Commercialism vs. Artistry
Now that the world has come together to honor the life and music of Michael Jackson – from Michael Jackson parties (in clubs or spontaneously on the streets or in parks) to flash mob mass moonwalks (The Harlem mob at the Apollo Theater and the Liverpool Station one in London are by far my favorites since you can just feel the love via You Tube) – I suppose it is inevitable that certain folk, a particular group of Generation Xers (those who are the same age as my older cousins and the teenaged babysitters that I had when I was a wee one) are now making distinctions between the casual fans of Michael Jackson and the “true” bona fide “real” fans of Michael Jackson. The litmus test? Ask the question, “Which is the better Michael Jackson album – Off the Wall or Thriller?” and, so the wisdom goes, the “true fans” reveal their deep knowledge and comprehension of Michael Jackson’s musical artistry if they respond with the preference for Off the Wall. Absolute nonsense, is what I say to that litmus test.
I’m not just saying that for sentimental reasons. I have equally warm memories of Off the Wall – when, in particular, I would dance to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at family gatherings and be applauded for my various attempts at imitating the Soul Train and Solid Gold dancers. No. My particular problem with that litmus test is it simply reveals a fan’s preference for hardcore R&B/funk versus hardcore pop, not necessarily a distinction between Michael’s genius on one album vs. his commercial stride on another. Both albums are absolutely amazing in showcasing the combined talents of Michael and Quincy Jones. Above all, however, this litmus test reveals a snooty attempt at distinguishing between a “real” and artistic Michael Jackson vs. the superstar, commercial “sellout” Michael Jackson. To which I must ask: what exactly is wrong with commercial success?
Since the news of the death of Michael Jackson last Thursday, June 25, 2009, I’ve been listening to Michael Jackson’s music on my ipod and watching his videos on MTV, BET, and VH1. There is no denying that sheer, innocent joy he displays in the low-budget videos for “Rock with You” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”; it certainly disappears by the time we see him in “Billie Jean” or “Beat It.” However, Thriller represents, to me, his maturity and the height of his success as not just a musician but the consummate performer. As the biggest selling album of all time, there is no denying its commercial, mainstream appeal. But such commercialism does not diminish its artistry – it embellishes it.
The funk behind “Off the Wall” ain’t got nothing on the funk behind “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and by the time Michael gets into the Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-sa chanting, both he and the rest of us are in the zone. Ballads like “Human Nature” are so heartfelt and sincere, and his falsetto creates something divine and beautiful. Perhaps not as vulnerable sounding as “She’s Out of My Life,” but it’s definitely on a much more sophisticated level. All this is to say: pitting one MJ album over another MJ album seems as inane as pitting a David Archuleta AI performance over another to reveal a “true fan” of the artist. Which is the better performance: “Imagine” or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”? Please don’t make me choose (although, if anyone seriously asked me which is the best David vocal performance so far, I personally would choose his “Angels” performance from Tulsa, Oklahoma – the most incredible vocal gymnastics he’s displayed – hands down).
There are a number of talented, musical geniuses, and only a few have achieved superstardom status. To me, what the Michael Jacksons, Elvis Presleys, and Beatles all have in common is an ability to combine such artistry with popularity, and such a combo is enough to launch a musician through the stratosphere. Some music artists have the genius but not enough charisma to take them to the top; while others definitely have the popularity but not the genius to remain at the top. That is what makes Michael Jackson a standout. This is not a competition between commercialism and artistry. When one combines the two, superstardom is what happens, along with the magic.
I know the Archie fan base has had numerous conversations about David’s potential, and the cautionary tales that the lives of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson represent may even make us wary about David ever rising to the top. But, nobody can predict or market or create superstar status. It either happens or it doesn’t. An artist either sets the world on fire, or he doesn’t. David himself is so humble (but in many ways, so were Elvis and Michael when they were around David’s age), that he may not ever strive for such stardom, but if it happens, will we be prepared? Will he?
Right now, David is starting to get used to grown women (and a few men) and young girls (and more than a few boys) screaming for him, but when he finally figures out why we’re screaming, will he and his management start catering to this appeal? Once David gets more comfortable with his body (the way he is definitely comfortable with his Voice and the stage), he may start working on a few moves (if he wants to add this to his repertoire). For I am of the belief that any guy who walks so lithely has got some dang serious potential in that capacity. If, in addition to his singing, he can come up with a signature move – something along the lines of Michael Jackson’s pelvic thrust and Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking – THUD! When that happens, either the world converts to Mormonism or the Mormons have to relinquish him to the world (the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses had to with Michael). Ain’t no putting that genie back in the bottle when it gets unleashed. All conversations of superstardom, and whether or not David wants it or can achieve it, will be null and void.
Whatever develops, I would hope we don’t create futile contests about true fans vs. casual fans, or commercialism vs. artistry. A musical genius with popular appeal achieves both.