Friday Five: September 1988

It’s not that 1988 didn’t produce any memorable pop, rock, or R&B hits–it’s the year of George Michael’s “Faith,” for example–it’s just that many of the more successful songs from the year aren’t as enduring as songs from other years.

Maybe it’s a product of where music was at the time. Big hair rock, pop ballads, and dance pop seemed all equally popular, and college (or alternative) radio was climbing towards the mainstream. This musical polyglot is kind of characteristic of the charts for most of the rock n’ roll era, so maybe it’s not unusual. The dearth of really ensuring, standout hits that have survived the ages is the more interesting thing.

Apparently, September 1988 is a good reflection of the year as a whole. You’ll know the songs, or you won’t, but only one of them has stood the test of time to achieve the iconic status I’m talking about. And even that only sat atop the Hot 100 for two weeks.

5. “Peek-A-Boo” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
I don’t know this song and I really don’t know much at all about the music of Siouxsie and her banshees. I know they had fans–passionate fans if my world were any indicator–and I know they had a lot of success. I bet this song is not indicative of their best, either artistically or in terms of sales, but it’s a historic song for this month of 1988. In the second week of September, Billboard debuted their “Alternative” charts, meant to capture music that was big but not as “commercial.” This was the first #1 song on those charts.

4. “Finish What Ya Started” by Van Halen
Van Halen had become “Van Hagar” in 1985 and still managed to continue their success of the David Lee Roth era. They had a hit album in 1986 (5150, which topped the level of success they had with their monumentally successful album 1984) and followed it up with 1988’s OU812. This was a decline for the band in terms of sales, but it produced a set of hit singles including this late addition to the album. It peaked at #2 on the “Mainstream Rock” charts in early September and then began its quick decline. It’s a catchy song, yes, but it’s also a great microcosm of the kinds of simple masculinity that built big hair rock in the era.

3. “Another Part of Me” by Michael Jackson
Michael was a factory churning out musical success in the 1980s and early 1990s. At his best and most successful, those songs entered the popular cannon of music in ways most artists only dream of. Not all were songs that get a lot of play today, but they were still hits for the time. His album Bad was the first in history to produce five consecutive #1 songs. This was the sixth, which hit the #1 spot on the R&B charts in September 1988 even though it only made it to #11 on the Hot 100, ending his record-setting streak. It was a known song already, having been written and recorded for his 1986 3D Disney movie “Captain EO.” The video gives us none of that (after all, it was still playing at Disney’s parks) but instead goes live to show what Michael loved to show–just how big a cultural phenomenon he was.

2. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
I was a teenager in my sophomore and then junior year in 1988 and, like most teenagers, my friends and I had strong opinions about music. This was one of those songs that you either liked or hated, at least in my little world. At the time, I probably said stuff about it that suggested I was in the “hate” camp. I mean, it was kind of easy pickings for hard rock fans. But I didn’t really hate the song. First, it was catchy–like the kind of catchy that when you hear it it sticks with you for most of the day. Second, lots of people–friends and family–loved the song. But the most important reason was Bobby McFerrin himself. The man was everywhere on TV and he was a really nice guy. Plus, he played all the “instruments” on this song because all of them were just him and the sounds he made with his voice and body. It hit #1 on the Hot 100 in the last week of the month where it stayed for two weeks. And trivia note: it was from the movie Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise.

1. “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
Out of all the songs on this week’s list, this is arguably the only one to have achieved that iconic status. Funny thing is, it only hit #1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks before fading away! Of course, it was a hit on the rock charts, too, but it only peaked at #7 there. Fans were fickle in 1988. That said, the song grew to be the biggest song for a hard rock band that had lots of big songs and, in many ways, it is the 80s hard rock ballad song of the era. It’s a contender for that title because of its “legs” in our culture. Its cultural endurance owes a lot to the video (equally iconic) but also to the blend of ballad tendencies, with pop and hard rock. It’s as solid song as the band ever produced, and it still deserves listening to, 31 years later.

Friday Five: September 1987

It’s a busy week, so let’s cut to the chase. Here are five top five songs from the first week of September 1987.

5. “Casanova” by LeVert
LeVert was an R&B vocal trio founded and led by Sean and Gerald Levert, two brothers who were the sons of Eddie Levert, leader singer and founder of the O’Jays. They sat atop the R&B charts in the first week of September 1987 with this song, which also made it to the top ten of the Hot 100. It wasn’t the mot unique song but it was catchy and had some hop to it. You don’t need much more than that.

4. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” by Aerosmith
I suppose this felt like a clever concept song to this legendary hard rock band from Boston, but it felt a little problematic to me, kind of like the anti-“Lola” by the Kinks. Still, this song––which was the first released from their album Permanent Vacation––was popular enough. When combined with the album’s other hit records (“Angel” and “Rag Doll”) it helped to usher in the band’s “comeback.” The song was co-written by Desmond Child, who was hitting the top of the rock charts pretty regularly back then with other groups like Bon Jovi.

3. “Learning to Fly” by Pink Floyd
I knew who Pink Floyd were in 1987, but I wasn’t all that interested in their music. This song––which was released in September 1987 and debuted at #5 on the rock charts––was the first of theirs that I liked. The present-day me thinks it’s not much when compared to their best, but it’s something. It would hit the top spot on the rock charts by the end of the month. I’m not sure about this but it might be the band’s last “hit” record. although since this was the first album without Roger Waters, some purist might say it didn’t really count anyway.

2. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” by Michael Jackson and Siedah Garrett
There was no one bigger in the musical world of my universe than Michael Jackson. By 1987, however, it was five years since Thriller and all its accompanying mayhem. But at the end of August that year, Jackson released a new album––Bad––and this was its first single. A love song was an unexpected first release for a new album by the “King of Pop” (although he hadn’t seized that moniker yet) and a duet was even more of a surprise. At the end of this first week of September, it was #2 on the Hot 100 and the R&B charts, on its way to top spot on both in two more weeks.

1. “La Bamba” by Los Lobos
The greatest band from East L.A. covering the iconic song of the most famous Chicano rock ‘n roll singer in history. It almost can’t go wrong, but the brilliance of Los Lobos makes this cover of Ritchie Valens’ 1958 song even better than just good. I remember thinking how they made it more Mexican (no surprise considering their depth of knowledge of traditional Mexican music and they skills with Mexican strings) and more Chicano (it’s got that East L.A. groove they do so well) all at the same time. It didn’t hurt that the song came from the soundtrack of the film of the same name, a biopic of the late, great rock star. Directed and written by famed playwright Luis Valdez, the film was the biggest thing in “Chicano America” since Fernandomania. I still think of it as a kind of “holy” thing. The best part of the cover, however, isn’t in the movie. It’s the little bit of something extra that comes at the end of the song.

Friday Five: July 1983

1983 was one of those years. Michael Jackson was huge and the way everyone talked about it, he was a global cultural phenomenon like none before him. With Michael being Michael, everything else about music felt a little bigger. It felt like we were all looking for the things that were bigger than just hits. We were looking for magic.

Or maybe there wasn’t anything special about it. Maybe it was just the fact that I was 11 and the things that are big when you’re 11 make a big imprint on you. Michael made the world of music into something bigger than an 11 year-old could wrap his head around.

Let’s change it up this week. Instead of five songs from the top five of July 1983, here are five songs from the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending July 23, 1983——the end of the fourth week of July. There’s a lot of that year’s hits on the charts that month, lots of songs I could write about. I’m going to stick to ones I liked or that had an impact on me.

5. “Beat It” by Michael Jackson
By July this former #1 song (it ruled the charts for three weeks in April and May) only came in at #53. No matter. As part of the Thriller album that made Michael into Michael, it still has never gone away. “Billie Jean” was the bigger hit record, but “Beat It” was the more interesting video——with its street gang subplot——and more interesting song——with Michael going rock and guitar work by the master himself, Eddie Van Halen.

4. “1999” by Prince
It was released in fall 1982 and had made it to #44 on the Hot 100 by Christmas. Re-released in 1983, the song reached #12 in July, its peak position on the charts. The album 1999 was Prince’s first with his band the Revolution and, in many ways, it was the start of the cultural wonder that he would become. While I would always be a bigger fan of his earlier album Dirty Mind, 1999 was the kind of new sound that was undeniable and mesmerizing. The song is iconic, as is the video. For me, it was the start of a “Highlander”-like (“there can be only one”) contest between Michael and Prince. You had to be either. But there was no way not to love both.

3. “Rock of Ages” by Def Leppard
It came in at #22 in July, a few steps shy of its peak position. It was the song my friends and I loved from the album Pyromania, produced by the legendary rock guru Mutt Lange. 1983 was the year of Ozzy’s Bark at the Moon, Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind, Metal Health by Quiet Riot, and Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil. I was awash in rock and new metal. “Rock of Ages” was a song some people made fun of (and still do).
It was a song I felt I didn’t need to justify. I just liked it. And, after all, it’s better to burn out than to fade away!

2. “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie
David Bowie was a legend to many before I ever heard of him. It’s still an odd thing to me that he became a known figure to me in 1983 because he was experiencing his biggest commercial success with his album Let’s Dance. I’d later become semi-obsessed with his Ziggy Stardust work but at 11 his Nile Roger’s produced pop sounded pretty damn good. This title song peaked at #1 in May for only one week and dropped to #67 by the end of July, far behind his climbing single “China Girl.” The vocals here still grab me in ways the other tracks never did. (The closing guitar was by Stevie Ray Vaughan.)

1.”Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Taco
There are so many good songs that came out in 1983 and this is not one of them. But I was only 11 so my taste can be forgiven. This cover of a 1927 song written by Irving Berlin (once famously recorded by Fred Astaire) hit the #33 spot in July on its way to #4 two months later. Performed and interpreted by an Indonesian-born Dutch singer named Taco, the song was a hit with everyone I knew. We joked about the singer’s name in my house, me and my friends would break dance to the song (it was not a typical break dance song), and it was one of those collective musical experiences of the time. The synthpop sound and simple video were made for the early MTV era. I don’t remember any controversy from the use of blackface in the original video, although it was apparently edited out of later versions.

Friday Five: 1983

It’s been awhile, I know. After a hectic academic year, I’ve been spent most of my summer reading, playing video games, and just enjoying my time with the family. We’ve had some amazing trips, so good I should post some pictures here. This past month I’ve also been getting back into work, which is currently all about researching and writing my next book. All this is to say, life has left little time for the blog.

But it’s time to get back to business, even the business of waxing nostalgic about the music of my life. After a couple of months making memories with my kids, it’s an easy mental place to visit.

So let’s talk about 1983.

Michael Jackson’s album Thriller came out on November 30, 1982. I don’t know when we bought our copy but it couldn’t have been too long after. Once we had it, we could listen to whatever song we wanted, whenever we wanted. (If memory serves, we listened to it a side at a time more than anything.) We could also memorize the songs that hadn’t yet made it to the radio.

And so we did. When I remember 1983, I remember it as a time of Michael Jackson and Thriller. It wasn’t just the album, of course. For most of the year he was on every magazine, on the news, on TV specials, and on the radio. He was what we talked about at school. Everybody tried to perfect the Moondance, people hid glittered gloves in their desks (such accessories were not part of the Catholic school dress code). Everybody I knew loved Michael Jackson. Everybody.

For me, and for millions of others, Michael Jackson eclipses just about every other thing in the U.S. popular culture of 1983. But he was hardly the only cultural phenomenon, and he was hardly the only good thing happening in music.

To make up for lost time, here’s a Friday Five with a few more selections from 1983, arranged a little differently:

5. The Dance Hits: “Rockit” (Herbie Hancock) and “Let the Music Play” (Shannon)
From the disco era to the early 80s, dancing was a big part of U.S. popular culture again. By 1983, music was inspiring very specific, 80s ways of dancing, too. For example, breakdancing went mainstream in 1983. Perhaps no other song more than Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” helped make that so. My best friend and I once got into a breaking fight, where we danced off to this song and to Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Ah, the 80s! Shannon’s legendary hit of ’83 was the start of something unique, too. It was the first big song of a different kind of “disco,” the kind that lit up the dance and pop charts of the mid to late 80s. This song could still drive folks wild when I was in high school at the end of the decade, something of a dance-floor standard for young kids of color in the suburbs.

4. The One Hit Wonders: “Flashdance… What a Feeling” (Irene Cara) and “She Blinded Me with Science” (Thomas Dolby)
Every generation has its own “one hit wonders.” And every “one hit wonder” has at least one person out there who would contradict the use of the title for each case. Irene Cara had lots of hits, just not lots of musical ones. She rose to fame as part of the 1980 movie Fame, where she played Coco Hernandez. (Cara herself is half Cuban and half Puerto Rican.) She had an acting career that kept her on TV and in the movies for much of the decade. She also had a hit record, for which she won an Academy Award. The musical theme to the 1983 film Flashdance was a monster hit, but even it paled in comparison to the scope of the movie’s success. We were just kids, not allowed to watch (and probably not old enough to understand) the R-rated film. But that did nothing to curb it’s cultural impact on my youth. The song–reminiscent of Donna Summer’s best–lends itself to lip synching dance routines of pre-teens.

Tom Dolby was anything but a one hit wonder. The Brit had a a fairly successful career outside the U.S., and was a favorite of the KROQ crew (alternative, college, emo kind of stuff) for much of the 80s stateside. I didn’t know that then, however. His big hit of ’83 was a standout single for me, as provocative musically as the video was visually. It shares some musical generational markers with Cara’s song, synthesizers and beats familiar to the 80s. As much as Cara’s hit brought up the past, however, Dolby’s presages the synthetic future that was to come.

3. The Headbangers: “Rock of Ages” (Def Leppard) and “Cum on Feel the Noize” (Quiet Riot)

There’s a passionate sub-culture out there for 80s, big-hair rock. There’s a breed of the music that isn’t quite heavy enough to be heavy metal and which comes before the MTV onslaught of crappy glam that did nothing but capitalize on the genre. Some of that is about timing. Some of it is about artistry. Yes, that’s what I said.

Def Leppard doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the world of hard rock but their 1983 album Pyromania is one of the standards of the genre. A lot of that is about the skills of the band, even Joe Elliott’s ability to scream in key, but most of it is due to the legendary producer of rock, “Mutt” Lange. He is the Phil Spector of hard rock, assembling an assortment of sounds and beats to make little masterpieces of excess, beautifully displayed in this radio standard:

Quiet Riot was an unknown rock band in the 1970s that happened to include a skilled bassist (Rudy Sarzo–a cubano!) and one of the greatest metal guitarists in history, Randy Rhoads. In 1980, both Rhoads and Sarzo left to play with Ozzy Osbourne, thereby effectively killing the band. When Rhoads died tragically in 1982, Sarzo and lead singer Kevin Dubrow joined with drummer Frankie Banali and guitarist Carlos Cavazzo (mexicano!) to reform the band. With “Cum on Feel the Noize”–their cover of a 1973 song by the band Slade–they became the first “heavy metal” band to top the U.S. album charts, pop charts, and video charts.

2. The Anthems: “Love Is a Battlefield” (Pat Benatar) and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Bonnie Tyler)
Not a lot to say here except I still think these two songs are f-in fantastic. Pat Benatar is an under-appreciated artist. Culturally, this song not only became something of an anthem (it is the fight song of the pseudo-feminist film The Legend of Billie Jean) but the video was a trailblazer, too. I’d freak out when the entire mini-movie version would play, a dance production worthy of a Michael Jackson video. As for Bonnie Tyler…her anthem–written and produced by Jim Steinman, the man behind Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell album (for better or worse one of the biggest selling albums in musical history)–stands the test of time. It even hit the charts again as a dance hit in 1995 with a singer that tried to sound so much like Tyler (minus the raspy goodness) that many thought it was a remix with a sample of the original.

1. The Classics: “Texas Flood” (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson)
Stevie Ray Vaughan is a blues god. His 1983 album (with his band Double Trouble) was his debut. It generated two bonafide hits–Pride and Joy” and “Love Struck Baby”–but neither is as good as “Texas Flood,” Vaughan’s cover of a 1958 song by Larry Davis. Here it is from a 1985 live performance, the way Stevie should be seen.

And Michael, doing the song that made him “Michael” in the performance that changed the 80s.

Friday Five: 1980

We give a lot of attention to the “decade” when it comes to our popular culture. Decades are defining, encompassing, even self-containing. We use them as markers of our times, of our influences, even of our loves. We use them as substitutes for expressing the things we share with others. “I’m a child of the 60s.” “I’m a child of the 80s.”

There’s no inherent reason why one ten-year period should be any more singular than another sequential ten years. Just like there’s no reason why the change from one year to another should be any more significant that another year change. The transition from 1979 to 1980 didn’t end one era abruptly and begin another that was all that different. Like most things cultural, if you know where and how to look, you can see the evolution of things over time. Some things evolve more quickly than others, some take a less straight line, but the process is always there.

But there is something about 1980.

A lot of what makes this year so special and so unique is the nostalgic hindsight of knowing the other nine years that followed it. When nostalgia and identity mix with that cultural tendency we have to build decades into something bigger, 1980 suddenly becomes some big turning point.

A bunch of groups who would be huge for the decade had albums released that year. Rush, The Police, Journey, Scorpions, Air Supply, John Cougar, Whitesnake, and even the Human League released albums. Most of the groups had previous releases in the 70s, but most also had bigger albums to come in the 80s.

Disco was in serious decline, but it was also in transformation in the music of people like Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Rock was transitioning, finding the middle ground between metal and glam, all wrapped in excess. And people like Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, and Olivia Newton-John had pop hits, too.

These 5 songs are all special to me in some way, but they’re emblematic of the things to come in the decade. (One special mention goes out to Prince and his album Dirty Mind. It’s my second favorite Prince album of all-time, and it contains what just might be my favorite Prince song of all-time, “When You Were Mine.” But Prince doesn’t let his stuff stay up for very long on YouTube so all he gets is a shout-out.)

5. “Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen)
Queen is talent. Queen is skill. Queen is glorious. Queen is a band that made a career out of producing songs that drew from everywhere and often sounded like no one else ever could. This single–one of their most enduring and biggest-selling–is another example of their ability to do something unique. The bass-driven song is accompanied by a host of sounds that almost seem misplaced. The song was also my introduction to backmasking. Sometime in ’81 or ’82, one of my next door neighbors played a cassette tape of the song for me but it was playing backwards. It sounded like Freddy Mercury was singing “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” This must have been controversial, whether or not it was true. I remember thinking at the time how that was a stupid thing to be singing. Ah, Catholic school…

4. “You Make My Dreams Come True” (Hall and Oates)
I am a defender of Hall and Oates. They’re amazingly talented, and they’re better than their reputation. A lot of the negative vibe that goes their way is due to the fact that they were so influential in creating the 80’s sound. This song, from their 1980 album Visions, is a perfect example of their pop skills and the tendencies that would define so much of the decade. The guitar, the background vocals, the quick stops, it’s all there. (The song is also the king of movie montages.)

3. “Boys Don’t Cry” (The Cure)
Talk about influential. I wasn’t a big fan of the Cure in my youth. They’re one of the big bands for my wife, though, and that’s nurtured a real appreciation for them on my part, but one that came much later. That said, it’s amazing to me that this song is from this early. It’s actually a 1979 song from their debut album Three Imaginary Boys that was re-packaged and re-released again in 1980 in the US as part of the album Boys Don’t Cry. The amazing thing to me is that it sounds so much like the music of mid-decade. It’s a great song, definitely one of those that stands the test of time.

2. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (Billy Joel)
This song is the first 45 I ever bought. We went to our local record store–a chain called Licorice Pizza–and my folks let me and my sister buy our own record. She chose “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. I chose this. Songs like this make the switch from the 70s to the 80s seem more severe than it was. The saxophone, the weird backtrack, the production quality–even the clothes he wears in the video–all of it make it seem like Billy Joel knew what he was doing.

1. “Off the Wall” (Michael Jackson)
This is a little bit of a cheat. Michael Jackson’s fifth solo album Off the Wall was released in 1979. The single, however, was released in 1980. If it is a cheat, it’s an appropriate one, though. The song, much like the album, is the epitome of the transition between the 70s and the 80s. Michael’s version of late-disco R&B contains all the brilliance he and producer Quincy Jones can muster. The grooves are so tight they still get people moving on the dance floor today. The melodies are rich, after all, the man is singing with himself as backup. Michael’s next outing would be the biggest-selling album in history. Even if that one never happened, we’d still be talking about him because of songs like this. (Hell, we’d be talking about him still even is he’d never made another record after the Jackson 5!)

Friday Five: Michael Jackson

How big can a person get? How famous? How well-known?

One of the things that future generations will struggle to understand is the scope of the popularity of Michael Jackson in the early 1980s. For a few years, when his album Thriller ruled the charts and he and his brothers toured the world, he was just about as big as a single human being could get.

In some ways, that level of stardom has to do with so much more than talent. Michael Jackson was a product of his commercial moment. He thrived in a time when pop cultural outlets were still few enough that you could dominate the mainstream like an atom bomb. He rose to extreme fame in an era of video, when what could be seen was as important as what could be heard. And he became the cultural sensation he was at a time when the major, global corporations ascended in their control of the commercial business of pop.

Elvis was as big as someone could get in a national and international marketplace using the mechanisms of his time. Michael Jackson was the same for his. I can’t imagine the present commercial structure will ever produce another cultural figure of the same magnitude. I don’t see how it ever could.

I’ve said very little about the musical talent of Michael Jackson, but none of what I’ve said can be separated from that talent. Michael was a gifted singer and dancer from a very young age. As the voice of the Jackson 5 he amazed everyone with his level of professional skill. He managed to surpass the amazing talent of his childhood as he grew into an adult career that showed he was as good as everyone had hoped.

Michael Jackson was more than a voice. He wrote many of his lyrics and music. He was a master of beat. He also helped produce, arrange, and mix his music, most famously with Quincy Jones.

A list of only five songs by Michael Jackson is reductive and selective, as it is with any artists whose career spans decades. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll choose from his solo career, with a nod to viewing him in his full arc rather than just at the height of the phenomenon.

5. “Rock With You” (1979)
From his 20 million-selling album Off the Wall, this song is generally considered one of the last hits of the disco era. Like the best bits of the album, however, it’s really a bridge between that genre and what was to come.

4. “Smooth Criminal” (1987)
This was the seventh (!!) single released from Jackson’s 1987 album Bad. Written by Michael, the song evolved over a period of a few years before becoming what we hear below. The video was a controversy in itself when it premiered on TV in 1988.

3. “Man in the Mirror” (1987)
Michael grew increasingly politically-aligned in the 80s, first with his efforts as part of USA for Africa and later as an environmentalist and advocate for children’s causes. His fall into scandal in the 1990s lessened the impact he could have had but, at the height of his stardom, his soapbox was as strong as anyone person’s could be. This song is preachy and a little cheesy, but the performance (here mixed in with some of the human results) is something I’ve always found so compelling.

2. “Billie Jean” (1982)
This is the biggest selling single from the biggest selling album of all time. Beneath all the hype, the moonwalk, the video sensation, is a beat. An amazing beat coupled with a falsetto weep. Here’s the performance that aired as part of Motown’s 25th anniversary special, the moonwalk seen round the world…

1. “Human Nature” (1982)
Released as the fifth single to his best-selling album, “Human Nature” isn’t written by or produced by Michael but his performance makes it what it is. While lots of songs could compete for his “best,” this one is certainly my favorite. His live performances of it capture a lot of his adult talent.

Australian blackface and Harry Connick Jr.

Are Australians racist?

If you haven’t heard about the blackface controversy Harry Connick Jr. found himself in last night, then start by seeing this.  It is a performance on an Australian show on which Connick served as one of three judges.  The show, Hey, Hey It’s Saturday was a staple of Australian TV for 27 tears, running from 1972 to 1999.  Last night’s episode was a reunion/anniversary kind of thing, when these men performed:

First off, I think Harry Connick Jr. deserves props for his stance. He found himself in an awkward position–both for the fact of being a foreigner on a beloved Australian show as well as being on a comedy/variety show to begin with. That he spoke out immediately, and managed to get the show to allow him the space to further voice his objections, is admirable. I want to be clear here: he did what was right. When it comes to his own personal context–being from New Orleans; as the son of an attorney who worked in a racially-tense city; as a musician who works with African Americans playing African American and Southern styles of music–to do anything but, would have been wrong. While I don’t believe in rewards for people doing what they should do, when the context of doing different is so powerfully before them, to resist it is admirable, indeed.

The Australian press has been having a field day with this news, mostly revolving around the above question. This article sums up a lot of it. If you read this blog often, you know my stance on this kind of stuff. The “Are we racist?” line is a useless one since, inherently, the answer for everybody living in the modern world is “Yes.” It’s much more useful to think about how ideas about race continue to shape our relations and beliefs, and how they often do so to our collective detriment.

An “Are we racist?” line almost precludes us from doing the kinds of individual and collective reflections necessary to make sense of the insidious nature of racialized beliefs.  We think about “intent” more than we should instead of focusing on “context” and “result.”

For example, Australian “Snap polls on the internet” seem to suggest most folks think the skit “wasn’t racist, but a harmless, indeed funny, tribute to the Jackson Five.” Leaving aside the unscientific nature of the polls, other news stories seem to be portraying the same belief as being held by mainstream Australia. There problem is, to think of it as a “tribute” means you have to negate the very deliberate and focused way they are fulfilling the “script” of “blackface” to the most specific kinds of detail: non-blacks painting their faces oil black; speaking in racialized patois (while even using distinct, US-based African American expressions); performing in an extreme, Sambo-esque way, and so on. Their older performance from 1989 was even worse! This time around, the include the “Michael” figure as a “white face,” thereby making it a racial critique rather than tribute.

One of the performers had this to say after:

“I’m Sri Lankan-Australian, there’s an Indian-Australian, a Greek-Australian, an Irish-Italian-Australian and a Lebanese-Australian. We’re all Australian.

“I think the fact that all six of us have gone on to very successful careers as doctors demonstrates the fact that Australians care more about ability than race.”

A perfect example of the “intent” argument that falls from this line of reasoning. What it ignores, however, is the broader context of ignorance and uncritical sympathy that lies at a lot of actions like this.

Harry Connick Jr. faced some fire for doing what he did, an even more dynamic demonstration that something wrong is at work here. He issued the following statement on his blog:

I have watched the media storm that has erupted over my reaction to the Hey Hey blackface skit. Where I come from, blackface is a very specific and very derogatory thing.  Perhaps this is different in other parts of the world, but in the American culture, the blackface image is steeped in a negative history and considered offensive.  I urge everyone in the media to take a look at the history of blackface to fully understand why it is considered offensive.  I also urge you to review the Hey Hey tape and you will see that I did not ascribe any motives to anyone, nor did I call anyone a racist.  The blackface skit was a surprise to me and I was simply shocked to see this on TV.  I do not believe that the performers intended any harm.

At first, it kind of felt to me like he was backing away. But then, it seems appropriate. He really helped refocus the argument again away from “intent” and more toward the broader context of seeing this as not problematic. More props to him.

MTV Honors MJ at the 2009 VMA

This year’s VMA show featured a tribute to Michael Jackson. Before I say anything, you should watch it below:

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The tribute MTV offered us seemed to impress the crowd, as I’m sure it did to people at home. The dancing was well-choreographed and they picked great songs to highlight. But, to be honest, I was kind of disappointed by the whole thing.

The entire thing worked off of the brilliance of Jackson’s career: his abilities to dance, to make memorable music, and to perform. The dancers–each arrayed in one of his iconic outfits–performed impeccably, living reminders (in their own anonymity) of the irreplacable talent of Jackson.

But Michael Jackson had a lot of sad in him, too, the most notable being the way he really never became a grown up and, instead, just an over-commodified vessel of a person. Oh yeah…that.

The “tribute” was really a reminder of the spectacle that Jackson created in his career. It was the spectacle that made us notice him, love him, and remember him. It was the spectacle that drew MTV to him, that helped create the medium of music videos, and that sold out concerts around the world. The spectacle was also with him for the last thirty years of his life. He couldn’t shake it; he probably didn’t want to. Spectacle followed him in death. It didn’t die with him; it literally followed him and kept doing what it did even after he died.

All MTV understands is spectacle. They can’t make sense of the place of this man and his music because they can’t think beyond it. They can’t think about music and culture because they are too entwined in pretending they are the stage where it plays out, instead of a narrow corporate entity that manufactures the news it pretends to be the exclusive source for.

For gooodness sakes! The whole damn VMA thing was a joke at first! They’re fake awards, made up by MTV and given out by MTV. There’s no third party here. No transparency. Early winners knew this and made light of the whole thing. Now they cry and thank god (or interrupt some teenager because they think it–any of it–matters).

MTV had been running promos for the tribute in the weeks leading up to the show. You can see the commercial here. It says a lot about how they operate, but also about how they create spectacle for their own purposes.

Look, I’m not trying to be profound here or anything. It’s just…couldn’t somebody have said something nice about the man? Would it have killed somebody at MTV to think about what he meant to them as a corporate entity?

Actually, it might have. But Madonna did okay.

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?