Judging by the first waves of remembrance, many of us still don’t know what to make of Michael Jackson. But I want to draw attention to this elegant meditation by Ann Powers, who acknowledges that confusion while keeping a clear bead on the music. This morning, just as I was about to throw something at the TV -- the Today Show, riding the tabloid angle -- Powers appeared onscreen to speak some truth.
M.J. was as big a musical force in my youth as anyone, and so far the coverage hasn’t squared with that memory. But then neither had Jackson, for a good long while. This is what we’re grappling with now, as Powers so thoughtfully explicates.
At this moment, strange as it may sound, I’m reminded of Charlie Parker, whose death in 1955 stirred up an analogous cloud of lurid comment, rampant speculation and abject pity, along with the sad, distant recollection of unequivocal musical genius.
This is a stretch, I know. But Parker, who died in the apartment of the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, was similarly plagued by self-inflicted woes: depression, distortion, a system ravaged by drugs and alcohol. Famously, a medical examiner put his age at 53. (He was 34.)
If his death was little noted in the newspapers, the gossip rags plummeted to a level of scurrility that makes contemporary journalism seem relatively pristine.* The fact that a black musician died in the home of a wealthy, titled white woman was of far more interest than his music. The farce that followed, as Doris and Chan fought over the body, causing its removal from one funeral parlor to another, and ending with a Kansas City burial complete with a tombstone engraved with the wrong date, added more fuel to the scandal, as did the endless court battle over his estate. *(Giddins was writing in 1987 -- a world without TMZ.)
Since I’m already out on a limb with this, it’s worth noting that race, and particularly the specter of miscegenation, enters the M.J. realm no less insidiously. On NBC, a few different commentators have harped on the freakish transfiguration of Jackson’s facial features and coloring. He was understandably skewered for worse (presumed) crimes, but his apparent racial confusion was already catnip for sensationalists by then.
Will we see an outbreak of “Jacko Lives!” graffiti in the subways? Doubt it. But there has been no shortage of makeshift ceremony across the country, and surely around the world. And last night I witnessed a remarkable tribute from pianist Jacky Terrasson, who began his first set at the Iridium with a solemn elaboration on something from Thriller. (What tune? You probably could have guessed.)