By Mark Simpson
(Edited from a feature that originally appeared the Independent on Sunday in July 1997, titled ‘Now the end is near’)
Only a Michael Jackson gig could begin with a ten-minute computer-generated sci-fi video which obviously cost more than most artists can muster for an album.
The film beamed on to the three giant screens at Wembley, the first leg on MJ’s current tour of Britain, show a golden android getting into a capsule and then riding a big-dipper track at high speed through pop culture, art and the last thirty years of history – the moon landings, little Michael performing ABC, Nixon, hunger and war in Africa, tall skinny Michael in ‘Wannna Be Startin’ Somethin’’, the Berlin Wall coming down, macho Michael in Bad. And then, on the vast stage with a large bang and a flash, out steps the android and takes off his mask. It’s the King of Pop!
Michael Jackson, you see, is the present, the past and the future. He’s our connection with the looking glass world of media: he is the man in the mirror. His-story is our story. Michael Jackson is all human culture. Moondancing.
All the same, few things could be as uncool in Britain today as admitting you like Michael Jackson. You can wear slip-on shoes. You can watch A Question of Sport. You can even drink lager and black – but don’t ever, ever admit that you like Michael Jackson. American, inauthentic, corporate, sincere, tacky, irony-free and no sense of modesty whatsoever, MJ is the antithesis of Britpop – the great Satan to Britpop’s fundamentalism.
When uber-cool Jarvis Cocker made his now legendary stage invasion at last year’s Brit awards, interrupting the King of Pop’s ascension into heaven serenaded by a choir of angelic children during a vast performance of ‘Earth Song’, he was supported not so much by revulsion at the (dropped) child-abuse allegations but by a much stronger feeling: revulsion at an American taking themselves so seriously at the Brit Awards.
And yet, Jarvis’ mooning might possibly have been inspired by jealousy. MJ’s performance of ‘Earth Song’ (containing probably the best and most bathetic pop lyric ever: ‘And what about the elephants?’) did steal the show and really was a religious experience. Yes, it was astonishingly arrogant, tasteless, blasphemous and doolally, but then the best pop always is.
Brit-pop – despite its much-heralded demise – still has a stranglehold on British pop music, and is a highly reactionary music form, harking back to the Sixties sound of all-white bands like the Beatles, but surgically removing any of the R&B sound that informed so much of the ‘Fab Four’s’ music. Oasis are not the Beatles again: they’re the Beatles minus Chuck Berry. And MJ, despite his kabuki-mime pallor, is very ‘black’ in the sense that most of his music is rhythmically orientated.
Though of course the basis of MJ’s brand that he mixes his American blackness with American whiteness until you can hardly distinguish the two: ‘Black or White’ is as much a question as a statement – like asking how you like your coffee. (Funnily enough, it was probably precisely because his skin-colour changed that many white British critics felt able to attack Jackson.)
So I’d love to report that the latest show is brilliant – but in fact it’s an epic, grinding disappointment. The intro video was by far the best part of it. Anti-climax is probably inevitable when you go to see the most famous man in the world. But there’s also a kind of pointlessness to it. MJ is so fantastically plastic, so extravagantly synthetic that there is nothing really added by going to see him ‘live’ and watching him on a giant video juke-box with thousands of others in a sports arena. In fact, something is taken away. MJ is a simulacrum, a copy for which no original exists. The image is the man, not the tiny imposter jigging around on stage between the video screens the size of football pitches – and beneath the towering Stalinist statue of himself.
It’s precisely because MJ is so phoney, so artificial, so mass-produced, processed and pre-digested that he has been so popular. MJ is the Big Mac of pop music – scorned by faddists and know-betters but very popular with people who want something fast, fun, and nutrition-free that gives them a buzz. Most people are uncool, thank god, and quite happy that way.
But for all his popularity with the masses, the MJ brand, like Big Macs, is clearly in decline. This tour has failed to sell out and there isn’t anything approaching the ‘Jacksonmania’ that has greeted previous ones. His last couple of albums have been less than impressive and the kiddie-fiddling charges can’t have helped. But perhaps the real problem for MJ Inc is beyond the MD’s control. The world’s love affair with Americana has peaked. When the Cold War ended and the Stalinist statues were pulled down and replaced with McDonald’s golden arches, people stopped dreaming the American dream. It had become an inescapable reality.
Michael Jackson, the greatest embodiment of that dream, the creature of consumerism, individualism and aspirationalism, the most famous man who never lived, is also a victim of his own success. Hence the hubristic use of that blockbuster intro video and Ceaucescu-esque statues on the cover of the History album and next to the stage on this tour is eerily apt. Those who try to embody history usually end up victims of it: toppling over beneath the weight of their own contradictions. And besides, Jacksonism isn’t much of a replacement for Jacksonmania.
Put another way, Michael’s audience has grown up while he, valiantly has not. At Wembley, while MJ cavorted with some female dancers on-stage, a fan behind me shouted out: ‘They’re a bit old for you, aren’t they Michael?’
You really know the world’s changed when MJ fans get cynical.
© Mark Simpson 2009