The Resistible Demise Of Michael Jackson Review & Exclusive Extract
, January 19th, 2010 11:48
A satisfying surfeit of intelligent observation, warm, funny and provocative writing, and lack of prurience in this new Zer0 Books tome. 'Shamone' says Jonny Mugwump, our many teeted lizard overlord
A truly startling comeback.
No, not Michael Jackson, the subject of this collection of newly-commissioned essays, but Ian Penman. However, more of that later.
Zer0 books (founded by the charismatic Tariq Goddard) represent a tangible (as in physical) re-engagement with culture and thought. Positioning themselves beyond the ‘striplit malls’ of mass-media and the ‘neurotically bureaucratic halls of the academy’, there is a genuine punk-like feel to their enterprise - Zer0 FEELS like an independent record label. Utilising an understated but immediately recognisable aesthetic at frighteningly reasonable prices (you could pretty much pick up their entire back catalogue on Amazon for less than £40) they have already published a number of works in their short existence (about a year or something) none of which have been less than fascinating. Pulling together younger writers who have been carving out their own singular niches on the internet (Nina Power, Owen Hatherley and Dominic Fox all had excellent works published in 2009) alongside print veterans like David Stubbs and the aforementioned Penman (who has two books coming out this year), Zer0 pull from a multitude of overground, underground and/or ignored corners, tapping into a vein of insight that marries depth with accessibility without sacrificing either.
Collated and edited by Mark (K-Punk) Fisher (who has just published Capitalist Realism and has a further collection due this year), The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson (and what a title that is) triumphantly justifies every claim they make for themselves. In concept alone it’s perfect - 24 refractions, reflections and collisions with (arguably - although there is only one other contender) the greatest pop cultural phenomenon the world has ever known: an inquiry that covers the Moonwalk (backslide) to Stalin, from Jackson’s relationship with India to Jackson’s embodiment of the British experience of pop (and therefore of culture as a whole). Some of these pieces turn brevity into poetry (in 5 pages Alex Williams leaps quite logically from Kant and Lyotard via the morgue to Neverland, Inland Empire and Bataille, Bambi and The Sun) whilst others offer descriptions of Jackson’s greatest moments that are so exquisite that you’ll be playing them before the sentence is through (Fisher himself especially transcendent on 'Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough' and 'Billie Jean'). Oh and Steven Shaviro takes Greil Marcus severely to task for several decades of dodgy white hipsterism which is something that has been at the back of my mind for a long time.
Along the way you become aware that despite containing the aforementioned BJ and 'Human Nature' (a song that brings me out in goosebumps just thinking about it) Thriller is not THAT great, that Jackson is actually beyond disturbing in his behaviour around women in the post-Bad videos and that Norm from Cheers is a big Husker Du fan (thank you David Stubbs).
Because of the ludicrously high calibre of writing within (especially considering that Jackson has only just squeak-grunted off the planet he tried to save), the potential danger of cross-over (it suddenly dawns of course that Michael Jackson’s recorded legacy is a very small one) actually becomes one of the book’s strengths. There are so many different readings, assessments and interpretations of 'Earth Song' for instance that you briefly become convinced that it’s a truly fascinating piece of art instead of the work of a madman (although naturally those two things hardly need be exclusive).
Also, I for one, love to read writing about dancing and I am entirely ecstatic about Costello’s misfired dancing about architecture quip - what could be more fun than dancing about architecture? And boy could that man (boy) dance (although Joshua Clover rightly points out that Janet actually had the edge and in fact I would offer that she is also the more musically interesting of the two in the long term).
But in a book that is already stuffed with ideas, two pieces are pieces of art by themselves. In 'True Enough: Michael in Fifty Shards' Chris Roberts (having had the honour of being commissioned to write a book about Jackson the day after he died and having said book being published 3 weeks later) embarks on a journey through Jackson’s life that can best be described as Citizen Kane remixed by Walt Disney. '...Shards' is a darkly ebullient exploding rainbow. A desperate cartoon that seems to perfectly capture the insanity of Jackson’s life even though we have no fucking idea WHAT his life was like. But somehow, Roberts DOES. We have Michael searching for the elixir of eternal youth. We have Michael finding the Hollywood celebrity mother he needs in Diana Ross first then Elizabeth Taylor second. There are celebrity dalliances.
‘“Hey Mikey,” says Lisa-Marie Presley. “I had an unorthodox youth and know all about massive head-stewing fame. You had an unorthodox youth and know all about massive head-stewing fame. We have so much in common. And I don’t need your money. Wanna fuck?”’
The penultimate 'Shard 49' is off-world brilliance with Michael occupying every celebrity corpse of the last 100 years. It’s like an undiscovered chapter of Atrocity Exhibition. It really is pretty damn good.
But Fisher has one more surprise left, a comeback worthy of the King himself (it’s hardly the last piece by accident).
'Notes towards the Ritual Exorcism of a Dead King' is the first thing Ian Penman has published for a very long time and I use the word "thing" deliberately as it’s hard to define just what it actually is. Starting with a party, sat with some teenagers drinking Malibu, Penman tries to get a reaction on the news of Jackson’s death, invokes Faust (‘There’s no “retiring” on contracts like these!’) collides with the phenomena of the megastar and enters into some dark chaotic war with culture, with the media, practically with himself, collapsing the form of the essay at points as if possessed by Artaud whilst at the same time retaining a surgeon-like precision of pop-savvy:
‘(The Thriller video - if there’s a notable oddity, watching it now, I would say it’s how serious it feels - if that makes any sense.)’
'Notes towards the Ritual Exorcism of a Dead King' however, like its subject matter, is permanently on the verge of profound disintegration. Turn the page and,
“It-don’t- matter-if-you’re: black-or-white.
It don’t MATTER
It isn’t matter
I am not matter
I am neither black nor white, I am black and white, black AS white, sometimes black sometimes white, sometimes beyond white...”
This is the essay as voodoo ritual (exorcism), as spell. It is genuinely strange and at times, more than a little disturbing.
It’s funny, poignant, deadly serious and dangerous. When Penman gets on the good foot he is entirely untouchable but this represents a new shamanic high. It also justifies the entire Zer0 project - outside of the academy and outside of the tabloids, writing about culture can be so much more than just CRITICISM - way beyond good or bad (black or white). Because you could argue that Ballard was a critic. And Artaud. And Nietzsche. To really engage with culture is to collide with it and out of that wreckage poetry is born...
So this is an extraordinary culmination in an anthology full of exceedingly fine writing about a subject who (who exactly?) will forever remain a fascinating, grotesque and entirely ungraspable mystery. Jackson’s story, despite his own desperate machinations, is also one eerily devoid of magic - full of desperation, pain and a portal to the crushing rise of postmodern media overload. But it’s also absolutely essential to remember just why all this fuss, why all this inquiry, why the fascination and none of the contributors ever lose sight of those few magic moments because somewhere in his absolute mess of an existence, Michael Jackson also captured some of the most incredibly pure and joyous moments ever EVER to be found in popular music, especially (but not exclusively) on Off The Wall and The Jacksons’ Triumph - music that is literally soaked in some kind of joy and that somehow managed to infatuate an entire planet and despite everything, despite the horrific and quite insane and warped reaction to his demise, well that’s something that can never be ignored.
An extract from 'Notes towards a ritual exorcism of the dead king'
"This is the end of your life." Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’
On the weekend after Michael died I went to a party. It was a good party: a genuine celebration. There were little kids there, and teenagers, and us older sophisticates, still throwing lumpy shapes to Chic and Madonna. I sat down with a bunch of sixteen to eighteen-year-old girls: professional duty. They passed around the bright white Malibu. I said: I’m writing about Michael Jackson. Not much stirs. “Yeah?” Nothing. I persist, ask: what did they think? They don’t seem too ruffled, or much bothered. “Quite liked some of his music...” That’s it: that’s the limit of what I get from them. Fair enough – on one level, it’s pretty much all I felt too at that moment. Not that you’d know it from the deluge of press and media comment in the week after his death; we were all supposed to be – that pervasive, insidious, irritating “we” – heartbroken, devastated, in mourning.
This is the problem, here: the huge disjunction between how people are, what they feel, or don’t, what they talk about, worry about, what they actually watch and listen to and are affected by, in their day-to-day lives; and then what the media – under the legend of that too convenient “we” – tell us we are all feeling and thinking.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, no sensible middle ground: the choice lies between hagiography and character assassination. Some of us stand on the sidelines, perplexed. What is all this? I wail at the TV wall each day. OK, I can buy that once upon a time he was a kind of cross-cultural role model, strange and new and difficult to read, but... come ON! People! This wasn’t Martin Luther King; this wasn’t even Marvin Gaye. I mean, just no one I know is at all bothered by this. It’s not as if he even really “died young”. Even on the level of OK-entertainer OK-kid’s entertainer, which is what he mostly was) he hadn’t really mattered for 20-odd years. A washed-up drugged-up blocked entertainer (whose palette was never that wide or deep), a maybe/maybe-not pedophile (in private 99% say: I think he was, don’t you?), who so maddeningly and confoundingly went from billionaire power broker to payday-snuffling failure and recluse. So why this storm of pious, keening, sentimentalized, hysterical, pseudo-worshipful media overkill?
Was he always waiting, up ahead of us, programming every next/last response, like a bony fright-wigged Wizard of Oz for the digital epoch?
Did he pull off one final improbable coup?
Colonizing our unconscious: like a riff, a headline, a drug, a ghost.
Staging death as his last great re-appearance, return, media apotheosis, far more effective than any putative stage-bound comeback. (They surely would only have disappointed, those fifty shows. One show, a weekend at most, I can understand. But fifty?)
The only way to top yourself, is to top yourself.
NATURE VS NURTURE
He defied the former, was damaged by the latter. He would make himself over, a singularity without lineage, without predecessors. Michael, born of Media, postmodernist archangel.
As we know from previous experience, certain figures transcend the usual human script: John Lennon, Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, and now Jackson. They radiate some analysis-defying “x” factor, crowd magick, mass appeal. This ability to be consistently forgiven. Failings and fallings and flaws overlooked. Look at Lennon – heroin addiction, support for the IRA, weird foreign missus, dabbling in avant-garde conceptual art, breaks up The Beatles... what more could he do to lose the love of his popular audience? But he remains the Lads’ favorite pop star, bar none: the love never goes. He preaches anti-materialism and mass togetherness but holes up inside therapy-occluded privation with only stock market deals and a freezer full of furs to keep him warm: they love him more. Puts out god-awful AOR sludge. Still the adoration increases.
Do we really need to adumbrate Michael’s own perplexing choices? The myriad ways in which he would seem to be the exact opposite of anything like contemporary black pride? His almost luminous propensity for bad faith and bare-faced lies? His progressively less urgent or pleasing or interesting music? The jacked-up psychopathology of Hubris: I AM THE KING. I AM THE KING.
by Ian Penman