Tag Archives: fame

Being a Michael Jackson Fan Means Always Having to Feel Sorry (For Him)

6 May

I love Michael Jackson, I really do.  But, as you all know, there isn’t one single entity known as “Michael Jackson.” No, within that too short life span were several Mikes, each with their own distinct personalities, clothing styles and yes— races.  And the incarnations of Michael Jackson are not  created equally.  I have my favorites.

First is Jackson 5 Michael, the universal, uncontroversial favorite. In my view, this Michael Jackson unfairly benefits from his youth. Add the fact that he was preternaturally talented and ridiculously adorable, and the deck is stacked in his favor.  Despite that, I’ll admit that I too have a soft spot for the kid.  He was so beautifully black, with his well-maintained afro and genuinely mischievous smile. And that voice! Whenever I listen to a Jackson 5 track, I am always unnerved by how emphatically Michael sang about love and other grown-up issues, given that he was still technically a middle-schooler at the time.  I also love that while his singing voice was very mature,  it was still noticeably a kid’s voice, that is, it sounded unsullied.  I think that’s why we all love coming back to this MJ, because it allows us to revel in what he was like before fame (and Joe Jackson) destroyed him–beautiful, innocent, and astoundingly talented. And maybe we wish that we had the power to freeze time and keep him that way.

Next, is the Michael Jackson that I am wholly devoted to– Off the Wall era Michael. I am not  joking when I say that I would have married this man. Why? First, after some awkward teenage years, Michael had settled into young adulthood nicely,  and he was just so resplendent and handsome. Second, Off the Wall is pure genius. Michael was as bubblegum pop as you could get, but you can’t listen to that album and not be impressed by how musically sophisticated it is (props to Quincy). His  falsetto was at its best, and all the songs on that album celebrate the intense, immeasurable pleasure of being young.  I sincerely hope that Michael was  feeling a little of that joy himself, after leaving the Jackson 5 and escaping the control of Motown and Joe to start fresh on his own. Whenever I watch the music video for what is quite possibly my favorite song in the world, it’s hard not to get the sense that Michael felt free and happy:

This brings us to Thriller era Michael, the superstar.  Obviously, he’s a close second for my affection, given the uncontested genius of that album (Besides the obvious tracks, “Human Nature” is particularly amazing). The one thing that keeps me from being down with this guy is that at this point in his life, you start to see signs of how damaged he is.  The racial anguish that would torment him for the rest of his life was already beginning to present itself in nose job #1 and the slightly lighter skin, and his glorious afro had been replaced with an oily Jheri curl (that’s really more of the fault of the ’80s).  Not only that, but he was beginning to do weird stuff like surrounding himself with exotic animals, a foreshadowing of the full-blown creepiness that was to come in later years. My last quibble about this guy is that he became too much of a pro, which in my view, made him less of a joy to behold. His dancing was more tightly choreographed, and his singing more disciplined. Of course, those things led to some really brilliant results (particularly in his dancing), but I feel like a little bit of that unbridled magic from his previous work was lost. Plus, we now know that the intense scrutiny that followed  in the wake of Thriller was ultimately his undoing, so this album is a little bittersweet for me.

By the time  Bad/Dangerous era Michael came around, things were very weird. For some reason, Michael decided that he needed to reinvent himself as a super macho guy, the kind who gets into gang fights and inappropriately grabs himself all the time.  This was really misguided, given that what always made Michael Michael was his androgyny, particularly his ability to make femininity cool, even attractive, in men. So the whole tough guy thing was wholly unconvincing and unappealing to me.  I also thought that the quality of his work declined under this new persona, because it caused him to abandon his stunning falsetto in favor of a throaty growl. Moreover, at this point, Micheal was knee-deep in plastic surgery, going from looking vaguely biracial during Bad to looking very white by the time Dangerous came out. But, given that this is the Michael Jackson who was around when I was growing up, I can’t kick him to the curb altogether.  He made “Bad!” And “Black or White!” And “Remember the Time!” These are the songs that my siblings and I danced to, and this is the time when I thought that there was this incredible dancer in America who could literally defy gravity:

The last Michael Jackson I’m going to call Post-History Michael. And I’m not gonna lie to you, I can’t stand this dude. He was just so angry all the time, and intent on playing the victim when the reality was that it was his questionable behavior which was fueling all of the criticism.  The songs about going out to the disco and dancing his heart out were gone, now all of his music was about how no one understood him and how persecuted he was. This was bad enough, but he also insisted on virtually spitting out each lyric, which gave his music a decidedly caustic vibe. What disappoints me most about Michael at this point is that his behavior was so juvenile, perhaps a reflection of his lifelong desire to reclaim the childhood that Mean Old Joe stole from him. I have a lot of sympathy for that, but he took it too far, and became a joyless whiner for the rest of his life. The definitive “I’m a victim” anthem was “They Don’t Care About Us,” which included such embarrassingly self-indulgent lyrics as:

Beat me, bash me
You can never trash me
Hit me, kick me
You can never get me

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be

Negro, please. You know you’re arrogant when you think that your personal problems amount to an egregious violation of rights that Martin Luther King would have been disturbed by. As a rule, once you start name-checking MLK, Gandhi or Mandela in reference to your own crisis, it’s time to quit. But Michael continued on this road, blaming the bad sales of Invincible in 2001 on his record company, describing the head, Tommy Mottola, as “a racist” and “the devil.” It’s actually sort of funny when you think about the fact that once Michael stopped resembling a black man entirely, he began to act like the crudest stereotype of one.

In the end, the self-mutilation was too painful to observe, as Michael Jackson finally rid himself of everything that had initially made him such a breathtaking sight to behold. I stopped listening to his music after History, because it simply wasn’t fun anymore. Given what we now know about his drug use and personal life, it is evident that it was an equally joyless experience for him to make his final albums as it was for us to listen to them.  Still, when I stumbled on this track from his 2001 album, it was good to know that no matter what he did to himself, even he couldn’t completely extinguish his prodigious talent.

\”Butterflies\” by Michael Jackson

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A Qualified (And Ridiculously Long) Defense of Kanye West

21 Apr

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user Tara L. Conley

So unlike the rest of the world, I don’t think Kanye West is all that bad. Before you start listing his many offenses, let me just say–I know he’s an insufferable egoist and that he hurt Taylor Swift’s feelings, something which seems to be on par with dog-fighting and insulting Ronald Reagan in the litany of “unforgivable sins in America.”

In any case, while I don’t listen to his music as much as I used to for a number of reasons, I still think that Kanye is the rare compelling figure in American pop music, someone whose work and persona say something important about the culture that they are a product of. And quite simply, that is why we need to keep him around, in spite of all of his transgressions.

Like most people, I first became aware of Kanye after The College Dropout debuted and everyone rushed to hail him the new Savior of Hip-Hop (Nas was probably like, “hey, that’s my job!”).  Darryl McDaniels from RUN D.M.C claimed that  he hadn’t even bothered to listen to hip hop in the ten years before Kanye’s album came out, and in a typical review, Renee Graham of the Boston Globe wrote that The College Dropout “[gave] listeners an irrefutable reason to believe the hype.” Critics consistently praised his music for its emotional intelligence and wit, all of which  West had managed to convey without relying on the gangster persona as a crutch.

Back in those days, I recall reading a profile of West in Time which heightened my admiration of him. I particularly loved that piece because it focused on his relationship with his parents, which just came of as really lovely and normal. Despite the fact that his parents had divorced when he was younger, it still seemed like they had figured out how to be genial and create a healthy environment for their kid, the importance of which can never be overstated. I also loved that Kanye had some fabulous pedigree–his dad was a former Black Panther who had become a Christian marriage counselor, and his mom was an English professor.  It was especially interesting that these two arguably bougie people had produced a kid who had become a rapper, a notable fact only because lower-class roots (or the pretense of such) are almost required for rappers. In the piece,  his parents acknowledged their initial disappointment with Kanye after he dropped out of college, a feeling which ebbed after their eventual realization that their kid was immensely talented, and that he would figure out how to make it even if he didn’t get an education. All of this–Kanye’s disillusionment with the education system, the struggle between his earthly desires and his contemplation of Christianity, and his wry take on the politics of blackness in America–informed and enriched The College Dropout. Simply put: after years of mimicry and caricature in hip hop, Kanye was interesting because he was just so palpably human.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable segment of this essay, the part where we dissect Kanye’s humanity, which must include an acknowledgment of his flaws. You already know them; he’s arrogant, he often speaks without regard for others–in general, the dude acts like he’s all id. It’s pointless to list where these flaws have led him, there are so many undoubtedly egregious things that Kanye has said and done that even President Obama had to call the brother out.

But, if I may intervene on his behalf, Kanye’s egoism has always been part of his charm, and  he is keenly aware of that.  In the Time article, his mom described Kanye’s rhymes as a Whitmanesque reflection on the self, arguing that like Whitman, West asks,  “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” This “largeness” is what allows him to rap about religion, drugs, school, women and class all on one album. Unlike other rappers, he doesn’t limit himself to talking about the trappings of the high life; if anything, his work is about the insecurity inherent in chasing and achieving the high life. Of course, like Whitman, Kanye can be exceedingly self-indulgent, which is when he gets into trouble.

But I maintain that oftentimes, what we perceive as Kanye being inconsiderate or inappropriate is really Kanye pushing our buttons and exploring what it means to be famous, black, and male in a culture that is capriciously hostile to all of those things. One thing that always struck me about him is that he’s very aware of the necessity of performing celebrity well, and of the fact that his own persona is a useful construct.  As he says about himself, “I’m pretty calculating, I take stuff that I know appeals to people’s bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides.” That’s why I’ve never understood all the universal outrage which inevitably follows a Kanye incident.  Everyone acts as if Kanye is this out of control maniac who needs to be muzzled instead of what he really is, a sophisticated critic of celebrity culture who enjoys playing with our expectations of rappers and black men in general. Take the Taylor Swift incident, which perfectly illustrates how awesomely meta Kanye’s performance of celebrity is. If you’re not an avid consumer of pop culture, (or maybe you were not a member of the mortal world for a few months) “Swiftgate” occurred at the 2009 Video Music Awards, after Taylor Swift beat  Beyonce for Best Female Video.  Kanye decided to interrupt Swift while she was giving her acceptance speech, and uttered the now immortal words: “Yo Taylor I’m really happy for you and imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!”

I have two thoughts about this: One, is anyone going to really argue that Taylor Swift’s prosaic “You Belong With Me” was better than the global  phenomenon that is “Single Ladies?” Two, this incident arguably  helped Taylor Swift’s career A LOT.

How exactly did it help Swift to be humiliated in front of millions of people you ask ? It all makes sense when you look at Swift’s own persona, and the narrative she uses to sell herself. At this point, Swift has been all but crowned America’s official princess by marketing herself as a shy, naive girl who was a loser during middle school and just loves country music.  This is despite the fact that Swift has been in show biz since she was very young,  and if her many accomplishments are any indication, is probably more of a seasoned pro than the  neophyte she would have us believe she is. But I understand that she has to sell records, and vulnerable naif has more mass appeal than ambitious, uncompromising young woman (lest she be condemned to exclusively playing gigs at Lillith Fair).  Which is why whenever she gets awards, she acts hyper surprised and tells  some variation of the story of how she was always a dork who never imagined that anyone would listen to her music and that she would be on t.v.  A rather disingenuous thing for a classically beautiful woman who just released her third studio album to say, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

Anyway, Swift was in the middle of a typically saccharine speech when Kanye rudely interrupted her, creating a clash between two American archetypes; the pretty, innocent blond girl who just wants to sing her heart out, and the threatening black guy with a distinguished career in incivility. It doesn’t take too long to figure out who America decided to root for. Swift was defended by every person with a blog, twitter account, and the title Commander in Chief,  while West was rightly condemned for his vulgar behavior. All of which perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the Taylor Swift narrative, that she always be the underdog and damsel-in-distress. It felt good to come to the defense of this poor little helpless girl who was being attacked by this nasty rapper, and because this is a patriarchal world, we rewarded Swift for being the passive damsel by caring about her music and elevating her career. Similarly, it made us all feel good to be unified in the belief that Kanye West was a ridiculous person, someone our otherwise divided country could collectively dislike. It’s the same reason why reality t.v. is so great; it makes us feel superior to watch people who are completely oblivious to the fact that the world finds their values and actions completely abhorrent.

But here’s the thing, Kanye West consistently demonstrates that he’s keenly aware of his public image, and is especially adept at manipulating it. He’s not a reality tv idiot who thinks everyone will be impressed by his bad behavior. After all, it wasn’t even the first time he’d had a public outburst at an awards show. He’d done almost the exact same thing in 2006 when he didn’t win at the MTV Europe Music Awards, and walked on stage then to interrupt the winners. Since then, he has purposefully cultivated this image of himself as a loose cannon, speaking out at the most inappropriate times. Each time, he disappears for a while and then reemerges, contrite and charming as ever. Readers, if that’s not an intentionally scripted performance, I don’t know what is. I’m almost convinced that Kanye is doing us a favor with each outburst by giving us all an opportunity to bond over our shared disgust. And he doesn’t seem to mind playing that role, if only because he knows that his next album is still going to easily be the best hip hop record released that year, and that we all value him too much to completely desert him. It’s a mutually agreeable relationship we’ve entered into with Mr. West, one which satisfies our need for public enemies, and one which sates his perpetual need for attention. Win win.

I should end by saying that while I think Kanye is an interesting  figure, I’m not uncritically in awe of him. Performance or not, many of the stunts he pulls affect real people who probably don’t enjoy being bit players in  the Kanye West Show. And I think Kanye could rein it in a little, and be the guy he was when The College Dropout came out–the genius with a huge ego who still had enough of a sense of humor to let us all know that he was in on the ridiculousness of his own behavior. In 2004, West did another interview with Time, and when the reporter asked him how big he thought his career was going to get, West answered:

“Probably like Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably. I’m not going to say definitely I’ll be as big as Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably.”

It’s quintessential Kanye: arrogant and yet aware that he’s also a bit of a joke.  That guy needs to show up more often, like he did two years ago to be in this hilarious video with Farnsworth Bentley and Andre 3000.