GQ Style, winter 2009
by Simon Reynolds
Just a few months before Michael Jackson died, I felt the urge to write about him for the first time ever. I was in a café and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" came on and even though I must have heard it hundreds of times since first seeing the video on Top of the Pops in 1979, for some reason the song hit me like a lightning bolt. For all its falsetto-funk silkiness , the sheer aggression of the sound--the coiled rhythmic tension, the stiletto penetration of Jackson's voice--seemed to attack with the force of The Stooges or Sex Pistols . But what I really came away with was a vague idea, just a phrase really: "total music", the idea of a category of pop set apart from the merely excellent. Listening, rapt, I imagined the electricity of the Off the Wall sessions: Quincy Jones assembling the highest-calibre session players available, no expense spared, and pursuing perfection with an almost militaristic focusing of energy. The achievement: flawlessness so absolute that it didn't so much transcend commercialism as blast right through it, such that domination of the radio and the discotheques was merely a by-product, a secondary benefit, of the quest.
"Total music" occurs through the synergy of talent, limitless funding, a really good idea… and something else: a superhuman drive, the "right stuff" that Tom Wolfe wrote about in connection with NASA's moon missions. I imagine this intangible elan infused the making of Abba's music, or the classic recordings of the Beatles, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson. There's loads of music that I love and that probably means more to me than "total pop", records made by artists both more unassuming yet in some ways more narcissistically self-absorbed and idiosyncratic. But there's no denying the special charge that imbues music when it's made by people who know they're making history, who can be confident they're taking it out onto the largest stage available.
In the Sixties there was a long moment where the best pop (in terms of constantly pushing forward and sheer musical quality) was also the best-selling: Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Byrds, Dylan, Beach Boys, Doors. (There's really only a few exceptions: Love, Velvet Underground). Aesthetic ambition and commercial ambition were indivisible. This folk-memory of this ideal persisted long after it ceased to apply, inspiring everyone from Bowie and Roxy to the major punk bands to the likes of U2, Bjork, Radiohead. But over the last couple of decades the two kinds of ambition have come to seem more and more tenuously connected, to the point where a phenomenon like the Beatles seems almost implausible, a fluke.
My dad had this maxim, something like: aim for the top, because if you fall short, you'll at least reach higher than if you'd aimed for the middle and fallen short of that. It's not completely true: o'er vaulting ambition can result in "EPIC FAIL", whereas a shrewd strategy of modest aspiration might lead to steady sustained successes. Still, remembering this motto led me to this thought: if you want to do great work in music or any art form, just as important as talent or imagination is the desire to be great. You might have the most refined melodic gift, the subtlest musical mind, but if you don't have that will-to-power, the balls and the gall…
Certain bands only make sense at the top of the pop world: Springsteen and U2 were made to work in widescreen, to issue the most sweeping, speaking-for-Everyman statements. "Overbearing", "bombastic": the insults are merely the measure of their achievement, and nobody can take away those moments when they mattered (Born To Run, then again Born in the U.S.A., for Bruce; the majestic sequence from "Pride" to "Streets Have No Name", for Bono and Co). Of course, there are artists who have the temperament of the world-historical genius but who don't actually have anything worth saying. Jim Steinman, the fevered brain behind Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", exemplifies this syndrome. Steinman is far from deficient in the will-to-greatness: he's got an unbridled flair for the grandiose, plus the requisite perfectionist streak (he's been known to spend huge amounts of his own private money on projects when the original budget's run out). Unfortunately his ambition is not accompanied by the filter of taste, to put it mildly.
Talking of finances, the rise over the last decade or two of home studios and digital audio workstations, has meant that it's possible for artists to make massive-sounding and expensive-seeming albums for a fraction of what it once cost. It's much cheaper and easier to create the illusion of luxuriant orchestration or to pull off ear-boggling sonic trickery of the kind that would have taken days of intricate labour by George Martin and Abbey Road's white-coated technicians. Artistic ambition, in the old days, had to go hand in hand with commercial ambition, just to pay off the bills. Nowadays the two kinds of aspiration have become severed. The Colossal Sounding, Colossally Ambitious Album is today a sort of specialist subgenre of rock, purveyed by groups like Flaming Lips. And not just rock: take Erykah Badu, who renovates the tradition of politically engaged, autobiographically personal "progressive soul" masterpieces by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Marvin Gaye. Her vastly ambitious New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) sold pretty well but it could never hope to achieve the mass cultural impact of Songs In the Key of Life or What's Goin' On. These are different times and Badu, like her buddies The Roots and Common, is catering for a niche market of historically-informed cognoscenti who still listen out for that kind of takes-the-measure-of-the-zeitgeist Epic.
Although a singer, Badu regards herself part of hip hop. Surprisingly, given its sketchy record with the Album, rap has been one of the main places this decade where commercial ambition and artistic ambition have remained tightly entwined, with performers like Outkast, Jay-Z and Kanye West putting out sonically adventurous, alternately self-glorifying and socially-conscious albums that sold in huge numbers. It stands to reason that rap is richly endowed with "the will to be great" because the genre is all about self-aggrandisement. What LL Cool J called "talking on myself" still defines the art's core: MCs exalt their own ability to dominate and defeat the competition, finding the most vivid, witty, unique and creatively brutal ways of describing their prowess.
Rap expresses and exposes the ugly side of pop's ambition: its profoundly inegalitarian streak, a drive towards status, glory, preeminence. The aspiration to greatness often comes with a certain monstrousness of personality. Look at
Morrissey. Pop stardom was always, he frankly admitted, a form of revenge exacted on the world for his outcast adolescence. But when society's "mis-shapes" (to use Jarvis Cocker's term) become stars, the result can be unsightly. The retaliatory narcissism of early Smiths lyrics ("the sun shines out of our behinds", "England owes me a living") is one thing when the singer is a skinny wisp only a few years out of obscurity. But from a fifty year old pop institution with the build of a bouncer, striding across arena stages and tossing the microphone cord with lordly disdain, it starts to look like any old showbiz prima donna. Rap has its own Morrissey in Kanye West. I never used to understand hip hop fans complaining about his monster ego (this is rap, what did you expect guys?). But after the bloated self-pity of much of 808s & Heartbreak and his disruption of the MTV Video Awards, I'm starting to see their point.*
The supreme case of the will-to-be-great turning rancid is Michael Jackson, of course. Around the point he started calling himself (and insisting on being called) the King of Pop, Jackson 's output shifted from "total pop" to "totalitarian kitsch": the nine gigantic statues of MJ as a Dictator built at his requirement by Sony and installed in European cities to promote 1995's HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book 1, the fascistic promo film for that record with Jackson in full Khadaffi-style regalia amid hundreds of soldiers. Think too of the Versailles-like indulgence and corruption of Neverland, and that peculiar quasi-dynastic marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the King. When pop stars try to externalize the grandeur inside their music, to make reality match up to its utopian absoluteness, the results can be grotesque, a tragic-comical catastrophe of nouveau-riche kitsch.
* oh and check this review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal which examines Kanye's obsession with Michael Jackson.