Thursday, July 09, 2009

final victory

After Michael Jackson’s funeral, I started to think about Greil Marcus’s 1989 book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century--which links the Sex Pistols to Hugo Ball, Guy Debord, and just about everything else. At one point in the book, Marcus describes that moment in May of 1983 when Jackson first moonwalks on national television:

Lithe, beautiful, grown up but still a child, an Afro-American with surgically produced Caucasian features, androgynous, a changeling, communicating menace with the dip of a shoulder, comfort with a smile, singing a song from his new album, Thriller, stepping forward but somehow seeming to glide backward at the same time, walking the television stage not as if he owned it, not as if it was built for him, but as if his very presence had called it into being, he shocked the nation.

Okay, so that’s one long, hyperbolic sentence. But in the pages that follow, the author gives a clear sense of the strangeness of what he calls Jacksonism. Marcus contends that Jackson’s rise was unlike other pop explosions that came before—was ultimately different from, say, the emergence of the Beatles or the Sex Pistols, figures who “raise the possibility of living in a new way.”

It was the first pop explosion not to be judged by the subjective quality of the response it provoked, but to be measured by the number of objective commercial exchanges it elicited…the pop explosions of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols had assaulted or subverted social barriers; Thriller crossed over them, like kudzu.

So Thriller didn't split people into opposing camps; it was a cultural phenomenon that one participated in simply by being alive at that moment and acknowledging the pop culture landscape, which Thriller pervaded utterly. Ultimately, though, in Marcus’s telling of the story, the illusion of Jacksonism falls apart with the subsequent Victory Tour, for which tickets are only available for sale at $30 a head, in blocks of four—that’s a mandatory commitment of $120 in 1984 dollars to see the King of Pop.

Jackson’s main fans, tween African-American boys and girls, were locked out in large numbers. Stories of families going without medical care or food in order to buy the tickets surfaced, and in the end, the audience for the Kansas City kickoff was predominantly well-off and white. For Marcus, it appears that the Michael Jackson phenomenon was directly connected to the political culture of the 1980s:

The Jacksonist pop explosion…was brought forth as a version of the official social reality, generated from Washington as ideology, and from Madison Avenue as language—an ideological language, in 1984, of political division and social exclusion, a glamorization of the new American fact that if you weren’t on top, you didn’t exist. ‘Winning,’ read a Nestle ad featuring an Olympic-style medal cast in chocalte, ‘is everything.’ ‘We have one and only one ambition,’ said Lee Iacocca for Chrysler. ‘To be the best. What else is there?’ Thus the Victory Tour—which originally boasted a more apocalyptic title: ‘Final Victory.’

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