Oct/Nov 2009 Miscellaneous

Stopping When It's Enough

by John Bredin

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Let me begin with a confession, one that carries a whiff of sacrilege in the giddy worshipping-of-all-things-Michael dawn of the AJ (after Jackson) era: I never liked "Thriller." Even less the slick, over-wrought, and cloying video. Like a car crash, though, you couldn't avert your eyes from it in 1982. An alienated 19-year-old at the time, I recall repeated, passive viewings on MTV: my soul as submerged in the funk and lassitude of adolescent despair as my body was sunk into my parents' suburban, NJ couch. In the wake of Jackson's recent, possibly drug-induced death, though, I have re-interpreted my early "Thriller" encounters–out of the fog of memory—as a kind of cultural OD'ing. The video's glitzy, dizzying sense of too-muchness was like a drug, floating me into an apathetic, lobotomized trance.

The net effect on my teenaged psyche of multiple exposures to the "Thriller" video—essentially, an insipid fluff piece built around a dirge-like, monotonous song—was to make me feel as monstrous as Jackson's faux wolfman, a zombie out of touch with my culture. Because I wasn't liking something I was supposed to, I assumed there was something wrong with me. Who was I, after all, to defy those cultural gods, the MTV video jocks, who genuflected their vapid praise of "Thriller" with used car salesman unctuousness? The same unctuousness as today's Fox news anchors; now robotically executing Jackson's post-mortem?

Since popular culture is, ultimately (whether we like it or not), a Rorschach on the politics of an era, perhaps the queasy feeling of lack "Thriller" induced in me at the dawn of Ronald Reagan's "greed-is-good" ‘80s—that's just how the advertisers and marketers want you to feel!—was precisely the point. Ironically, the lyrics to Michael Jackson's last truly great song, "Don't Stop till you get Enough" (1979), hinted at the capitalism-on-steroids age of hyper-consumerism about to explode in America. Any Buddhist worth his salt will tell you, though, that sometimes you do need to stop because... well, it's enough.

In the years leading up to Reagan's 1980 election (when a still-handsome Michael sported a fro), academic symposiums were held on what had to be the most beautiful social problem ever articulated: what to do with the "coming free time" due to cutting-edge breakthroughs in workplace technology. Then Reagan got in and boom: suddenly it was cool to be a workaholic. Girls, following Madonna's dictum, became "material;" so any poor guy who wanted a date had to "show them the money." Red power ties on, we became obsessed with making more STUFF (as George Carlin would say), whether or not we needed it (Baby Elmo doll anyone?), destroyed the environment in the process, drowned in a depression of over work—pass the Prozac please—or, better still, got the Chinese and Mexicans to make the stuff for us. Then the fat cats could get richer still (maybe buy that third yacht) while the laid off middle and working classes sank into an abysmal, third world-style peasantry.

And the band played on.

The Romans believed you control a population through bread (give em enough to eat so they don't starve) and circuses: spectacle-like entertainments to colonize the hearts and minds of the masses, distracting attention from the crimes committed by their political overlords and using up time that could be spent on revolution. The "King of Pop" Michael that emerged in the 80s and continued to his death fit perfectly into the Roman bread and circuses mold. Fittingly, he even wore a quasi-military uniform for his first meeting with Reagan at the White House. Who cared if a war against the poor was being waged by a president who didn't like black or brown people, who was even against the voting rights act? As long as you could secure tickets to Michael's amazing new super-dooper ultimate world tour, all was good in the hood. Even if the hood itself was imploding under the Reagan regime—awash with crack violence and homelessness—you could console yourself by bopping along to the beat with Michael, who, judging by his bizarre facial changes, even came to despise his own blackness, identifying with the slave master.

In startling contrast to the strange, robotic uber-Micheal who, like a character in a Philip K. Dick novel, seemed to feed off the dystopic cultural shallows of America's rightward lurch from Reagan thru W, pre-1979 Michael—like the country itself—was sweeter and juicier, percolating with authenticity, promise, and love. The proof is in the songs. "ABC" is a transcendent paen not only to the wondrous simplicity of love's magic power, it even suggests—with its love school theme—the development of a future pedagogy (or technology) of love to stave off planetary self-destruction. "I Want You Back," another deeply moral and aesthetic miracle, grapples artfully with an existential, age-old love paradox, one that might just be an insoluble problem: that of occasionally taking your mate for granted. The song reassures us with a rhythmic blast of joyful acceptance that we are not alone, bestowing a kind of musical grace and forgiveness for our sins.

One reason Michael's early gems continue to sparkle (and, I predict, will far outlive his more banal works like "Bad," "Man in the Mirror," and even "Billie Jean") is because, like diamonds, they were forged from the coal of an archeologically rare cultural moment—the sixties and seventies—pulsating with artistic and political quests for justice, meaning, and love. Such soul-nourishing sentiments are spectacularly clear in the songs of James Taylor, Carol King, Elton John, and the early work of Billie Joel… who may have felt the winds of change coming when he taught us that "honesty is such a lonely word." Back when Michael Jackson joined capitalism's gravy train in the 80s (instead of staying on the "Love Train" with the O Jays)—and drove himself into a self-destructive frenzy trying to outdo his own success with "Thriller"—I wish instead he had heeded Boston's wise lyrics from 1975: "I don't care if I get behind, people living in competition, all I want is to have my peace of mind."


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