Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Music and Michael Jackson

The media coverage of Michael Jackson's sudden and unexpected death, flooding television, print, and radio outlets in recent days has been, to be brief, at pure saturation level.

There has been so much exposure of every aspect of this unique individual's life (so many, many complex dimensions there . . . . ) and art (and yes, I say art, NOT entertainment), that I am probably not the only one numbed by the extent (on the one hand) of the time spent reporting this angle or that of his personal life, and the corresponding neglect (on the other hand) of what in a broader journalistic perspective might be called more pressing news: developments in the nations inhabited by the rest of the nearly seven billion beings of this world in which we more or less manage to coexist, amidst numerous, often dreadful and horrifying, conflicts. . . . .

These days, sadly, the American media can never be accused of a failure to focus on celebrity, nor on sensationalism, often at the expense of incomparably more urgent matters--just watch BBC news along with any of the American networks. And yet, Michael Jackson's death has been more covered than (if memory serves me correctly) similar past "celebrity" reportage on the unending year-after-year saga of O. J. Simpson, the dead Anna (sorry, tragically, I can't remember her full name)--a celebrity possibly only for celebrity's sake; or similar "breaking news" on those myriad "stars" whose names blaze/blare out from supermarket tabloids while one is waiting quietly in line to buy paper towels, bananas, and milk.

Granted, sometimes the urgency of political news, both sensationalist and sobering, overtakes the usual pablum in the the 24/7 news cycle as in the last week: Sarah Palin, and fresh deaths in Iraq, and ethnic riots in China. . . . . But only for so long.

Still, it seems that half the time now when I turn on the television it is about Michael Jackson--and to return to my Manifesto of May First, I have to ask "why?" Why music?

I got a glimpse last night, in the opening portion of the ABC Evening News, watching a rather extended report on the memorial ceremony in the Staples Center--when I heard only flashes (a visual image, to be sure) of a few seconds of some of his most memorable songs, which nonetheless literally struck me breathless with their musical power.

Having sustained last month the death of the greatest until now still-living Indian musician --Ustad Ali Akbar Khan--whose landmark Angel recording from 1955, and countless performances and recordings since, have transformed me, and whose gracious company and artistry and eloquent humanity in not-enough-time together since my first meeting with him in 1966 immeasurably enriched my life, both personal and musical. . . . .

And, having heard in the dark pall of Ali Akbar's death two days later the news of the passing of Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, a pioneering world-class ethnomusicologist and sometime sitarist who had been a mentor to at least two generations of those of us, both in the East and the West, who have worked the make Indian/Hindustani/Pakistani music more meaningful in the academic and media and public sectors of life outside South Asia. . . .

. . . . I learned one night on the evening news of Michael Jackson's sudden death. I had of course been aware of the ruthless media coverage of so many aspects of his admittedly complex and most probably tragic personal life, and I do have to admit confusion in sorting out the outpourings of genuine grief by literally (as far as I can reckon from media reports), literally millions of individuals around the world, from the merciless gabble gabble news babble about custody, estate, royalty, autopsy (where will it end?) issues that still--I imagine--reverberate hourly on all the television channels that I am not currently watching.

What remains for me, as uttered or murmured in so many of the eloquent "sound bites" of . . . fans (is "fan" too trivializing a word? I prefer the Persian/Urdu word aashiq--lover and follower of an artistic and spiritual ideal)-- well as in the love-and-grief-filled Facebook entries that I peruse as a responsibiity of my most blessed new job:




So many flares--again a visual sinaesthetic phrase--of musical brilliance (light again, not sound) of musical eloquence that I had never really identified directly with him--rather as just part of the richly textured aural landscape of my own plain life, as well as of so many more lives, previously unrealized for me but now so clearly the expression of a unique genius.

An artistry--not mere entertainment ("The Greatest Entertainer of . . . --gawd, what a tacky and limiting word and concept), but a visionary multidemensional musicality I had never before consciously acknowledged, in the midst of the rest of the journalistic hype 'bout Michael over the last decades, until those few glimpses last night in the evening news of his utterly galvanizing, iconic presence in the arts of composition, singing, dancing, drama, pantomime . . . .

I was always puzzled, when I was working with VOA's Urdu Service. why Michael Jackson was the only American musician who consistently received favorable ratings in our surveys in that so mightily challenged country.

And now I look forward to my own, albeit belated, discovery of how, in the midst of all the other complications and excesses and alleged sins and pathos-precipitating behaviors of the individual artist himself, it is his music that still echoes in the soul and heart after his blood has stilled, and it is his music that yet flows in the unfolding of our lives.


Gerald Grow said...

I wish I could see what others see in Michael Jackson. He continues to strike me as a circus performer who tap-dances on a tightrope while juggling paring knives and shouting love lyrics like curses.

It IS a remarkable performance, but it stands more as a hyperextension of double-jointed flexion than as an expressive movement, or music, that enters what I am capable of recognizing as art. His recordings seem to explore the entire dynamic spectrum from ff to fff.

But I cheerfully celebrate bad art -- because only in supporting bad art can we nurture great art.

Now, if we could only divide the Michael Jackson media coverage among 300 rising bands, something might come of it other than a funeral.

Meanwhile, turn up the Ali Akbar Khan raga, will you?

Better yet, leave it soft, and we will all get really quiet and listen.

David Raphael Israel said...

An interesting and unusual response; I enjoyed the read.