Sometimes a new discovery isn’t new at all. Who remembers Jody Watley? I sure didn’t, but I guess I do now. She had a series of big hits in the late 80’s, and then, presumably because New Jack Swing went out of style, continued recording with a much lower profile. Obviously, I don’t know very much about 80’s funk music, so there’s a lot of artists who had major moments of fame who I’ve barely heard of. Also, in the 80’s, there was still a fair amount of market segregation, so that artists who enjoyed great success with black audiences didn’t necessarily become well known in the white-dominated mainstream. That means that Jody Watley may be one of the most successful dance music artists of all time, and one of the most successful black women singers, but in her day ‘dance music’ was code for the gay nightclub demographic, funk and R’n’B were for black audiences, and female singers were considered bubblegum. Does that mean that Watley was unfairly overlooked and deserves to be taken much more seriously? Probably not. Her music was pretty unambitious pop-funk, but it does offer a refreshing alternative to the same old handful of generic white-girl pop hits that we’ve come to associate with the decade.
Suzanne Vega does not write about ordinary things the way ordinary songwriters do. That is, she certainly writes about ordinary things. She writes, as most people do, about her interior life, about love, and about the human condition. It’s what she has to say about those things that makes her, in my mind, one of the greatest songwriters. It’s a unique poetic perspective to view solitude not as a purgatory or some kind of punishment for romantic failure, but literally as a friend who takes your hand. (It is also, like quite a few of her songs, a little bit gay.) It’s the unglamorous truth that for writers and artists, solitude very much is their best friend, more compelling and rewarding than any romance. It’s what makes creative types so unrewarding as romantic partners. But the condition of being alone isn’t usually made the subject, maybe because it’s essentially boring, maybe because exploring it would reveal the artist’s essential selfishness. I’ve come to realize that, as a lifelong fan, it’s very much what I relate to in Suzanne Vega’s writing, the way that so many of her songs are explorations of solitary experiences. The observations made sitting in a cafe or wandering around an outdoor market, the feeling of lying alone in a dark room, the cleansing ceremony of cutting one’s own hair, the act of writing itself. Those are all ordinary things, made interesting by the sensitive and inquisitive mind of a writer whose greatest subject is her own interiority.
A few months ago, Austin’s long-running nightlife institution 80’s Night at Elysium announced that they would no longer be featuring the music of Michael Jackson (except by request.) Many radio stations and 80’s themed events did the same. The King of Pop was canceled. Why? Because of a new documentary that made it – in nauseating, explicit detail – very, very hard to deny the accusations that Jackson had been a rampaging pedophile.
We’re living in the days of ‘cancel culture’, where cultural value is weighed against perceived personal virtue, and for the most part, it’s been enormously cleansing and cathartic. But it also invites serious debate about what gets canceled, when, and why. There’s no clear consensus, because everyone has their own boundaries of what they find acceptable. But if anyone clearly deserves to have all of their accolades posthumously revoked, it’s Michael Jackson, right? But we can’t cancel Michael Jackson. We need him now more than ever. We need to confront all the ways that Jackson is the totem of everything that’s gone wrong with our pop culture.
It may be possible to cancel an obscure or mediocre artist, but Michael Jackson was neither of those things. Are pop divas and their choreographers suddenly going to stop emulating his dance moves in their music videos? Not very fucking likely. (Sick fact: one of the victims featured in the Leaving Neverland documentary grew up to be an influential music video choreographer who instructed the likes of Britney Spears in the fine art of synchronized grotch-grabbing.) Millions and millions of records sold all over the world over the course of decades can’t be removed from the memories of the people who enjoyed them. That’s cultural impact.
Also, why now? Why not in 1993, when the first accusations of child sexual abuse came to light? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? That’s where we have to take a long hard look at the metaphorical man in the mirror. Obviously, the culture has changed. It has changed over the past century, and it has changed over the last two or three years. The first change has been in the gradual secularization of society, in which the elevated role once occupied by the church and its leaders has been replaced by popular culture and the entertainers who shape it. This has allowed a person like Michael Jackson, who came from nowhere special and had no power, skills or schooling in the traditional sense, to ascend to a pope-like position of influence and notoriety. He’s hardly the first, the only, or the final person to be in that position, of course. Many people have occupied it to varying degrees, and they handled it with varying degrees of grace. One glaring thing we’ve learned is that being a secular icon is not a very desirable or healthy position to be in, and many of the people put there either abuse their power or destroy themselves. (Michael Jackson did both.) We place people on pedestals because God is dead but we still like pedestals.
More recently, though, our perception of our icons has changed. Our relationship with the power structures that have been in place for generations has changed. Of course, resistance against unjust power structures is as old as civilization, but now that so much of our cultural identity is in the chimerical sphere of entertainment, the entertaining is also the political. We’re tearing down our secular icons, in other words. We’re punishing the people we’ve put on pedestals for committing human misdeeds, but not really questioning why we thought they needed to be up there in the first place. Yes, of course, people who commit misdeeds should be held accountable and those who commit crimes should be punished. The question is why we love them so much that we expect them to do neither and feel personally betrayed when they do both.
So let’s take another look at the sad and pathetic saga of Michael Jackson. I’m too young to remember a time before he was tainted by scandal, but I’ve been told that before the child-fucking, he was considered to be very wholesome. The world watched him grow up, for god’s sakes. He was an adorable, gifted child; who became an adorable, soft-spoken, un-rebellious, gifted adolescent; who grew up to be a visionary, business-savvy, bazillion-selling artist. And if he started to get a little weird as he matured, he carried enough residual sympathy that his weirdness at first seemed endearing, or at least understandable, or, finally, a symptom of problems which were not his fault, to which we could still extend sympathy. Which we should, extend sympathy, that is. There’s no question that Jackson was a victim, an exploited child himself, someone who literally never had a normal day in his life and had no basis for forming a normal identity. There isn’t really another example of anyone who became that famous, that young, under such abusive circumstances, who went on to become even more famous, under that much scrutiny, and remained under the most intense scrutiny even after no longer being able to do the work he’d become famous for in the first place. Because the hits eventually stopped coming, but the attention never went away. The weirdness became the work. Michael Jackson had to entertain, it was the thing he’d been doing all his life, the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing anyone ever wanted him to do, and if he no longer had the spirit to make music, he would do it by being a mutilated, grotesque ghost of himself. When the scandal broke that Wacko Jacko stood accused of interfering with children, that was entertaining too. More entertaining than hit songs or music videos. This was a real-time, real-life Grand Guignol horror spectacle, and it sold one hell of a lot of newspapers. The fact that he was able to throw enough money at the problem to make it go away was a miscarriage of justice, but that too was entertaining. Then the inevitable sequel happened, and he weaseled his way out of that too, and it was entertaining. Then he died, killed by his longtime drug addiction, aided and abetted – as it always is – by exploitative management and sycophantic doctors. That was entertaining as fuck. His memorial service was shown, live, in movie theatres. The whole entire saga is a sick example of putting a blameless person – a child! – onto a cultural pedestal before the adoring eyes of millions, and then watching him grow increasingly sick and deranged until he finally drops dead.
None of which excuses or minimizes the fact that he fucked little boys. He did. He was a pedophile. There’s no two ways about it. The shell-shocked recollections of his now-grown victims just brings it into sharper focus. Michael Jackson scouted, groomed, seduced and raped little boys, over the course of decades, all while treating their families to five-star vacations and buying them homes and helping them in their careers. He got away with it, because he was richer than God and still had enough people on his side to defend him. He had enough people who still believed that he was just a harmless eccentric who meant well, that he was a victim who’d lost his own childhood and was just trying to reclaim it, that he was doing good for those kids and it was all just a big misunderstanding, that he had been framed by nameless enemies who were out to get him, that the victims were money-grubbing lying little scoundrels, etc. Anything but the glaring probability that a wealthy, isolated and mentally ill man could have abnormal sexual proclivities and freedom to pursue them with little fear of recourse.
Michael Jackson wasn’t canceled in 1993, or in 2003, and he’s probably not going to stay canceled now, either. In 1993, and in 2003, it was clear that we’d decided that the entertainment value of Jackson’s work outweighed whatever harm he might have done to a couple, or even a dozen, little kids. Worse, it seems that we’d also decided that the entertainment value of the accusations themselves, the spectacle of watching an icon fall from grace, outweighed all of the harm done. Enough for Jackson to go on being an icon, albeit a severely tainted one. Let him go on being an icon, then. Let him be a dark symbol of the media age. Let him be the worst example of the ongoing battle between artistic immortality and personal disgrace. There’s nothing lower that hurting children. People who’ve gone down in history for their atrocities still drew the line of decency at child-fucking. On the other hand there’s nothing more celebrated than selling a few millions records and making some really cool music videos. We’re here now weighing the relative merits of a man who made some of the best pop songs of all time, but who probably also fucked a few children, and we’ve consistently come to the conclusion that those things more or less balance each other out. That’s were we are now, as a culture. That’s what Michael Jackson is an icon of. Never forget Neverland.
Marianne Faithfull digs deep into the well of blues music. She has, in her latter day career, come redefine what it means to be a modern-day blues singer. She’s drawn on everything from traditional American blues and spirituals, European cabaret and chanson, the mid-century rock canon and, of course, compositions of her own. Any musical tradition that draws from the well of human sorrow is blues, and Faithfull pulls it all together. Who else would put so many seemingly disparate inspirations all side by side and make it sound so coherent? On Strange Weather she picked songs by Tom Waits and Bob Dylan along with Leadbelly and Jerome Kern, and while some of it may seem like a pretty loose interpretation of the blues, you can’t get much more blues-purist than Kid Prince Moore, an artist so obscure that the only evidence of his existence are his 17 known recordings. But, as Faithfull shows, all of these artists from different times and backgrounds share the same sorrow.
This is certainly the call to arms you need to hear while browsing at Hot Topic. Morrissey encourages you to stick it to the man in the quietest, most unobtrusive way possible. Meanwhile, I would not be surprised to find that ‘shoplifting’ is some obscure north of England palare for acts of a homosexual nature. “A listed crime” you say? Well, no doubt, stealing is a crime, and if you were to confess that you’ve got a sticky set of five fingers, that would be a fine double entendre too. You could be stealing some nice boy’s virtue. Yes, indeed, this is some of the most thinly coded gay agitprop to be seen on English television in Our Year of the Lord 1987 (very much not a good year for gay people.) I’m sure that it was, to those that got it, discreetly incendiary. I suspect that Morrissey’s swaying hips are still enough to set gay sadboys’ hearts aflutter with validation. I mean, it works well enough for those of us who are merely sad and romantically discombobulated without the extra burden of needing code words for it. Morrissey’s brand of bedsitter emo – miserabalism – knows no sexual boundaries (because his fans don’t have sex and when they do they hate it, haha) which may be why he’s never publicly committed to having a sexual orientation. When he quipped that genitalia is a cruel joke, his words rang true. But really, it’s the heart that is a cruel joke, and the genitals are just its unruly henchmen.
All critical consensus aside, I still unabashedly really love Never Let Me Down. Most critics have dismissed it as the nadir of cheesy eighties-ness, a career low for David Bowie. That’s exactly what I love though. It’s David Bowie trying to be the commercial artist he always could’ve been, if he’d been able to tone down his natural weirdness. The weirdness is still barely contained, but buttered up with all the trendy 80’s production gimmicks. I’m not the only one who suspected that the problem was just lazy production taking the sheen off of some actually pretty strong songs, and now there’s been some remixing done (for a box set, of course.) Listen to the same song with and without dinky 80’s canned beats, and at least chalk it up as a near-miss.
“Come out and find the one that you love and who loves you…”
On a gloomy day, it takes the Smiths to raise my spirits. There’s something uplifting in being a miserable misfit and yet bopping along anyway. There’s something about Morrissey’s weird confidence that he’s incurable. And he is incurable. In the beginning it seemed like a posture, because how seriously can you take a pretty boy who insists he’s antisocial and sad? Every young person thinks they’re antisocial and unlovable and permanently locked out of the normal-people party, and then they grow up and realize their juvenile angst was just that, juvenile. Not Morrissey though. He grew up and stayed the same miserable antisocial fuck he’s always been, just somehow truly incapable of whatever it is that makes you a functional adult. Whatever doors regular people walk through on their regular-person pathway of life, those doors are closed to Morrissey, and by extension, the people who relate to him. Being good looking and brilliant and acclaimed at what you do isn’t enough. You relate to Morrissey because you never grew out of that nagging feeling that there’s just some secret skill that you’re missing, some stroke of luck that hasn’t struck. Or maybe you just like animals more than people and enjoy feeling sorry for yourself a lot.