Elvis in Vegas

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley performed before more than 2,000 screaming fans at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and, in so doing, began his “last comeback,” the final phase of his storied career in popular music and culture.

Elvis took to the stage on July 31, 1969 after an eight-year absence that saw him go from a cultural phenomenon to a movie star to a relic of a time long-since past. Music had changed, the culture had changed, and Elvis no longer appeared to be relevant.

His significance could not be denied. By 1969 a wide array of music superstars could draw their musical lineage back to the King. He had sold more than 250 million records and had the record for most gold albums and gold records (ten and forty-seven, respectively).

And then there was December 1968, when NBC aired a television special that became popularly-known as the “comeback special.” The middle-aged King, looking tan and lean, dressed in black leather from head to toe, stood before a small audience in the round and—without fancy lights, effects, or even electricity pulsing through the instruments—he and his band put his magic on display. It was simple and beautiful rock and roll: blues, country, gospel…Elvis.

Something began to stir in the King, as it did in his manager Col. Tom Parker, and mere months later, Elvis had been signed to be the inaugural act at the largest showroom in all of Las Vegas in the newest hotel on the strip.

A young music reporter at the Los Angeles Times by the name of Robert Hilburn was assigned the task of reporting on Elvis’ Vegas gig. Hilburn penned something of a love letter to the King, a piece titled “History Will Place Elvis in No.1 Spot.” In it, he wrote:

At the time of his initial success, those reviewing popular music didn’t appreciate or understand the sensual, driving, undisciplined music of the singer from Memphis. Having accepted Sinatra and the tradition of Tin Pan Alley as their standard, they couldn’t take the new sound seriously. When they did write about Presley, it was usually in tones of outrage or humor.

When younger writers, who had been moved by Presley’s music, reached an age where their articles would be accepted by editors, Presley was no longer a vital, moving musical force.

With the youthful exuberance of an avid fan of popular music, he cautioned: “But that is going to be corrected now. Elvis is back.”

In some ways, Elvis was back. The King played to sell out crowds for the remaining parts of the summer of 1969, the start of a series of live performances which would carry him through to his death in 1977. From 1969 to the early seventies, some of those performances deserve to be ranked among his best. Film footage provides testament to his sheer, human force, his musical power and raw electricity. Backed by a stellar band and vocal section, and a modern and visual production, Elvis’ Vegas shows were an event, to be sure.

Of course, addicted to drugs and hindered by a physical girth that would match his stardom, many of his live performances in the later era also provide evidence of his decline, both in physical health and performative ability. The famous rock analyst Lester Bangs said it bluntly in his eulogy to the King, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” Accusing Presley of having “contempt for the audience,” he wrote: “I see him as being more like the Pentagon, a giant 
armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is 
legendary. Obviously we all liked Elvis more than the pentagon, but look at what a 
paltry statement that is.”

The “Vegas Elvis”—bloated, in studded jumpsuit, when the person on stage became more an imposter of the image he once embodied than the real thing—provided the last, and, hence, lingering, image we have of the King doing what made him famous. It’s a shame, of course, because there is some greatness in that time, too. But if it must be, then so be it, because there is even a grandeur in his tragic demise.

Forty years ago today, when Elvis began this, the last stage in his hallowed career, he also began writing the final chapter in the archetype he continues to define. Elvis was and remains the very definition of what we call “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” We revel in his house, one built with many a mighty voice and strum, but occupied by only one, then and now.

As the young Hilburn wrote back in 1969: “When all the applause is finished, the stage is cleared and the showroom at the International Hotel is emptied, one message remains: the rock generation was right after all. Elvis Presley was no false idol. He was, and remains, the most important of all.”

All photos came from the wonderful website “Elvis Presley Music” and their section on this special day in rock history.


It’s getting hot in California

“No, I believe time wounds all heals.”
–John Lennon

The (very) tentative budget agreement between the California State Legislature and the Governor is a study in odd and tragic political realities infecting the Golden State.  You can easily find diatribes on the structural problems at hand, ones that make it difficult for a majority to pass a budget or make it easy for a rich minority to sponsor “voter” propositions.  Others might be more concerned with the political strategy of the whole thing.  Republicans in this State are largely misfits when compared to the voters who identify as members of their party, but mainstream Democrats in the State don’t know how to play their hand very well either, often falling before the minority’s charge.

All these and more are tragic, but they aren’t my concern today.

California is ground zero once again in its history as it provides terrain for the political debate of the early century: should government exist?  The Republican minority in this State are not just making an argument for a “lean” and “efficient” government; they want it starved and killed.  Their budget and their posturing suggests they are comfortable with the State locking people up for outrageously-long sentences, but not providing them an education; protecting them from starvation or disease; providing for their safety in daily life on the roads, on the bridges, in the oceans, and near the rivers; taking care of them when they can not take care of themselves; and protecting them from abusive homes.

They are saying it is okay for a child to go hungry in this, the world’s 8th largest economy.  They are saying it is okay for the number of elderly living in poverty to rise. They are saying that if you are born with a disease or a physical handicap of some sort then it is up to you, and you alone, to survive. They are suggesting that if you are a child living in an abusive home that your rights do not matter, and that the State will not step in to protect them for you.

This minority of zealots is a group of nihilists, and nothing more.  While they might defend every one of the actions I reference above, and complicate my casual accusation of their goals and interests, the only way they can do so is to support some simple-minded idealization of a world that does not exist and say that these things will be provided for in that Disney-esque schema.

This is a modern world, with modern problems.  The complex societies we require to participate in the global capitalist economy foster (and at times create) conditions that people on their own can not solve alone.  Economically, it is better and cheaper for us to address these situations in the immediate than in the long term.  Indeed, economically, addressing some of these in the immediate term IS economic investment.  The nearly free education provided ALL baby boomers (especially middle-class ones) in this State led directly to the economic success we have had for so long.

But they are nihilists. They pursue some ideologically fringe idea even when all the evidence in the world says it does not compute with their stated reasons for so doing. They are in the business of killing government for the sake of killing government no matter who it will hurt in the process.

This is a war.  And the “other side” is not about protecting flawed government systems and funds for special interests, it is about protecting our very right to be served by any government at all.  It is about protecting the rights of children and the poor.  It is about protecting the rights of us all to have a government that is strong enough and well-funded enough to act on our behalf.

Racism in the strawberry fields

Most people in the United States don’t think racism is a problem. While they’ll agree it was a “problem of the past,” the lack of formal segregation (the only kind of racism people were taught to understand) suggests to them not only have things gotten better, they’re pretty good overall.

This perspective is rooted in the post-Civil Right Era debates between the Left and the Right, a debate the latter largely won.  When Reagan seized the rhetoric of “personal responsibility,” he worked from the assumption that people were unencumbered by any formal structural kinds of impediments to their own progress and, so, if they were poor, it was their fault.

The lack of recognition of racism in our present-day is ultimately linked to our lack of understanding regarding how “race” actually operates in our society.  As I suggested above, that is not surprising considering the historic contest of the last thirty years over ideology and interpretation, a struggle of public policy and accountability as much as anything else.  But our condition is also expected when you consider the complexity with which race actually does operate in our present moment.

Take strawberries.

In 2007, over the objection of 50 medical and scientific experts, the Bush Administration’s EPA approved the use of the pesticide methyl iodide.  The chemical is promoted by the strawberry industry, despite the fact it “has been found to cause thyroid toxicity, neurological damage, and fetal loss in lab animals.”

The letter written by the group opposing its approval in 2007 said, in part, “We are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farm workers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”  The EPA approved it anyway.

You and I and anybody else who might ever eat a strawberry is at risk because of this chemical.  Honestly, we have been for a long time.  Strawberry production is reliant on a host of chemicals, not to mention systemic labor abuses, some of which were detailed in Eric Schlosser’s 1995 exposé of the industry.  The long and short of it is, none of us should at strawberries, for both health and moral reasons.

The most disturbing part of this, however, is the way racism is at play.  Brown bodies toil in those fields, almost without exception. Those brown bodies are not valued by government or society as embodying the same kind of human being as do white bodies.  Their cancer rates are irrelevant; their wombs are collateral damage.  Their humanity is dismissed as an appropriate risk and loss in order for us to have big, red strawberries.

The use of methyl iodide has been banned by the State of New York. The decision on whether to scrutinize its use in California is currently in the governor’s hands. In the next two weeks, Schwarzeneggar will make his decision: to be a pawn of agribusiness or to recognize the humanity of poor, brown workers.  We will see.

A tremendous h/t goes to Barry Estabrook and his coverage of this issue on Gourmet.  Their “food politics” coverage is almost without rival.


Racial hypocrisy in the Sotomayor hearings

Thus far, there are no surprises in the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings.  Unfortunately, that is the problem.

Two things are abundantly clear: many people remain ignorant on the historical legacy of race and racism in the United States; and many people continue to cling to the privilege of white supremacy by absolving themselves of personal, racial ideologies and ways of knowing while exercising the same.

Republicans don’t seem to have much when it comes to actual legal decisions she has made. In sum, she’s hardly a flaming liberal in the record of the court and, on top of that, she practices what is considered to be a fair and impartial method by legal standards.

So what do they do?

They try to make her out to be a racist and an “activist” judge because she once suggested people working in the law might think differently because of their ethnic background and life experience.

To deny that is not only ahistorical, it is also perfectly produced by history.  It is a denial rooted in white supremacy.

What else is it when a bunch of white men attack a Latina judge for being racist when they never questioned once the bold suggestion that a white man was the most qualified in all the nation the previous TWO times an open seat on the court was filled?

What else is it when a bunch of white men assume the uncontroverted final word on what racism is–the overt recognition that race exists–rather than the one grounded in historical experience and forged out of antiracist struggle?

White supremacy rarely acknowledged “whiteness” except when it was confronted with its “opposite.”  One of the features of “whiteness” is the very denial of its existence.  “White people” don’t have race, that’s what those colored folks have. “Whiteness” is naturalized, the norm, simply what is.  All other racial constructions are the aberration, the difference, the problem.

Like the system it produces, white supremacy centers “white” people as the source of what is important and valued.

And that’s exactly what is happening here.


Mexicans after the U.S.-Mexican War

Beginning in spring 1846, after various diplomatic, informal economic, and unofficial militaristic attempts to take and occupy part of Mexico’s northern frontier, the U.S. declared war on its southern neighbor.  A decade after their politically unresolved dispute over Tejas, this war lasted for about one and a half years and resulted in the transfer of almost half of Mexico’s territory to the United States.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848 and ratified by both nations the subsequent spring, agreed to a payment of $15 million for the lost territory; settled the dispute over Texas in the favor of the United States; made stipulations about the land transfer; and detailed responsibilities and obligations regarding the actions of the Native Americans living on much of that land (many of whom never recognized a “foreign” power sovereignty over them and, accordingly, were hostile to Mexico and the United States).  The Treaty also detailed what was to become of the Mexicans living in the newly conquered territories.

Mexicans in the now occupied lands were to be protected under the laws of the United States and the Treaty.  They retained the right to their language, religion, and culture.  Their property and land was protected by the law.  As for citizenship, they were offered one of three options: 1) declare their intent to retain Mexican citizenship; 2) leave to Mexico; or 3) become U.S. citizens by declaration or by doing nothing.

This was the first time in U.S. history that citizenship was extended to a population that was not formally recognized as “white” by the federal government.

Two generations later, most Mexicans living in the U.S. no longer held title to their lands and found their cultural way of life increasingly under attack as U.S. white supremacy came to predominate.  In California, as land transferred from Mexican to Euro-American hands, a very racially-motivated Workingman’s Party dominated the call for a Constitutional Convention.  In 1879, that new Constitution not only made Chinese immigration illegal (the primary cause of the Party), but it also destroyed the legal protections Mexicans once enjoyed, rights promised to them in the 1848 Treaty.  California once required Spanish and English as the languages of it official business.  Now the new Constitution followed the already common practice of an English language state.

The “nation of laws” violated international and domestic laws in order to secure a democracy for some (white, European, male) at the expense of others (Mexican and nonwhite).

For more information, see:
Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Almaguer);
Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (Gomez); and
Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Meeks)

For more details on life for Mexicans in California after the war, see the classic Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californias, 1846-1890 (Pitts).  The newer Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Chavez-Garcia), which pays particular attention to issues of gender and sexuality, is also an excellent source.


Feminism and the high court

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sonia Sotomayor’s statement about being a “wise Latina woman”:

I’m sure she meant no more than what I mean when I say: Yes, women bring a different life experience to the table. All of our differences make the conference better. That I’m a woman, that’s part of it, that I’m Jewish, that’s part of it, that I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks, all these things are part of me.

In an amazingly candid interview with the New York Times, Ginsburg spoke out being the only woman on the court, the Sotomayor nomination, and a host of other related issues. It is a rare and illuminating opportunity to hear such talk from a sitting Justice. Check it out.


All-Time Top Movies

As a lover of movies and all things “Hollywood” I have been obsessed with the motion picture box office ever since I was a kid.

As any Hollywood-file knows, however, the top earners list is not the same as the top earners adjusted for inflationThe Dark Knight might have kicked some box office butt last year, but that was largely due to the rise in the price of a ticket, not because more people paid to see the movie than, say, Star Wars.

So who are the All-Time Box Office Leaders when compensated for inflation? Well, here’s the “Top Ten” with their adjusted (and actual) box office totals, and, more importantly, what I think of them:

1. Gone With the Wind (1939): $1,450,680,400 ($198,676,459)
I didn’t see the whole thing until I was in my twenties, when it toured in the beautifully restored version. It was beautiful and grand, yes, but a very different creature than when it was released in 1939.  It was the most-eagerly awaited film in history at its release, a film of a best-selling and much-loved novel. By the late 1990s, Scarlett O’Hara seems like the devil going around fucking up everybody’s life.  Kind of like Showgirls for the Civil War.  Anyhoo, the numbers justify some sort of respect, if not for content and form than just for the sake of being such a monumental hit. And it hit it was.  Gone With the Wind ran in theaters for more than a decade.

2. Star Wars (1977): $1,278,898,700 ($460,998,007)
What can I say about the movie that turned every blanket into an Obi-Wan Kenobi costume and every broom stick into a light saber?  The only reason it isn’t number 1 is because people had more things to do in the 1970s than they did in the 1940s.

3. The Sound of Music (1965): $1,022,542,400 ($158,671,368)
Any movie that recasts nuns into active anti-fascists is one that was bound to be force-fed to me from a young age. All my Catholic recovery steps have done nothing to mitigate the sheer force of Maria and those damned singing kids. I love this movie.  It might be the last of the great musicals to ever be made.

4. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $1,018,514,100 ($435,110,554)
Two memories related to “E.T.” standout for me. First, seeing the movie for the second time, I decided to sit apart from my mom and sister because I thought I might cry. I tried hard to fight off the tears, but one might have snuck out. My other memory is of going to Tijuana to shop and buying a small “piggie bank” of E.T. made of plaster and paint. I chose it from a line of some 40 vendors all collectively selling somewhere between 100 and 150 of the same bank. I also bought an E.T. wallet that day. The movie remains “magical” upon reviewing in my jaded middle age.

5. The Ten Commandments (1956): $940,580,000 ($65,500,000)
I hate Charlton Heston.  And not for his politics, although those were stupid, too. Basic problem with him is that he can’t act.  That can work in film (like in Planet of the Apes) or brilliant people can combine to work around it (like in Ben Hur). Here, he just stinks in what is trite Hollywood Bible fare. That said, I have fond memories of the film growing up, since it was beaten into our minds as some sort of Easter tradition. But how in the hell did Edward G. Robinson get a role in this?

6. Titanic (1997): $921,523,500 ($600,788,188)
I remember walking out of this spectacle and thinking how damned talented James Cameron was to make a movie that had something for everybody. This is a “guy’s movie” and a “chick flick” all at once. I think the parts holdup better than the sum upon reviewing. I remain fond of the narrative structure and the story he weaves, familiar to fans of mainstream films yet unrelenting in its consistency with the project. Plus, its the first film on our list with boobs.

7. Jaws (1975): $919,605,900 ($260,000,000)
I was only three when it came out, so too young for the hoopla. But it had legs (or fins?), as they say. When it premiered on On-TV in the early 1980s, I couldn’t stand the tension! It remains one of my favorite Spielberg movies because he does what he needs to do so frickin’ well. Anytime you are in a pool with kids, don’t you start “the song”?

8. Doctor Zhivago (1965): $891,292,600 ($111,721,910)
This is the one on the list I haven’t seen. I suspect it is good, since Omar Sharif is cinematic coolness.

9. The Exorcist (1973): $793,883,100 ($232,671,011)
I’ve only seen the non-television version of this movie once, at least from beginning to end. I can see how folks thought it was scary but, geez, Nixon was president. Compared to him it’s like the number 10 movie on the list. At my one full viewing I felt it didn’t hold up, especially when compared to Psycho before,  Don’t Look Now! at the same time, and The Ring since.

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): $782,620,000 ($184,925,486)
Has hardcore mine labor ever sounded so good? You have to turn off the “political” analysis side of your brain to make sense of the good parts of Snow White. Then again, if you turn that academic brain on and do some sub-textual analysis it all gets a little kinky. Either way, it is a work of history and of art, looking and flowing better than most of the Disney work. The story works, too.

For the rest of the list, visit the kids at Box Office Mojo.


The “Border Beat” (July 8, 2009)

The “Border Beat” is back with its bi-weekly rundown of Latino-themed news and views.  The July 4th holiday and the typical summertime doldrums mean a slow time for politics, and that means immigration reform talk is, well, talk. Still, there was some noteworthy talk when Obama convened an immigration legislation meeting at the White House late last month.  We’ll see where it goes. Me, I ain’t going nowhere.

Here’s the stories you might have missed:

• “Worker heat reform falters” (Modesto Bee)
This is the “near miss” story of the week as Cal-OSHA’s standards board overruled its field safety chiefs on a set of proposed amendments to the state regulations on “heat-stress.”  For those not familiar with these regulations, they require employers to provide shade, extra breaks, and water for agricultural laborers working on hot days.  Surprisingly (or not, depending on your view of race and power in CA), these regulations arose only after the 2006 round of deaths due to heat exposure in the fields. These proposed changes would have essentially relaxed the regulations, allowing for “grape vines” to count as “shade,” among other lunacies.

• “Pioneer researcher retires” (North County Times)
I normally bypass articles coming from really small publications unless they are significant in some way. This one is significant in every way. Legendary immigration researcher Wayne Cornelius has retired. In his 40 year career, Professor Cornelius advanced the field of immigration studies with his comprehensive approach to the topic. If there is a white guy who is a card-carrying honorary Chicano, this is the guy.  Happy retirement Dr. Cornelius!

• “Immigration attorney tells immigrants, ‘Don’t be scared’ about new laws” (Deseret News)
Here’s a kicker for you: Utah’s new anti-“illegal” immigrant law went into effect last week, even though nobody with any credibility on the left or the right seems to want it.  Law officials and politicians fear it will cause a flurry of discrimination claims and be costly, since the population of “illegals” in the state is so small compared to the population of legal Latinos and Mexican Americans.  Latinos are urging people to be vigilant and know their rights.  The comments at the bottom of the story–from the rank-and-file idiot brigade–are a reminder of why it is law.

• “In Mexican Vote, Nostalgia for Past Corruption” (NY Times)
The PRI won the latest round of midterm elections in Mexico.  All corruption jokes aside, it is a move worth keeping track of for the years ahead.

• “New realities eroding border double standard” (Arizona Republic)
People who work on the border and know what they are talking about have talked about the “double standard” between the U.S. border with Canada and that with Mexico since we stopped fearing a Canadian military invasion. The everyday understanding of this phenomenon is not so widely disseminated.  Hence, the value of this piece.  While the author celebrates the “erosion” with the recent passport regulations (since both are treated equally), let’s keep in mind small steps are made even smaller when they still revolve around institutionalizing our general fear of the border and what lurks beyond it.

• “U.S. Hispanics Live Longer, Despite Socio-Economic Hurdles” (HispanicBusiness.com)
David Hayes-Bautista is making some recent press with his decade-old findings that deserve all the attention he can muster for them.  Latinos live longer than the rest of the US population.  Hayes-Bautista calls it the “Hispanic Paradox” since, demographically, Latinos would be sure bets to live shorter lives. So suck it Minutemen!


• “Pastor who opposes homosexuality may get Chicago City Council seat” (Chicago Tribune)
Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, is about to be appointed to fill a vacant seat on the City Council. Thing is, his church is famously anti-homosexual, believing it something akin to a sickness.  De Jesus is a notable activist in his district and his impending appointment is seen as an advance for representational rights for Latinos.  The paradox here is rich and important.  I think we’re going to be seeing more of this kind of thing in the future and it is a welcome encumbrance to politics on the left. Eventually, Latinos and other so-called “progressives” are going to have the reach the point where they see the contradictions inherent in a public anti-LGBT equality stance and a representing poor communities of color.  Eventually.


The “Death” of Michael Jackson

They buried Michael Jackson today.

The memorial served as the final spectacle for a man whose public life was almost nothing but. Fans, friends, and family said goodbye in a stirring series of recollections and performances.  Berry Gordy’s remarks for the child star of Motown, and Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” were among the standouts. The first public words from one of his children, perhaps, the most lasting.

Outside, the media and throngs of more fans clamored to be a part of something they actively created and yet didn’t fully understand. All in all, it was the kind of production we’ve come to expect from MJ, one befitting his status in popular entertainment.

Michael Jackson died almost two weeks ago and, strangely, the cultural hyperbole of the performer’s unexpected death has seemingly already found its place within our collective memory of him. It is shocking, but only in the way everything associated with him was.  There never was a popular entertainer as big as Michael Jackson. His life was a series of unbelievable events. How could his death be any different?

If anything, the memorial was jarring for its reminder that the icon was also a person, now a body in a coffin before a packed auditorium. His weeping children, brothers, and sisters pulling our attention, though still feeding the public emotion of the moment.  The person they mourned, however, was beyond human in so many ways.  I couldn’t help thinking that the public service, televised to the world, might have been more meaningful for his family than the private ceremony they held earlier that morning. Michael may have been their son and brother, but he was also the engine of a train that transformed all their lives in ways almost surreal.

And, yet, there is also something unspectacular about his passing, something common and almost rote. Michael’s legend became solidified in death in the way it seems to always happen for music legends. The surprise of his death is the expected end to a story we’ve heard so many times before.

When the “King of Pop” had a heart attack, I was inclined to reach into my analysis bag and find the piece that fits the hole and say this is my generation’s “Where were you when Elvis died?” moment.  It’s a question I heard adult music fans ask each other for most of my life.  I was five when the “King of Rock ‘n Roll” passed, a little boy going to shopping with his mom in a small suburban town of the greater Los Angeles area.  We heard the news on the radio.  It was raining.  It was August in LA and it was raining.

Thing is, the question always bugged me, mostly because it was the wrong way to ask what people wanted to talk about.  They wanted to share where they were and what they were doing when they heard Elvis had died.  They wanted to share an event, the receiving of news that is shocking, so shocking you remember where you were when you got it.  They wanted to share the surprise, the unanticipated emotions, the kick in the gut.  And they wanted to confront the surrealism of death, in particular the death of somebody you never met but who, in passing, could have such a mysterious and sad effect upon you.

Other popular musicians and performers had died unexpectedly before Elvis, but none had possessed his historical or cultural significance.  Like MJ for those who came of age after the “boom,” he was bigger than his music.  He was bigger than popular music itself.  He was a self-contained entertainment event, a spectacle, a movement, and a tragedy.

Maybe it’s the natural comparison to that other King, but another part of me can’t help thinking the question we’re going to be asking each other is a little off, still.  Part of me feels like we should be asking “When did Michael Jackson die?”

That’s probably the same question we should have asked about Elvis, even though we didn’t really want to know the answer.  That’s the funny thing about icons.  The human death of the person who represented the phenomenon we associate with them is not necessarily the death of the phenomenon.  (And that’s not because the “music lives on,” though it does; that’s just the beauty of art.)  The person’s death is not the phenomenon’s death because that phenomenon is often already dead.

Icons aren’t people.  People play them, inspire their creation, carry the burden and benefit of having this uncontrollable, unmanageable, and largely incomprehensible force housed inside of and on their body, but they are not the “it” that is magical.  It is bigger than them.  It is them magnified by infinity.  It is not them at all.  Michael Jackson was a person, an artist, and entertainer.  Michael Jackson was also a larger than life movement, a burst of media-dominating mass consumerism, and a cultural artifact.

Jackson’s status as a cultural icon is built on the person he was, sometimes bordering on an impersonation of the man he could never become. But the death of that person, however tragic and sad, is not an end to his iconic position, just like the waning of the Jackson phenomenon was not. If anything, it is fuel for it.

The vacillations of the tabloid & news coverage of him during his life should not be seen as the same as his regard as an artist or as a cultural phenomenon. His standing on those counts is the reason he was and remained tabloid fodder. But even that fodder didn’t affect the icon, since that had already been locked in time as finite, as past. The most horrid of charges leveled against him later in life couldn’t even take it away.

At the heart of it all was his talent.  From there, he made us all dance, the kids and the old people in the room.  Everybody.  He made us love him with the smile, the cuteness, the power and passion all contained within a boy-man.  By the time of Off the Wall and Thriller we were well-primed.

That’s when it all took off, became the thing that we’re really concerned with right now, and tomorrow and after that.

The Michael Jackson spectacle—-the worldwide superstardom—-should not be underestimated.  No musical performer or group has ever been as popular as he was at his height.  Nobody may ever be that big again.  Jackson made an event out of the premiere of his Pepsi commercials; his award show performances were the thing you talked about the next day at school; kids went crazy for him on nearly every continent of this globe.  There was a time in the 1980s, maybe it was 1983 or 1984, when every single member of my family knew exactly who Michael Jackson was—and that family spanned nine decades of life and two nations.

And in death it has been more of the same, maybe even more than the same.  The Michael Jackson story is hardly over. It is now bookended and complete.  A little thing like death can’t kill it.  What the icon means will change over time; we can only guess what it will mean to generations alive a century from now. But we can almost be assured that the icon will mean something.

And how amazing is that?


Bill Withers speaks out

Jesse Thorn of The Sound of Young America features an interview with legendary performer Bill Withers on his most recent podcast.  It is an informative discussion, shedding particular light on Withers’ decision to leave the limelight more than 20 years ago.  While most have called it a “retirement,” in his eyes, it is anything but.

Withers is featured in the film “Soul Power,” a documentary about the 1974 music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire which featured James Brown, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, Withers, and an assortment of R&B legends sharing the stage with performers from the southern part of the continent.  The three-day concert was designed to accompany the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman title bout known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”  Along with 1971’s “Soul to Soul” concert in Ghana, the performances stand as historic instances of “American” music returning home to its roots, as its most spectacular ambassadors did the same.  “Soul Power” open this week in NY and LA.

Here is Withers performing the song “Hope She’ll Be Happier” from the documentary.

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