Michael Jackson and Monoculture

[x-posted at Splice Today]

Not even Lester Bangs could eulogize Michael Jackson as effectively as has the collective car stereo of my New Haven neighborhood. Each time I went out this weekend—for pizza, for a library book, for a mind-clearing walk—two or three vehicles per block were blasting Jackson’s music, mostly at CD quality. My favorite example was a panel van, vaguely associated with the construction industry, in which two largeish, rough-looking men, one black, one white, nodded silently to “Billie Jean.”

Of course, this happy occurrence didn’t stop critics from assessing Jackson’s death, and many of them have made the same point. I’ll let Slate’s Jody Rosen stand in for the masses: “Weeping for Michael, we are also mourning the musical monoculture—the passing of a time when we could imagine that the whole country, the whole planet, was listening to the same song.”

Given the structure and citizenry of today’s pop world, this seems true enough. But it’s also a truth we’ve heard before—for example, in the final paragraph of Bangs’s seminal “Where Were You When Elvis Died?”:

If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstacies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

The entire essay is this good, if not this positive. (“Elvis was perverse; only a true pervert could put out something like Having Fun with Elvis On Stage, that album released three or so years ago which consisted entirely of between-song onstage patter so redundant it would make both Willy Burroughs and Gert Stein blush.”) But it’s worth remembering that the Village Voice (which has inexplicably never put it online) published Bangs’s Elvis obit on August 29, 1977—a full five years before Thriller, the album named by Rosen et al. as the moment of Jackson’s pop apotheosis.

Now, when an artist reaches the level of an Elvis or a Michael, comparisons seem beside the point. But so do conclusive socio-historical death knells.


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