Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

It Don't Stop, and Then It Do

My wife and I chose the hours of 11 a.m. Thursday through 11 p.m. Friday to take off for a much needed escape to Brattleboro, Vermont, where we ate a supernal $100 meal, two excellent $30 meals, and a free, late motel breakfast; swam in the full-size motel pool and a secluded private pond owned by the widow of a Dartmouth classmate; sat in the motel hot tub; shopped briefly for books and clothes during a rainstorm; listened to a lot of music in the car (Crazy Horse! Mamani Keita! Wussy!) and some by the pond (Mbuti Pygmies!); and did the other things couples do on much needed escapes. We had a great time.

Luckily, time was so short I decided not to bring my laptop, no newspapers were on sale, and the computer in the motel breakfast room had bitten the silicon. On the way to the restaurant Thursday night, however, our 24-year-old daughter called and told us that Michael Jackson had died. For Nina this was a big deal, and after dinner we called again and talked about how disorienting it felt--for her, this pop loss was a first, an oddity worth pondering. Post-grunge, there were lots of deaths (not just Kurt Cobain but Lynn Staley, Elliott Smith, lesser lights), but she was a little young for that and has always been a pop person anyway. And in that pop generation (not hip-hop, obviously), there's been trauma aplenty but, so far, no deaths unless you count Rob Pilatus of Milli Vanilli. Even Britney Spears has made it through. It's been said often and truly in the past few days that MJ made the post-identity aesthetics of such raceless yet r&b-contoured pop possible. It's also been said that he heralded a return to showbiz, an overstatement--arena-rock offered showbiz aplenty (read Fred Goodman on Dee Anthony in The Mansion on the Hill)--that's relevant here. Pop has transmuted into a strange profession that rewards hard work and personal discipline, making self-destructiveness less likely among its practitioners. And it's also been said that MJ was the last pop star everyone could share--a universal signifier whose like we will not see again. Many reminiscences from LA and NYC have recounted how ubiquitous his music instantly became.

As a point of information, then, I should mention that not once in Brattleboro--a sizable old-hippie town that harbors quite a few liberal NYC retirees, though its countercultural presence was one vegetarian restaurant when my friend bought his patch of woods 40 years ago--did I hear a scrap of Michael Jackson's music or even his name. He wasn't even brought up by the webwise r&b recording engineer from down the dirt road who surprised us by biking in for a dip. I'm not saying the reports of ubiquity were inaccurate or meaningless. But universal is BIG.

Needless to say, back in NYC all this changed. I'd missed several excellent offers of paying work, as I'd figured--Thursday night Carola and I kvelled about how great it was that I didn't have a job to ruin our sojourn. I spent several hours going through emails, 20 or so of which were MJ-related. Some of these were appalling enough to be worthy of note. The enterprising publicist who polled her undistinguished roster for quotable comments. The BMI farewell IDing MJ as a "BMI Icon" (uc in original) before IDing him as a "longtime songwriter and publisher." The appreciation from Gamble & Huff that was mostly about Gamble & Huff and the appreciation from William Lee Golden that was mostly about the Oak Ridge Boys. Perez Hilton fave Eric Hutchinson made sure we knew that he performed his peppy "OK, It's Alright With Me" for Jimmy Kimmel "with a single sequined glove atop his piano" and alt-metal up-and-comers Shinedown marked the release of their third album by informing the world that "Michael Jackson was the best." Perhaps best of all, the rightwing Newsmax site sent out a missive entitled "Michael Jackson Didn't Have to Die" designed to drum up subscriptions to a newsletter run by a "Newsmax health expert" who is also, praise the Lord, a "leading medical doctor"--a newsletter wholly owned, as it happens, by Newsmax.

On the other hand, deaths of the very famous do bring out the troops, and although I ran into a certain amount of self-serving blog crap, I also found a lot of good writing by rock critics I'm always happy to read as well as a few surprising outsiders. I'll put in my own bit at the end, self-evident though I know it to be, but let me first cull some nuggets from valued colleagues and then link to a few pieces I especially admired.

Jody Rosen: "We will never again experience a moment like Jackson's 1980s apotheosis, when Thriller seemed to shrink the world . . . --a time when we could imagine that the whole country, the whole planet, was listening to the same song." Sasha Frere-Jones: "Why couldn't a pop song also contain an enormous, barn-burning guitar solo? Why couldn't a dance hit verge on Afropop? Why did a creamy ballad about human nature have to sound like humans were singing it?" Jon Pareles: "His dance moves were angular and twitchy, hinting at digital stops and starts rather than analog fluidity--except, of course, for his famous moonwalk, the image of someone striding gracefully without ever leaving center stage." Ann Powers: "the boy who knew too much"; "a man whose physical presence was first androgynous and then seemingly cyborgian, forcing his astounded public to puzzle over their assumptions about race, gender and age." Danyel Smith: "He was knowing enough about who he was to pretty much demand we call call him The King of Pop, but it was the public shyness, the nerdiness of Michael Jackson that endeared." Rob Sheffield: "He was the most famous, pampered star in the world, yet you rooted for him, because he came on like an underdog, a very ordinary kid oppressed by extraordinary gifts, renouncing the privileges of machismo, a shy boy dreaming of the street. As he memorably put it in the 'Thriller' video, 'I'm not like other guys.'" Verlyn Klinkenborg (Verlyn Klinkenborg?): "No performer made a more compelling entrance into manhood than Michael Jackson. . . . He wasn't an apparition rising out of obscurity, like Elvis Presley. To become who he was in 'Off the Wall," he had to annul--if not destroy--the performer he had been in the Jackson 5." Jody Rosen: 'His music is the strangest and darkest ever to achieve blockbuster success."

The pieces I liked best focused on the pathos and mystery of his far from exemplary life while absolutely respecting his music--except, that is, for Kelefa Sanneh's left-field look from the perspective of Manu Dibango. Bill Wyman's preemptive strike appeared in Salon; Nelson George's apparently unproofread take was sent out from his rarely updated blog and included a postscript indicated that Nelson was not available for interviews; and Andrew Sullivan, whose musical ideas I often find limited, surprised me with this.

Myself, I have two self-evident things to say, or maybe they're just one. A major fan from Off the Wall on--"Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," my favorite MJ song, was chosen, not by me, as the title of my festschrift--I have complained for many years that his horrible personal life was making it more difficult than necessary for critics, as opposed to tabloid writers, to hear his music. I even liked 2002's Invincible, the grotesque magniloquence of which seemed all too appropriate to its creator. But the bonus cuts on the last comp I concentrated on were not encouraging, and I had the feeling that his 50-concert London comeback was doomed to fizzle so embarrassingly that rather than rehabilitating him it would ruin him once and for all. Now we'll never know, as many are saying--only maybe we already do. I mean, he died. The thing is, his death is rehabilitating him even as I write, and however much damaging information emerges over the next few years I suspect his music itself is safer than Elvis's. Maybe he didn't quite stop when he'd had enough. But for sure he stopped before it was too late.

5 Comments

By Jonathan Culp on June 28, 2009 12:37 AM

A bit of a tangent--I was fairly devastated by the Jackson thing, and danced hard to him tonight--I bought a 16mm film about the Mbuti last week. Since I first found out about their music from you, I figure I owe you a DVD dub, if you want/need it. Just drop me a line; might take a little while. Budah!

By Robert Christgau on June 28, 2009 9:04 AM

That's Carola's music especially, and does it sound great in the woods. So we'd love a Mbuti DVD. No hurry of course. Write me at robertchristgau.com and we'll arrange details.

By David Schweitzer on June 30, 2009 4:02 PM

Knew you'd add your two cents (or more) -- you who defended Michael's music when so few still did (and I'll take Invincible down from my attic now, but I certainly was unconvinced the last time I played it, which was soon after the first). In early '83, "Billie Jean" was a revelation, thrusting this 15-year-old pop/AOR fan into the funk (oh, I had me my Stevie Wonder, sure, but . . . ), so I owe him at least that. The moment I heard he'd died, I realized I'd been hoping that somehow he'd overcome his whole life and right himself somehow, learn to enjoy living in his own body if not his own fame, be at ease that was a feat that couldn't and needn't be topped. That's the personal corny comment. The more distanced one is that while 15 years ago I thought it was rank hubris that he started calling himself the King of Pop, not that he wasn't, but why bother? But his death makes it very clear just how much he had in common with Elvis. Who, I agree, hasn't made more durable music than his onetime son-in-law.

By Jonathan Culp on July 5, 2009 5:31 PM

Eh, just watched the film - probably not worth your time. It's pretty excruciating with the fruity narrator and doesn't have much about the music. Rest assured Colin Turnbull had nothing to do with it! Sorry.

By Allen Belz on July 5, 2009 8:17 PM

Though it was nice to revisit all the others I'm enjoying "Invincible" a great deal right now, partly because not having spent half as much time with it as all the others it's a half-new album, partly because even though I agree it's too long, fun, exciting stuff keeps popping out of the speakers at me.

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