Jun 09

After Pop

FT7 comments • 2,097 views

If you take pop history from the emergence of Elvis to right now, the release of Thriller– the highest selling album there will ever be – sits at the midpoint. This coincidence nagged at me when I reviewed the album’s reissue, not very well, for Pitchfork. My original draft (rightly rejected) was built on multiple ideas of Jackson as a “black swan”: a graceful exotic creature, an event that resets its context, a freak.

People try and explain black swans after the fact: with Jackson, explanation begins with the combination of astonishing talent and a truly dreadful upbringing. Jackson’s brutalisation by his father is the kind of horror story we associate with the worst parts of pro sport – the mechanisation of ability in a drive for perfection. It’s rarer in showbiz, because the structure of success is looser. Michael Jackson’s success – and what success! – sits on a double fluke: that he managed to funnel his talent through his dehumanisation, and that the public responded in such phenomenal numbers to his unique perspective.

That success led to a second dehumanisation, which Jackson himself colluded in. Here am I, writing what might have been an obituary type piece, and all I can think about are history and abstractions: the real, dead man is too remote. The Jackson it’s easy to empathise with fell into shadow a long time ago. When I heard about his death the music I wanted to play wasn’t Off The Wall, or Thriller, but the strange, sad, overblown records he made in the 90s – overshadowed by headlines and accusations, but home to some of the oddest and darkest pop of any era.

There’ll be a reassessment, naturally – ballads like “Butterflies” and “Stranger In Moscow” are too strong for there not to be. In comparison to “Off The Wall” or “PYT” of course, they sound petrified, seized up. In fact a lot of the 90s material sounds like multiple drafts of one single, crushed and frightened song by a man desperate to get the pain out: “Here abandoned in my fame / Armageddon of the brain.” Even the much-mocked “Earth Song” sounds like a projection – what if the world was as hurt as me?

And what about the King of Pop’s Kingdom, long abandoned? The title was one he grabbed for himself: in fact “pop” in that all-encompassing sense was partly an effect of Jackson himself, not an inheritance for him to claim. The outrageous success of Thriller – the ultimate crossover – created the impression that the fragmentation of pop in the 70s could be reversed, and a generation of new megastars helped Jackson hold back that particular tide. But that version of “pop” died well before Jackson did. On LiveJournal Mark S wrote: “I sorta kinda judge that our age is over”, and I sorta kinda know what he means.


  1. 1
    sickmouthy on 26 Jun 2009 #

    I grew up in Dawlish, the first town in England to have black swans (shipped over from Australia). The black swan was the logo on our primary school jumpers, the logo on the town signage, it was everywhere.

  2. 2

    […] interested in reading a mass of writer’s response to Jackson’s passing, and Tom Ewing’s noting that the paranoid, delusional, wracked 90s-material seemed to be more in tu… now made me go and listen to Earth Song. I gave it a shot and… well, the second I finish this […]

  3. 3
    blount on 26 Jun 2009 #

    for most of last night I was in some strange state of incredibly shocked but not at all surprised by his passing, but at the same no sadness beyond the general regret anyone feels. i never forgotten for a second the insane possibly unequaled bright ecstatic brilliance of his music from off the wall thru thriller (with great work before and, more and more intermittantly, after). it didn’t really hit home emotionally until i watched a clip of swv’s ‘right here’, what i remember from the summer this hit was weirdly competing w/ mj’s ‘will you be there’ was how much me and my friends LOVED this track and esp loved reveling in our memory of the man and his music then but deplored the actual shell of the man and the overblown balloons of his music that we were left with (there’s a south park that deals with this feeling pretty much head-on).

    anyhow some great graphs here – http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/06/25/arts/0625-jackson-graphic.html

    and here – http://nahright.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/samples.png

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 27 Jun 2009 #

    Sadly I have no reliable information on the black swan population here in Northampton – but here’s a link to recordings of Michael Jackson playing for the Sultan of Brunei in 1996:


  5. 5
    Tim F on 28 Jun 2009 #

    I loved this Tom.

  6. 6
    Rich on 29 Jun 2009 #

    Michael Jackson died in the early 1990’s, late last week the ethereal and ghostly form that once contained the great man followed him.

    Since his death in the early 90’s the image of the king of pop has represented itself to each of us in various ways. Constructed from the shadowy gangster of Smooth Criminal and the zombie/werecat of Thriller. The figure of Michael Jackson has been set in stone or ‘moulded in plastic’ ever since – unbreakable.

    A ghostly white, paedophilic creature has done much to tarnish the image of the long dead star since his death. Yet today, it is apparent that this has been to little success.

    MJ will moonwalk into history glimmering in bright, blinding stagelights to the driving beat of Billie Jean.

    The ghoul that passed away last week will remain a seperate enigma to the image that is Michael Jackson, mumbling to himself about Blood on the dance floor or somthing as he fades into obscurity…

  7. 7

    […] Jackson as a gay black man; sally_bloodbath’s comic on the work of dance and of fandom; Tom Ewing’s insights on dehumanization and the “black swan”; […]

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