Michael Jackson's Death Was Tragic, But He Was Little More Than an Icon of Mediocrity
I have watched the fawning nonstop media coverage of the death of Michael Jackson with skepticism this past week.
Yes, premature death is tragic. Upon that we can (mostly) all agree.
What I cannot agree with, however, are the repeated claims that Jackson: was a musical genius; broke down racial barriers; was a brilliant singer; was a great dancer; changed American culture.
The book African American Education by Walter Recharde Allen details the rampant double-standards applied by the US school system to black children. Too many teachers still hold negative stereotypes about blacks. When a white kid says two-plus-two is four, the teachers nod and move on; when the black kid does the same, they stare in disbelief, express surprise, or praise the student for high achievement. In other words, lowered expectations lead teachers to praise mediocrity in black students.
I believe something similar is going on in the US media regarding Michael Jackson.
As a musician (I hold a bachelor's degree in performance from Berklee College of Music) and as a music critic and historian, I can tell you with a clear conscience that Michael Jackson's musical abilities, placed upon the spectrum of human accomplishments in this field, are mediocre at best.
Yet everyone from the London Telegraph to People magazine have gone to great lengths to tell us Jackson was a literal "genius".
Jackson, whose vocal range was limited and who sang often insipid pop songs that rarely ventured outside of a basic pentatonic scale, was no musical genius.
Cannonball Adderley was a musical genius. John Coltrane was a musical genius. Charles Ives was a musical genius. J.S. Bach was a musical genius. Hector Berlioz was a musical genius. These were human beings gifted with uncommon genius in musical understanding, interpretation and expression.
To compare Michael Jackson's twitchy, strange pop singing to the accomplishments of people such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky or Charlie Parker is downright insulting; it is rather like saying the guy who designed the Tilt-a-Whirl is on par as an architect with I.M. Pei.
That the American press have been so quick to jump on the Jackson-as-genius bandwagon speaks to the dismal state of excellence in our culture. As more and more artistic and journalistic decisions have been left to MBAs and accountants, quality has fallen by the wayside. True musical variety has died with the radio monopolies of Clear Channel and others, as we are force-fed the same Lady Ga-Ga tune until we Lady Ga-GAG. Our standards, in other words, have sunk to new lows, and not just in music.
If Jackson is a musical genius, one realizes, it is not such a great leap to imagine Sarah Palin as presidential material, Lauren Weisberger as a great author, or Lou Dobbs as a substitute for real reporting and news. The Simpsons lampooned the growing cult of idiocy and mediocrity in our nation in the character of Homer; sadly, hardly anyone noticed because they were too busy relating to him.
As a culture, it appears that we have accepted the lowest common denominator as the highest we ought to aim. We are told Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, when in reality he is the Clown Monarch of Mediocrity.
Again and again we have heard the Jackson also "broke down racial barriers". ABC News told us he was the first black artist to do so. This is as nonsensical as the claim that he was a genius, for several reasons.
First, Jackson was hardly the first black person to find popularity in American pop music. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis - the list of those who came before is seemingly endless to anyone whose sense of US musical history goes back further than the 1970s.
Second, Jackson worked very hard not to be black. He hated being black. His self-hatred was deep and public. To somehow now consider him as being some sort of racial trailblazer is ridiculous and incomprehensible; it also shows that people see what they need to see, rather than what is there.
Did white people like Jackson's music? Sure. But they came to love him not in the respectful way audiences came to love, say, a young Wynton Marsalis, which is to say observing his unmistakable genius in stunned silence. Rather, it was to say "lookie there, what a cute negro child singin' and dancin'" as the very young Jackson sang age-inappropriate love songs in a shuck-and-jive style that brought to mind vaudeville blackface.
This type of admiration is nothing new in a nation that has a long tradition of white folks watching black folks perform mysterious and embarrassing works for their entertainment. The young Jackson was, to most white Americans, like a singing version of Buckwheat from Our Gang.
Jackson hardly embraced his race. Quite the contrary. If he sought to break down racial barriers, it was only to have surgery to make himself white. When it came time for children, he found a sperm donor who was white, because he knew that no matter how much surgery he had, his DNA would still make black babies - and he hated black people. Both his marriages were to white women.
Jackson's dancing, so often heralded as brilliant, was not so. He was an unusual dancer, yes. But not a brilliant one. A brilliant dancer is someone like Mikhail Barishnakov, Alvin Ailey, or Gregory Hines. Jackson was a weird dancer, and a good dancer, but he simply wasn't great.
We Americans have become so accustomed to inappropriate superlatives that we scarcely notice when they are applied to the middling.
As for Jackson changing American culture? Maybe he helped justify our increasing voyeurism and obsession with celebrity by being so publicly and tragically screwed up.
But did he singlehandedly change music? Nope. The uptempo songs are fun to dance to, but the slow songs are excruciatingly insipid. I can't see any of it mattering ten years from now or, for that matter, ten years ago. We knew this a month ago; that's why no one was listening to his music. Now, we pretend we care about his music when the truth is more about the selfish communal realization of mortality among Generation X, who in Jackson lost their first big star. If he can die, we are thinking, then holy shit, so can we.
This still doesn't make Jackson a genius. It doesn't make Gen Xers geniuses, either. But maybe that's the problem. We were the ones with the hippie parents who told us all that we were great. The truth was, most of us, like most people of any age, weren't great at all; we were average. We just thought we were great. Maybe we're projecting.