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Book Review: The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson Edited by Mark Fisher

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If you have read my previous reviews, you might have noticed that I have a predilection for all things reflections, as well as for all things Michael Jackson. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that this book caught my attention. After all, it does describe itself as a book to be “appreciated by anyone who loved Jackson’s records and wants to understand the times he defined.”

Seriously, who has been listening in on my phone calls?

Slight X-Phile paranoia aside, The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson is a series of essays about the man, the artist, the legend and the victim that was Michael Jackson. It’s a great way to keep one’s feet on earth, both for those who tend to deify the man, as well as for those who tend to cast him as a corporate devil (neither of which he is). These essays by twenty-three thinkers from the music industry portray many of Michael Jacksons’ sides, thus appealing to many audiences: from the young, die-hard fan to the older music critic, from the music lover puzzled by the phenomenal success of songs he considers catchy at best to the one still awed by the magic of Michael Jackson’s performances, the point of views expressed in this book are varied, making all the richer.

Caught in our day-to-day lives and using music as a background soundtrack, we often forget all it can represent. After all, music can’t be separated from the social environment in which it was created, and Michael Jackson’s music was one of the things that was influenced by as well as influenced the 1980s and 1990s (albeit for very different reasons). This book provides a look at the greater social environment in which Michael Jackson’s music was born, evolved and, ultimately and quite unfortunately, died. Because Michael Jackson isn’t only about the music: “The contributors to the book do not always agree about Jackson’s music, but they all agree that Jackson was a symptom that needs to be reckoned with and analyzed” (Mark Fisher).

The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson is also a lesson in music appreciation, as its essays are a tribute of sorts to the fading art of music journalism. To be honest, I had never quite understood the importance of music journalism; like many others of my generation, music is what carries me through the many emotions of being a teenager and then a young adult. In a world of chaos and confusion, music tends to be my one constant. But, of course, music is a lot more than that. While for the veterans and professionals alike, Demise includes parts that they will consider obvious analysis as well as details and explanations they are quite familiar with, for those of us like myself who are just fans, it’s a great way to learn to appreciate music –-  and particularly, Michael Jackson’s music –- in a totally different way.

Michael Jackson’s demise, according to Mark Fisher, started way before we tend to pinpoint its beginnings at. Some would point out the more advanced surgeries, the increasing eccentricities or the two child molestation charges (especially the second one), but Mark Fisher thinks it has to do with the release of Thriller. And if you think about it, it makes sense –- Thriller came out at a period in history that is never again going to happen, when mass marketing was starting and was still controlled by the very few, and international superstardom was easily accessible to anyone with enough talent and drive –- which Michael Jackson certainly did.

But the other reason Mark Fisher tells us that Michael Jackson’s Thriller marked the beginning of his demise is that with the hypercommodification of the artist through as phenomenal and influential a creation as Thriller, brought to life at a time that was basically a perfect setting for its propagation and dominance with little to no competition, the je-ne-sais-quoi that defined Jacksonism, which culminated with Off the Wall — and which Michael Jackson was shaped by -– died.

After all, as David Stubbs explains, "Thriller marked huge changes in the interfaces between pop, rock, R&B and MTV. If it marked another of the successive deaths that constitute Michael Jackson’s career (as shrewdly lampooned in the satirical US website The Onion’s mock-obituary, 'Final Piece of Michael Jackson Dies'), then perhaps the album also marks, coincidentally, the death of soul itself. Who, after all, has really made a great, first-hand, stylistically unselfconscious soul record in the last twenty-five years? Has that been possible in the post-Thriller climate?” So many artists today were deeply influenced and are defined by Michael Jackson; “The whole ultra choreographed 'X Factor' world we now live in -– from Prince to Madonna to Britney to Beyoncé -– surely [started there]” (Barney Hoskyns). And it wasn’t just because of the special effects and over the top performances; it was because of what Michael Jackson represented: “The utopia of Michael Jackson, the universality of his music, had to do precisely with its challenge to this history of race in America,” as “everybody (…) intuitively understood that Michael Jackson raised 'the possibility of living in a new way,' at least as much as Elvis, The Beatles, or The Sex Pistols ever did” (Stephen Shaviro).

Thriller set the bar high for other artists, it’s true, but the one person for whom the bar was not only set, but was the source of a lifelong drive to surpass, was Michael Jackson himself. And the fact that he didn’t surpass his own self left behind the imaginary smell of failure, since despite their inability to surpass Thriller, Michael Jackson’s subsequent albums were quite successful: “The facts are: Bad sold 30 million copies, Dangerous sold 32 million, and even his poorly received last studio album, Invincible, apparently sold 12 million and that’s not even mentioning 1997’s Blood on the Dance Floor, the biggest selling remix album ever, with 6 million sales” (Paul Lester).

Where else could Michael Jackson therefore go, if not down into a sense of self-dissatisfaction? And so it seems tragically logical that he was destined to become more and more "wacko" to recapture something of that thrill of Thriller (cheap pun, I know).

This contributed to the further hypercommodification of Michael Jackson, a topic brilliantly tackled in Jeremy Gilbert’s essay, “The Real Abstraction of Michael Jackson,” which is in my opinion the most striking essay of the bunch. In it, Jeremy Gilbert reflects on what transforms a celebrity from a "real" person into deities: “One of the things that we mean when we say that an object or person is ‘real’ is that there is at least some limit to the number of times we can see its image reproduced on a daily or a local basis.” Seeing Michael Jackson everywhere, be it on the “Thriller” video clip that was constantly played on MTV, on subsequent, larger than life video clips such as “Remember the Time” and “Black or White,” in the various items linked to Michael Jackson (red leather jackets, fedoras, armbands) as well as on the promotional imagery for his various albums -– particularly for Dangerous (which included a 40 foot tall statue of Michael Jackson floating down the Thames), turned him from a mere talented artist to a deity of sorts. “To put this more simply, I was struck very powerfully by the sense that one of the things that we mean when we say that an object or person is ‘real’ is that there is at least some limit to the number of times we can see its image reproduced on a daily or a local basis; that there are only so many identical life-sized cardboard cut-outs of a person that can appear in public places before that person actually loses the quality of being real. The actuality of Michael Jackson seemed to have been not merely distorted, but overwhelmed, drowned in a sea of its own images” (Jeremy Gilbert).

Consequently, Michael Jackson, despite his natural talent and his uncanny ability to dazzle (or rather, because of them), became only about the dazzle. In his pursuit to dazzle, he often put himself to the side. “With Bad and its equally horrible successors Dangerous (1991), HIStory (1995) and Invisible (2001), he seemed to be second guessing what the public wanted instead of listening to his own instincts. More to the point, he’d lost touch with everything that was organically great about Michael Jackson” (Barney Hoskyns). Which is all the more ironic, as Michael Jackson was, potentially, the one artist who could have released just about anything he wanted and it would have easily sold in the millions, and yet he felt compelled to dilute his essence in creating something he thought would sell in the millions.

Perhaps this is why Michael Jackson seemed so burdened in the last years of his life. It was not only that he was broken by the child molestation accusations, but also that he never quite managed to dazzle us as much as he did with Thriller, and this weighed heavily on him. For a man who, as a child, was told that his worth was related to his ability to dazzle, it created a perfect storm for a breakdown. The battle between singing and performing as an expression of his inherent talent versus singing and performing only to dazzle, was a constant one throughout the second half of his life, and “you could sense his discomfort at having to pretend to be something he wasn’t. And yet, as the public probed him for signs of the opposite over the next few years, the more he felt pressured into proclaiming his manly vitality — hence, Bad followed by Dangerous followed by Invincible -– when really he was growing progressively weak” (Paul Lester). He had to be Michael Jackson the performer, which might have helped stifle Michael Jackson, the human.

When put in the context of this social reality, Michael Jackson’s song lyrics -– even those songs that are meant to be purely inspirational –- take on a whole other layer of meaning (check out Domonic Fox’s analysis of “Earth Song,” for example). It also helps understand, at least partly, Michael Jackson’s obsession with plastic surgery, which might have been an attempt to become someone that anyone could identify with –- the black man, the white woman, the black woman, the white woman -– Michael’s successive surgeries tried (unsuccessfully) to mould all of those characteristics into one persona, only to have it backfire: “You can be as raunchy as you want to be as long as you remain even closer to the pre-established stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Michael Jackson’s refusal or inability to do so is the least understood aspect of his persona” (Stephen Shaviro).

All of which seems to make Michael Jackson’s demise rather inevitable, and “later Michael Jackson, with his myriad conceits and eccentricities and physical disintegration, tells a more eloquent and tragic story about contemporary superstardom” (David Stubbs). Michael constant struggle to surpass himself and dazzle us à la Thriller was impossible, since today’s world, with YouTube and blogs, has become one of endless babble and little stories, “without great unifying narratives, and without global superstars or leaders. Jackson’s career should be a reminder to us not only that capitalism is cunning, deadly and very, very good at what it does, but also that things can always change (…) The final fate of Michael Jackson -– decrepit, deranged and broke -– stands as a warning to later generations, that even the biggest start the world has ever known cannot withstand the demands of capital alone” (Jean-François Lyotard).

No review could possibly cover the entirety of the concepts, themes and reflections this book engenders. The above reflections were only based on a minimal part of the book. I have a whole other document of notes that I took while reading The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson. And I must warn you: it might give you an irresistible urge to purchase even more books about music journalism and Jacksonism.

And who knows; perhaps Michael Jackson’s legacy could be the most unexpected of all: that an entire generation who grew up with his music, in their attempt to understand how his promising career crashed like it did, will learn to appreciate music for more than a mere background soundtrack that blocks out the world around them, becoming instead another way to understand that confusing and chaotic world, thus helping them gain a certain measure of control on it and helping to advance human civilization.

Wouldn’t that be a legacy worthy of the King of Pop?

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  • anthony

    It was the album “History” that showed a large statue of him on cover not “Dangerous”.

  • anthony

    It was the album “History” that showed a large statue of him on cover not “Dangerous”.

  • http://saharsblog.wordpress.com Sahar

    Ah, you’re right! The same statuesque figure on the cover of the album ‘HIStory’ was floated down the Thames. Good catch, thanks for pointing it out!

  • beau

    I wonder who is going to buy the book
    we fans are tired of over analysis of michael jackson.havent the media have enough of him.they should pick another celibrity to hound,even in death they cant get enough of him.
    everybody wants to write about him yet most of the writers dont really know much except the recycled gossips and rumours about him
    Nobody ever sold half as much as thriller did,so why should mj be condemned he never surpassed thriller sales.He was the only artist who had 5 albums sell more than 20 million copies,why are others not berated for not repeating their success
    we fans know he was not a deity,he had his own faults,problems and demons,most people have their troubles but none of our problems is examined under the microscope like mj’s was.we love him because we knew he was human kind,loving and cared about others,thats why he has the most passionate fans in the world.

  • catz

    Oh Please, just another nothing book by so-called “musicologists”, probing and dissecting and denigrating not only the greatest entertainer of all time, but also one of the greatest humanitarians as well.
    They say-
    The final fate of Michael Jackson -– decrepit, deranged and broke -– stands as a warning to later generations”
    What a load of malicious garbage. Michael Jackson was none of those things. All you have to do is see This Is It to see that Jackson was still incredibly talented and on his game vocally as well as physically. He was not broke- where is the proof of that? And even if he was, he was put through more than one extortion attempt that emptied his coffers to pay lawyers to constantly defend him against the vultures who wanted easy money. And deranged? If being deranged means being kind and caring about humanity and being generous, giving millions of dollars to charities all around the world, then d*mn, we need more deranged people like Jackson in the world! Mr. Jackson was not a deity or god, he was a mortal man with flaws like all of us and that includes the writer of this blog and the fools who wrote this book and all the rest of us mere mortals. He had his foibles, but mostly he was a man who tried to make the world a better place. Yeah, I said it. What is so wrong with making the world a better place? What is so wrong with trying to add beauty and love and kindness to the world? Why is that sneered at by these critics of Michael Jackson? Is it jealousy, envy, spitefulness, inner turmoil, lack of self esteem that drives these people to attack Michael Jackson? I don’t get it. Truly. I was not a fan of Michael Jackson at all during his lifetime. It wasn’t until after his demise that I researched this man’s life because I found him fascinating. I wanted to know more about a man who had made such a difference in the world, changed race relations and dared to say, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white!” I wanted to understand his complicated and beleaguered life. What I discovered was a man who was incredibly gifted in music and dance, sure, but he was also very human, very altruistic and an amazing humanitarian. The tragedy is all the ugliness spewed on him over the years by a greedy grasping press that wanted a piece of his fame for themselves. Michael said it best when he said- Money, you’ll do anything for Money.
    “Money.
    Money…
    Lie for it
    Spy for it
    Kill for it
    Die for it
    So you call it trust
    But I say it’s just
    In the devil’s game
    Of greed and lust
    They don’t care
    They’d do me for the money
    They don’t care
    They use me for the money”
    The press and these authors of hate are still trying to make a dime off of Michael Jackson and I am tired of it. It doesn’t make you a more worthwhile author just because you spew ugliness. I would like to see kindness come back in style. When did being decent and honest and civil go out of style? Michael Jackson deserves better. He deserves respect and appreciation for all the beauty he added to this world. It is nasty people of this ilk that drove him to an early grave. He had a heart. He was human. He was not a god, but he was a gift to humanity and he should be remembered that way.

  • Marcela

    I’ve been Michael’s fan since I was 11 years old. When Dangerous album came out, that’s when I started to get to know Michael Jackson. I did not know Thriller. I started with Dangerous album and was impressed by Michael’s unique style. His Black or White song and video were stuck in my head. I have to say that I love Dangerous album. I don’t like all of the songs but most of them. It’s a quality music. So is HIStory. And Invincible. I like all the albums. I always appreciated MIchael trying to come up with new sounds and every one of his albums sounds sooo much different which doesn’t happen with many artists nowadays. I would be interested in buying the book, I think there is some truth to it. I do think that Michael tried to surpass Thriller but I think it was because of his dad. His dad put lot of pressure on Michael, making him feel that if he’s not successful he’s done with him. Michael even said it somewhere. He said that Joe would drop him like a hot potato. And you can see it today that Joe is not able to talk about Michael as of a human being and his son but he talks about the superstar Michael was. I think that was his struggle throughout the years. Of course I could be wrong but that’s what I feel. To me, it doesn’t matter how successful Michael’s albums were, they all had some beautiful, great and inspirational music. It totally reflected who Michael was. I miss him every day. I will miss his humble spirit, his kindness, humanity and his love. He gave us soooo much only to be kicked in the face by the media. But he always got up stronger than ever. His response was always more love. And I will never let that go. I will never forget that.

  • Barbara

    Shame on you ! How dare you write that “his promising career crashed like it did ” ? And what about this “myriads conceits ” nonsense ? Like many, I have been hooked on the net trying to understand why I felt so much sadness when he passed away. One thing I know for sure is that his voice was magical and despite the ” crashing ” of his career “, he has left us with myriads of incredibly beautiful songs and videos, treasures still to be rediscovered … Yes, the constant dissection of his persona is sickening. More than ever, he deserves utter respect.

  • Demi

    Evrybody consider themselves Michaeljacksonologist nowadays. All this analysing would be quite hilarious if it wasnt so full of bs. What does calling him decrepit, deranged and broke ( all of which he is not, ask Macca.)has to do with his music.Your moralizing bla about capitalism is hypocritical, because the only purpose of this book is to capitalize.Why are people so jealous of his money. And why wouldnt he make music he loves himself And is at the same time appealing to his extensive fanbase. Thats the true genius. Even if his career had stopped at thriller, it would still have been twice as long as the career of most artists. Thank God the millions who bought Dangerous, History and Invincible, adding 20 more years to his career after thriller, are no musicologists but plain and simple musiclovers. A crashing career?? dont think so. Compare the sales of D,H,I to the salesnumbers of the best selling artist of 2009
    (Meaning the runner up since Mike was again bestselling with more than 8 mln sold ).And all this accomplished while being put trough the ugliest legal battle,vicious media attack and being a single parent of 3. And a damn good one too as youve seen at the grammys.
    No thanks, we will not buy your book.