Monday, July 13, 2009

Michael Jackson Was Little More Than an Icon of Mediocrity

From AlterNet:

As a musician (I hold a bachelor's degree in performance from Berklee College of Music) and as a music critic and historian, I can tell you with a clear conscience that Michael Jackson's musical abilities, placed upon the spectrum of human accomplishments in this field, are mediocre at best.

Yet everyone from the London Telegraph to People magazine have gone to great lengths to tell us Jackson was a literal "genius".

Jackson, whose vocal range was limited and who sang often insipid pop songs that rarely ventured outside of a basic pentatonic scale, was no musical genius.

Cannonball Adderley was a musical genius. John Coltrane was a musical genius. Charles Ives was a musical genius. J.S. Bach was a musical genius. Hector Berlioz was a musical genius. These were human beings gifted with uncommon genius in musical understanding, interpretation and expression.


That the American press have been so quick to jump on the Jackson-as-genius bandwagon speaks to the dismal state of excellence in our culture. As more and more artistic and journalistic decisions have been left to MBAs and accountants, quality has fallen by the wayside. True musical variety has died with the radio monopolies of Clear Channel and others, as we are force-fed the same Lady Ga-Ga tune until we Lady Ga-GAG. Our standards, in other words, have sunk to new lows, and not just in music.

More here.

Okay, this is obviously a flawed essay, most notably because its writer is clearly an elitist snob. Indeed, it's pretty easy to knock such a biased ivory tower argument on its ass: if Michael Jackson was no genius, then neither were Elvis nor the Beatles. Game, set, and match. Elvis and the Beatles were geniuses, and there are plenty of good arguments out there that deftly establish the King of Pop as their equal, which makes him a genius. I mean, Jackson was brilliant if only because he moved the hearts of so many millions throughout the world, within vastly different cultures. That's not genius? Oh please! Essays like this do nothing but make liberal arts degrees look even more like wallpaper than they already do.

On the other hand, this flawed essay raises some good points. Not so much about Michael Jackson as about our culture.

That is, we really are, generally speaking, very willing to describe something that is merely pretty cool, or even kind of cool, as being fucking great. Hell, we'll even take something that's fucking shitty and call it fucking great. Television, film, and music are obvious examples, and a lot of that does indeed have to do with the homogenizing effect spawned by the corporatization of the entertainment industry. But I think there's more going on here. The media, the political establishment, as well as many many ordinary Americans, hailed President Bush as being fucking great for years, despite buttloads of evidence to the contrary; it wasn't until our noses had been rubbed in dog shit for so long and so intensely that "fucking great" devolved into a more proper "fucking awful." For as many as three decades, colleges and universities have struggled unsuccessfully against what they call "grade inflation;" that is, undergraduates strongly expect that a minimal effort deserves an A, and professors usually cave into any pressure at all on this front. High school is a sick joke as far as this is concerned: if you can't make mostly A's in high school, you're either developmentally disabled or a lazy good for nothing piece of shit. People think corporate chain restaurants are fucking great. I mean, it just goes on and on.

I really don't know where all this is coming from. Maybe conservatives who have vilified the culture of self-esteem are onto something. Maybe this is how it's always been, but it's only just now becoming apparent because of the digital age in which we live. But it's pretty clear that we, as Americans, have some problems understanding the concept of excellence.