Friday, July 03, 2009


The case is made for Off the wall being the last great Motown album. Not just the last great record released on the Motown label (the Debarges might have something to say about that), but the great closing act of a post-war Golden Age. Motown and Detroit were so symbolic of this Age because they invoked the claim, at once idealistic and credible, that black people could escape from servitude through work or art or dancing or politics – activities in which one could imprint one’s unique qualities and at the same time become immersed in a collective struggle or celebration.

Mention the 60s and 70s, and you think of collectives – Beatles, Stones, glam, punk, funk, disco. The 80s produced only individuals: Michael, Madonna, Prince, Springsteen – each alienised and alienated. Its lissom disco delirium aside, Off the Wall harks backs to the 60s – it even has a dance side and a ballad side – but by 1982, the claim of the Golden Age had become implausible. Jackson could no longer (and no longer cared to) appeal to any shared notion that life was getting better. His tours became unaffordable to all but the highest-waged (an ever-decreasing group), and Jackson was there to be worshipped or defamed.

"In the case where the self is merely represented and ideally presented," writes Hegel, "there it is not actual: where it is by proxy, it is not." From the age of five, Jackson was packaged as something to be devoured by the market. He generated gigantic wealth, for his harsh and overbearing father, for himself, for countless executives and promoters and assorted hangers-on. Thriller the album became the image of Michael Jackson the commodity: it was a social event, and in buying the record, one became a part of that event. The content of the music was soon lost - many Jackson fans value Thriller and Bad ("a work of bad faith," in the words of Barney Hoskyns, "the sound of expensive technology thrown at useless songs in a vain effort to keep up with the innovations of Prince, principal pretender to Jackson’s crown") above Off the Wall. As Greil Marcus writes, "the content was now one's response to the social event of Thriller, the form the mechanics of the event." The same applies to his death - an event no more or less meaningful in the Jackson drama than the release of Thriller.

Marcus quotes Marx's explanation from Capital that the form of the commodity is the commodity itself, not the materials from which it was made - "the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness." This is why to look beyond the spectacle of Michael Jackson, to wonder what happened to him between 1979 and 1982 to cause such a change in his appearance, or to find out what really went on in Neverland, is to miss the point. For 45 of his 50 years, he became moulded into a pure commodity: there was nothing human or "real" beyond the spectacle. Even his musical output is negligible - early Jackson 5, couple of early solo singles (especially "Got to be there"), couple of late Jacksons singles (especially "This place hotel"), Off the Wall, "Billie Jean" - but when you compare his career with the far more impressive Prince, there is no doubt that Jackson's is the more significant in creating and reflecting modern reality.

In a piece written to mark Jackson’s 40th birthday, Barney Hoskyns asked: “If you’ve been groomed to simulate adult passion and eroticism at such a tender age, how do you cope when those feelings actually show up in adolescence and hormones start coursing through your confused, elongating body?” In his 1993 interview with Oprah, Jackson confessed his failure to resolve this question. “People wonder why I always have children around, becasue I find the thing that I never had through them, you know Disneyland, amusement parks, arcade games.” Even his re-creation of (the notion of) childhood - which he is hardly alone in finding problematic - is one of images, playing the part of a child from the point of view of an adult - a fake innocence with a murky flip-side. He is, says Ian Penman, "The Man Who Fell To Earth, right down to turning himself into a public corporation, but privately regressing into wombtime."

Just as Elvis's slow death began in the early 60s - with a short intermission for the comeback special - Jackson's began in 1980 (or earlier) and even a cardiac arrest cannot stop it in its tracks. Let us spare a thought for Bubbles, the overgrown chimp with violent tendencies, forgotten in Wauchula, Florida, who hasn't even been invited to the funeral.


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