Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rage in His Feet

Cross-posted from 2'23"--it's worth checking out the smart commenters there.
One thing I've noticed about reactions to Michael Jackson's death, at least among children of the 1980s such as myself, has been the desire to recount one's initial introduction to his music. It's kind of like the opposite of the baby-boomer obsession with recounting where you were when JFK was shot. For them, the death of a president, for us the birth of the King of Pop.

My story is that I was about five years old, I think, so about 1985 or so, and I was at a neighbor's house, hanging out with my best friend. He had, presumably through his parents, a cassette tape of Thriller, and we listened to it together. The song that most stuck out for me at the time was "Beat It," Jackson's groundbreaking collaboration with Eddie Van Halen. Little five-year-old Phil went toddling around singing "Don't wanna see no blood, don't be a macho man, just beat it" for weeks afterward.

If you're the sort of person who cares about "periodicity," the study of how we organize history into culturally thematic lengths of time, or periods, a fairly simple argument to make is that Michael Jackson was one of the first great postmodern musicians in popular music. At least, that's true in the sense of postmodernism most often used in musicology, where it is largely characterized by mixing different stylistic characteristics and historical periods. Michael Jackson's work in the early 1980s took the always-already postmodernism of 1970s soul and added heavy metal, horror movies, and science fiction fantasy.

There might also, in Jackson's work, be what Fredric Jameson influentially called a "waning of affect," or a decline of the "aesthetic of expression." I don't mean this in a bad way at all. It's not that there is no expression in Jackson's music, it's that there is too much of it, so much that emotions are presented over-simplified, almost parodied, and iterated to the point of exhaustion. For example, if you or I were to grab our crotch while dancing, that gesture would most likely be read as having some sort of sexual meaning. But when Michael Jackson grabbed his crotch, the grab was so fluid and stylized, and repeated so often, that it ceased to have meaning. Or, to go back to Jameson, consider Jackson's last great hit, the 1995 duet with his little sister, "Scream."

(The video is still the most expensive music video of all time; they don't call it late capitalism for nothing.)

Consider Jameson's description of Edward Munch's Scream:
"a canonical expression of the great modernist thematics of alientation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolate, a virtually programmatic emblem of what used to be called the age of anxiety. It will here be read as an embodiment not merely of hte expression of that kind of affect but, even more, as a virtual deconstruction of the very aesthetic of expression itself, which seems to have dominated much of what we call high modernism but to have vanished away—for both practical and theoretical reasons—in the world of the postmodern."

That's a fair description of the Jackson/Jackson scream as well, I'd say.

On the other hand: I was watching the endless loop of Michael Jackson commentary on the BBC today, and one random news anchor related a quote from Fred Astaire regarding Jackson I had never heard before. Jackson, Astaire supposedly said, danced with "rage in his feet."

There is indeed so much rage in Jackson's music, dance, and imagery. So much so that it threatens to spill out of its neat postmodern boxes. What is its source, and what does it mean? It has to do with Jackson's own body, I'd say, which more than any other performer I can think of has always been the source of constant speculation and analysis. It's hard to say anything new about it, but I do think it is fair to say that Jackson had an unusually visible relationship with his own body. Many have called it a case of body dysmorphic disorder (the same diagnosis often given transpeople, by well-meaning-or-not psychiatrists.) I couldn't say if that's true or not, or if that Jackson's situation is even particularly unusual; who doesn't have body issues? But Jackson did have a fairly spectacular response to whatever issues might have been there. There was on the one hand the constant sculpting and re-sculpting of the flesh itself: surgery, chemicals, dieting, working out, who knows what else. And then there was that dancing. Invariably described as "fluid," it articulates a vision of the human body unlike anything else I have seen. It's not Merce Cunningham, who uses a rigid anti-expressionism to force the body into new situations. A move like the moonwalk takes a recognizable element of corporeal vocabulary, and transforms it as if mechanically produced. And yet, of course, it wasn't, it's still just Michael Jackson on stage with a pair of shoes. I'm not very sophisticated at dance criticism, so I don't even know what to say beyond that. But it blows my mind, and although it might not be a product of the aesthetic of expression, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is missing an affect.

After all, bodies, and performances, have been at the heart of many critiques of Fredric Jameson's work on postmodernism. Mandy Merck, for example, has pointed out the unnecessary binary between "real" and "artificial" that underlies much of his essay, especially when offering up the famous Van Gogh versus Warhol comparison. Judith Halberstam goes so far as to call Jameson's approach homophobic for its implicit privileging of modernism/materialism/heterosexuality over Warhol's queer critique. I don't agree all the way with Halberstam (and I like Jameson a lot as you can probably tell), but I do think he underestimates the potential of the performing human body, if he reads it at all.

What I admired most about Jackson was his sense of agency, at least at the height of his career. He made his body do what he wanted it to do,and that's no easy task under postmodernism. The sadness I feel now is that ultimately he lost that agency, just as it looked like he might have been on the verge of taking it back.

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