Zoilus by Carl Wilson

… after a long illness. RIP

June 26th, 2009

I felt we lost him long ago. Dreams of comebacks were fantasies; it’s sadly unsurprising that he did not live to perform those out-of-proportion 50 London concerts this summer. In my heart, I feel that it was as if the adult Michael were his own portrait of Dorian Gray, falling into delusion and disrepair to compensate for the preternatural amount of universal energy that had been expended on making his childhood self so much more than childlike. But in my head I know that’s a mystification: What made that magical boy was, along with the raw talent, a sweatshop-style regimen of child labour and, at the least, physical abuse. And what made the broken man was the same thing.

One of the most common comments I’m hearing is that people liked the early stuff best, the little broad-brim-hat-wearing sibling who outshone his elders, and who radiated happiness so much more than the maker of Thriller (much less the 1990s and 2000s Jacko) did. Perhaps that’s because it’s how people my age first encountered him, or again as an antidote to the grimness of his final chapters, or simply the fact that childhood became the theme and leitmotif of his life.

But while I feel all that Jackson 5, jumpsuits-and-suspenders, robot-dancing nostalgia myself, I wouldn’t want to praise the bubblegum years too much at the expense of the revolutionary sounds of his popular peak, which along with the parallel dance/rock (and gender/race) crossover breakthroughs Madonna was making at the time, countered not only sonically but commercially (by breaking the MTV colour line for example) a tendency towards the re-segregation of the pop charts that had been developing at least since the decline of AM radio in the early 1970s or even, you could argue (as Elijah Wald does in his new book), since the Beatles.

Thriller was a global event that marked at once the ultimate American domination of international pop culture and its ending: Not only would the world never quite agree again on anything the way it did on Michael Jackson (although the Titanic movie and Celine Dion come close, beloved everywhere in the late 1990s - except by the elites of the culture that produced them), in retrospect you can see a hint of things to come in his difference-bridging musical persona, in the way his sound and his dancing reconciled opposites: The advent of a President Barack Obama is surely an event that took place within a cultural space Thriller staked out - it was, as the Minutemen would have it, a “political song for Michael Jackson to sing.” But by then his voice was too frail; now, it is still. The king is dead; his throne has vanished.

Here are a few of the smartest and most affecting tributes and reflections I’ve read since last night. Not remotely all, since that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing:

Ann Powers
Hua Hsu
Jody Rosen
Andrew Sullivan
Sheila Heti (on the new Ryeberg Curated Video site, which I’ve been meaning to tell you about)
Liz Renzetti and Robert Everett-Green in The Globe and Mail (tomorrow, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Lynn Crosbie)
His dance legacy
Salon: Margo Jefferson, Michaelangelo Matos, ZZ Packer, Andrew Hehir, Jeff Chang and more
From the Village Voice archives: Bob Christgau, Chuck Eddy, Nelson George, Stanley Crouch, Greg Tate, Vince Aletti, Guy Trebay and more (Tate: “Accelerated development became a life-imperative after slavery, and r&b remains the redemption of minstrelsy-at least it was until Jackson made crossover mean lightening your skin and whitening your nose.”)
Quotes collected by Idolator
Jonah Weiner
Ethan Hein’s MJ Sampling Map
The story of that great Simpsons episode, surely a highlight of the series
Stephen Metcalf (”To substitute for the childhood he never had, he picked, with uncanny accuracy, exactly those things that don’t substitute for an actual childhood. Amusement parks and toys—the placatory devices of the bad parent”)
What will happen to his kids? (And his money)
… and someone who rented him videos

Finally, there’s this, for another place and people who loved him:

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  2. Zoilus says:

    Just a note - reading those Voice stories I discovered that Greg Tate made the same Dorian Gray comparison … in 1987. I have no idea whether I’d ever read that piece before, but this post was written before I read it today.

  3. Ethan Hein says:

    Hi, I’m the guy who did the sample map. Thanks for the link, I’m glad to be a part of your classy tribute post.

  4. Matos W.K. says:

    Tate’s piece is one of the greatest pieces of popcrit ever written.

    I’m still trying to sort out a LOT of mixed feelings and ideas, but I will say that I’ve been working on a big project that I will now have to get moving on. More TK.

  5. andrew says:

    K-punk doing his usual thing, fitting MJ into the rise and fall of capitalist realism. But actually mostly just a surprisingly sincere appreciation:


  6. m says:

    thanks for the great selection of links - saved me digging through a lot of dross.

  7. Julia says:

    Thank you, particularly for the Hua Hsu and Sheila Heti links.

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