more converts with each week that passed - was pretty much concurrent with the decisive defeat of "gentlemanly capitalism" by the style of business which shamelessly jumps on whichever bandwagon it thinks will make it the most money. And yet, even as Thriller monopolised all it saw, it was still one step removed for the British - we still had parents who wouldn't let their children watch ITV, and if you confined your radio listening to Radios 3 and 4 and your TV viewing to certain fixed points on BBC2 (and to some extent Channel 4, but even early on it was always a lesser extent) you could pretty much avoid any reminders of his existence in a way that is not the case with pop today. Its individual stars may be smaller, but its cultural reach is greater - the very process which Jackson pushed to the limit grew beyond his control and rendered him irrelevant. It could well be that the biggest pop stars we have left are those who have grown up with it and now have the greatest geopolitical power of all.

- perhaps the sense in which Jackson is most comparable to Presley is that, like Elvis, his greatest impact combined with political shifts to scupper the European cause in Britain. Presley's initial emergence coincided almost exactly with the brutal realisation that the US simply would not allow Britain to make common cause with France against US interests (an assertion of global dominance - just on the edge of the first flowerings of post-modernism, as well - which also decisively pushed France to ally itself with a Germany only just tentatively re-entering the international stage, and pretty much froze Britain out of the nascent EC), and the Pelvis seemed to subliminally crush the plans for Anglo-French union which had been seriously discussed immediately before Suez. Similarly, Thriller danced on the grave of the simultaneous hopes for a One Nation Tory (and thus much more European-minded) coup against Thatcher and for British pop to take a serious turn to its nearest geographical neighbours and beyond (via Visage, the Associates, Japan, Kraftwerk getting to number one, even one-hit wonders like the Mobiles and a huge pop group like the Human League). While Thriller's impact on mainstream US music as measured via Billboard was, unlike that of the directly comparable Star Wars on mainstream American cinema, overwhelmingly positive - it blew away lots of MOR and country dreck (Crosby, Stills & Nash and America even had Top 10 comeback hits in '82!) - its impact in Britain was much less overwhelmingly positive, and seemed to merely set the tone for a second quarter-century of ever more pathetic chasing of someone else's imperial shadows, precious little of which would have a fraction of its joy of discovery and sense of life (and, with the universalisation of pop culture through the new capitalism, nor could it have), after a brief period when it seemed, as never at any other point in the last half-century, as though the wrongs of Suez could be, if not wholly geopolitically reversed, at least culturally rebalanced to something more conducive to what Britain should have been.

- Jackson's greatest impact, viewed objectively, was probably in countries where English was not the native tongue, and especially in countries nobody would have considered part of "the West"; Britain and Australia had been primed for something like this over decades. In a China and an India slowly opening themselves to international trade and setting their stall for what they now seem poised to become, an Eastern Europe grasping a new future as the force which had dominated it for so long withered under its own contradictions, and to a lesser extent a Western Europe coming to terms with the economic winds blowing around it and the associated forces pushing Schlager and its equivalents largely off the charts and airwaves, he really was what Elvis was to post-Suez Britain - the decisive force sweeping away the dusty pages of the native culture. So much of world-changing political import happened in his peak years that it was as if Jackson and neoliberalism made each other happen faster, especially in Eastern Europe (where, if anything, he peaked with Dangerous). The question remains as to whether the latter will die in tandem with the former. I'm not optimistic - ethnic nationalism in Europe is merely a dead end which makes it easier for the market to carve up the continent while posing as a "people's" force which will make it harder.

- Momus suggests here that the era of narrowcasting will see a major return to high/low divisions and a decisive shift away from cross-class pop dominance. It may be different in places where pop has not been integrated into latterday patriotism - that whole "we may have lost our power, but at least we can still do this!" rhetoric that surrounded the Beatles - for so long, but I can't see such a change happening in most of the UK to a great extent (although it may happen to some extent in Scotland, should it secede from the Union). As I suggest in the comments to that thread, though, the whole Coldplay-to-Blunt axis of middlebrow pseudo-pop - aimed precisely at an audience which has always been suspicious of both the genuinely highbrow and the unashamedly brash and populist, a sort of modern-day equivalent of light classical - may be a British manifestation of such a reassertion of class distinctions. Obviously, it is a wholly negative one, but we couldn't really have expected anything better. We will need to look beyond these shores for genuinely interesting hybrids to be born out of a possible reconciliation with higher culture on the part of those who would have slummed it with Jackson, to places which are not stunted - and confined to an ever narrower mass experience of pop - by the specific timing of their grand imperial eclipse, by the reactionary legacy of the class system and by the cultural memory of ELP and Rick Wakeman, whose undeniable absurdity, point-missing and tedium nonetheless would not represent such an albatross in a country more at ease with its cultural self. Even on the level of pop at its most instant, there is a genuinely great pop single at number one at the moment which is over and done within a little over two minutes. Unfortunately, it's number one in Germany and is nowhere to be seen in the UK Top 75. We have further to go than ever.

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