Have a Good Time

June 27, 2010

Mike’s so relaxed: antinomies, jams

Still image from the video of Michael Jackson's 1992 live performance of "Jam" in Bucharest: halfway through a quick fade between a shot of Michael (seen in the center of the screen, dancing onstage) and a shot of the audience (fans on all sides of the screen, monitored by a security employee who faces away from the camera and wears a blue T-shirt, the back of which reads: MICHAEL JACKSON / MICHAEL JACKSON / MICHAEL JACKSON

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said.  “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam today’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen.  “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice.  “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

Two days ago it was my 24th birthday and the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.  There’s a way of relating to Michael Jackson and his story that’s implied by the conjunction of those two facts.  Steven Shaviro, a year ago, wrote: “At Jackson’s spectacular height, the time of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) and the subsequent television appearances and live tours, there really was nobody like him. He was a vision of ease and grace and energy […].”  (Shaviro goes on to add that the moment of Thriller “coincides almost exactly with the midway point of my own life to date.”)  This was not until recently a Michael Jackson I even knew, or not as anything more than a largely inaccessible ghost—certainly not the the Michael Jackson I knew as a kid, glimpsed all the time on other people’s TVs, the subject of constant uneasy jokes among all the (other white) kids around me at school in the Midwest in 1995, 96, 97.  The important facts about Michael Jackson then were that he was turning into a (white) woman, he was going to molest your (white) kids, he had gone crazy.  (I can actually remember listening to a lite-rock station sometime back then, in the mid-90s, when I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten—hearing the (white) DJ cut into the last full 30 seconds of “Black or White” (why did he always do that?) with the words, “That’s Michael Jackson, who can’t decide if he’s black or white!” and thinking Fuck you, your job is to play his song, don’t laugh at him.)  My Michael Jackson is a figure always already associated not with performances of ease but with expressions of anxiety, his own and others’.

Shaviro’s essay is just one of many brilliant, necessarily conflicting reflections on Jackson’s music and life that I found online last summer—none of which I can really recommend highly enough, each of which makes me feel I have little to add, and all of which together clearly represent an invisible fraction of the brilliant things that must have been written and said: k-punk’s elegiac celebration of the promise of Off the Wall and “Billie Jean”; Jay Smooth’s filmed thoughts on “the limitless opportunity for liberation and imprisonment that the camera and the microphone provide”; Tenured Radical’s valuably unsentimental account of the last years, what the fans saw and what she saw; Hilton Als’s reminder of what it might mean to understand Michael Jackson as a gay black man; sally_bloodbath’s comic on the work of dance and of fandom; Tom Ewing’s insights on dehumanization and the “black swan”; others.

Versions of the pieces by Shaviro, Mark Fisher of k-punk, and Ewing appear in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a book I just remembered I still need to get my hands on.  And, again, as the title says, most if not all of the authors represented in that volume actually experienced a time when the wreck didn’t seem inevitable.  Shaviro’s and Fisher’s writing is at its most affecting when it focuses on those years.  For reasons that I think are primarily selfish and inflected with all kinds of privilege, white privilege not least among them, I’ve found myself wishing I had something or someone like that to write about, or just to enjoy with fewer complications—someone as beautiful, and full of the utopian possibility described by Fisher, Shaviro, and Smooth, as Michael Jackson was, before there was even any reason to imagine that he could have hurt children, before it was obvious how badly he himself had been hurt, before it was possible to get tied up in knots attributing both his fabulousness and his disturbing behavior (and who knows how much of it was disturbing in the wrong way?) to the years of suffering under an abusive father.  (As if what we all needed was to have another conversation about not-good-enough black fathers.)

A picture I drew of Michael Jackson in 1997, when I was 11

And yet, when I tried a couple of months ago to write about the utopian vision of queer childhood and lateral growth that might be found in Pogo’s videos, I can’t deny that I also had (this late, anxious) Michael Jackson in mind; because, to the extent that I can piece together a sense of my own queer childhood, I can’t deny that (this) Michael Jackson was a major part of it.  In the last week I’ve been back in my parents’ house, going through old boxes and papers and trying to help prepare for their move out and away to another city.  The other day we found not only the drawing above (which I think must have been based on the image from Bad cover, only whitened and distorted, as if I had half-consciously overcompensated for everything that had happened since Bad), but also, from years earlier, a “book” I had written as a third-grade student for Mrs. Olson, listing all the things I wanted to do “someday.”  One of them was to meet Batman and Catwoman, and one of them was to have a Terminator toy.  (I know that at that point I hadn’t actually seen Terminator 2 (I still haven’t) or Batman Returns, but when I was seven years old images of Edward Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger on motorcycles and Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeffer in black leather were everywhere, and I think had a crush on all of them.)  Another thing I wanted to do someday was to “meet Mickel Jackson.”  This was in late 1993—I wrote “© 1993” on the inside front cover—months after the initial allegations of child sexual abuse had been made public.  (I don’t know if I need to mention here that I have never been a victim of sexual abuse, but, in any case, I haven’t.)  Just how aware of all that I was, or just how uncomfortable Mrs. Olson might visibly have been, I can’t remember.  Of course I couldn’t tell you just what Michael Jackson meant to me in 1993 or in 1997, either; but he meant something.

This last year since his death has been:

  1. A good year for capitalism, all things considered, and a fatal year for the Earth, which is to say, obviously, just another year;
  2. A year marked by two globalized American pop-media events, taking as their respective subjects capitalism and the Earth, whose sheer brief saturative omnipresence seemed both very new and very old-fashioned, somehow of-the-80s, Jacksonist—Lady Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” video, in which the additional aesthetic debt to Michael is made explicit, and James Cameron’s Avatar, in which it’s arguably more of a trace connection, something to do with the desire to become alien, to inhabit a princely body that will never put a foot wrong and to change the color of the skin;
  3. A year of which I’ve spent a not inconsiderable part, like countless other people all over the world, returning to old songs and old videos and finding others that I’d never heard or watched before.

I’ve been a bit surprised to find that the song staying in my system more than any other song is “Jam.”

Here are two judgments on Michael Jackson in the 90s—first, from k-punk:

[D]eracination and desexualisation might precisely have been refusals of the Restoration’s compulsory ethnicity and sexuality, and Jackson could have been a poster boy for queer universality … if his dysphoria, his freakishness, could have found its way into the music.  Instead, it was Gothic Oedipus in his (very public) private life dramas, and consensual sentimentality in the saccharine-bland songs.  Only in “Scream” and its video—Michael and Janet in a deserted offworld leisure hive that resembles Gibson’s incest-Xanadu Villa Straylight—did the music and the crumbling mind ever meet.

Second, from Tom Ewing:

There’ll be a reassessment, naturally—ballads like “Butterflies” and “Stranger In Moscow” are too strong for there not to be. In comparison to “Off The Wall” or “PYT” of course, they sound petrified, seized up. In fact a lot of the 90s material sounds like multiple drafts of one single, crushed and frightened song by a man desperate to get the pain out […].

How can both of these assessments be correct (as I think they are)?  “Jam” might be a good answer.  Dysphoria, freakishness, anxiety find their way into the music here in ways that are at once obvious and attenuated and bound up with sentimentality and a kind of hopeless or no-longer-tenable performance of ease, or of having “found peace within my life”; which becomes, precisely through its untenability, mesmerizing in its own way, and not without its own weird, sad, queer beauty.  Or at least it seems that way to me, because I’m white and 24 and this is the Michael I’ve always known.  Heavy D raps: “Smooth criminal, that’s the man, Mike’s so relaxed.”  But Michael’s voice and body are taut as he sings: “JAM / It ain’t / It ain’t too much to JAM / It ain’t too much / It ain’t too much for me.”  Even the difference between Heavy D’s “It ain’t too hard for me to jam” (repeated in the video’s postscript by Michael Jordan, another star who I think can safely be described as more comfortable in his black masculinity) and this desperate-sounding incantation—it ain’t too much for me—is an astonishing difference.  “It” here means nothing and everything because the song enacts an almost total erasure of the boundaries between (the ordeals of) Michael Jackson and (the forestalled end of) the world; this could be dismissed as supreme megalomania or deluded projection, or there could, on the contrary, already be a kind of implicit recognition of Steven Shaviro’s conclusion that Michael’s “sufferings and his strangeness are quintessential expressions of American life and society in this neoliberal age.”  It ain’t too much for me might be the sound of the singularity of the late, anxious Michael, crossing over into its own (dystopian) universality.

And a phrase like Shaviro’s “quintessential expressions,” in the case of music like this, feels radically, etymologically, sensuously right.  I don’t think we’re far here at all from the sense of “jam” as something sweet that comes from a crushing.  The dancing instructions to Michael Jordan at the video’s end are full of booms and pows; “throw it out like fire”; “let it out”; “like a rocket coming out of your finger.”  I wish I had a more nuanced language to describe how this explosive anxiety also charges the sound of Teddy Riley’s production itself; the way “Jam” feels at the same time like an amazing party (or the NBA anthem it immediately became) and like an extended panic attack, or what I’ve been told a migraine feels like; that exquisite burst of near-dissonance that begins every other measure, eventually playing under each repetition of the title word, sounding every time like a valve letting out excess tension that would otherwise be unbearable.  The song is a pressurized zone, not easily entered or exited: it can begin only with breaking glass and can end only with an explosion.

The explosion is there for us to see, twice, in the video of “Jam” performed live at Bucharest in 1992—a performance that’s manifestly too much for everyone.  This could not be further from Michael Jackson, the gorgeous icon of ease; this is Michael Jackson, the fractured master of neoliberal anxiety.  But whenever I watch it there are moments so overpowering I almost believe the pain—Michael’s and others’—might somehow have been definitively exorcised, things will be OK, it ain’t too much—there might be jam today.

The reductio-ad-absurdum account of Michael Jackson’s bodily life, now almost universally accepted and inescapably shaped by racism, sexism, and transphobia, is that he began his career looking like a healthy black man and ended it looking like an unhealthy white woman.  I think there might be more to say along these lines, especially after one year of a posthumous Michael Jackson, about resemblances in the cultural imagination between that spectral white woman and the figure of Emily Dickinson; which I may or may not try to elaborate on later.  But I’m thinking partly of Joyce Carol Oates’s recent story “EDickinsonRepliluxe,” in which a childless suburban couple end up traumatized (and traumatizers) through their purchase of a sexless synthetic poet-child, “a brilliantly rendered manikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original” Emily Dickinson.  And I can’t decide whether MJacksonRepliluxe would be the bestselling RepliLuxe of all time, or whether everyone would recognize that an MJacksonRepliluxe was already completely superfluous…

April 16, 2010

Thoughts on Pogo

Imagine a contemporary musician and video artist who’s been thinking about Adorno’s music writing, and who decides to attempt a kind of perfect allegorical fulfillment of some of its best-known decontextualized claims: for example, the claim that modernist “music about music,” as represented by Stravinsky, is infantile in its reliance on repetition and in its parasitic relation to other media, “treat[ing] its model in a manner much like that of the child who takes apart his toys and puts them together again incorrectly.”  Or, more notoriously, that the appeal of pop music, or Adorno’s “jazz” broadly understood, is tied to its “mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment: a castration symbolism.”  What if someone set out to realize, consciously and affirmatively and even lovingly, the digital reproduction of regressive moments?  What would the result sound or look or feel like?  Perhaps … this:

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the words “butter mellow” and “sunshine” belong to a failed performative.  (Hermione Granger, meeting Ron Weasley for the first time, asks to see a magical demonstration; Ron waves his wand at a pet rat and intones, “Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow / Turn this stupid fat rat yellow“; nothing happens.)  Here the spell is repurposed so that it becomes, you could say, felicitous.  The buttery mellowness of “butter mellow,” the brightness of “sunshine”—melodic affect works as magic.  And “Alohomora” is an unlocking spell: it opens doors.  What’s being unlocked here?

Pogo has more than 45,000 YouTube subscribers—his remix of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland was apparently viewed more than 4 million times, before the original clip was taken down for copyright violation—and “Alohomora” is another of about ten music videos put together using sounds and footage taken from, for the most part, very popular children’s movies made in the last 50 years.  (His most recent work, “Skynet Symphonic,” is a striking deviation in that respect, and there’s a certain tension between the music’s characteristically gentle ambient environment and James Cameron’s shuddering cyborg violence; still, for a short video made up of pieces from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it’s notable just how much time we spend looking at the face of a boy speaking and listening.  Terminator 2 becomes, if not a movie for children, at least one primarily about a child’s perceptions.  Which it may have been in the beginning; I haven’t seen it; I’m on a roll like that with Cameron movies.  In any case, considering David Foster Wallace’s compelling argument that Terminator 2 is also, at least on some structural level, a porn movie, one thing “Skynet Symphonic” definitely isn’t is the arrangement of F/X money shots that might be expected.)

So a kind of vulgar-Adornist reading of these texts is certainly easy and tempting.  I can imagine the claim being made that a fantastic new literalization of Adorno’s “regressive listening” was taking place here, with childhood toys, in the form of mainstream movies that a whole generation of privileged kids like me will have watched to the point of memorization on worn-out VHS tapes, undergoing a digitized disarticulation followed by an only superficially “incorrect” reassemblage or re-membering, and then set before us as potent nostalgia objects, ads for something we’ve always already got.  “Alohomora” might fit this account best of all, even if its source text is a film series made more recently than most of the other movies, given that that series must have been made to signifyregression” as much as anything else in contemporary mass culture.  And of course nostalgia and familiarity are a part of the effect, but I also want to resist this reading, because the spatial metaphor seems wrong: I think it would be more interesting to talk about Pogo’s videos and their work not in terms of regression, backward or downward motion, but rather in terms of what Kathryn Bond Stockton, in her work on the figure of the queer child, refers to as lateral growth.  There are “[o]ther ways of […] growing that are not just tied to heteronormative notion[s] of a growing up in a vertical, linear fashion.”

Because there’s something in these videos that has always struck me as richly, almost ineffably queer.  (This isn’t necessarily to say anything about Pogo himself, although he seems quite unbothered by all the jokes made about his YouTube username, which is Fagottron.)  Part of this feeling, I’m sure, is a response to the selection of source material (Carroll’s Alice; Dumbledore; Mary Poppins; Spielberg’s Hook—Pogo’s “Bangarang” made me wonder what’s been said about the pretty amazing queer temporalities of Hook (all those smashed clocks!), or about the film’s readability as a symptom of the American panic over repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse in the early 90s).  But the feeling must come as well from the way this material is dealt with: the way the videos warp, delay, and interrupt linear motion, both at the level of the cinematic (childhood) narrative and more immediately at the level of the spoken or sung sentence.   Like most of Pogo’s work, “Alohomora” is built from both a collection of understandable words and lines of dialogue, isolated, tuned, and repeated—they’re often times or numbers—and a network of tiny, undecipherable fragments of speech, song, gesture.  These sounds and the accompanying images are resequenced with no attention to the original narrative development: the result is not a story or a progression, let alone one with any kind of romantic apotheosis, but a space to linger in.  Both in its focus on a suspended and incompletely intelligible childhood world and in its musical and visual structure, “Alohomora” seems to exemplify a method of arrested development (an “official-sounding phrase,” Stockton writes, “that has often cropped up to describe the supposed sexual immaturity of homosexuals: their presumed status as dangerous children, who remain children in part by failing to have their own” [Curiouser 289]).  Growth is paused, stuttered, extended in new directions.

These effects have an experimental (and much less danceable) antecedent, maybe, in a film like Martin Arnold’s 1992 Passage à l’Acte, with its appropriation and distortion of a single scene from To Kill a Mockingbird.  But whereas it’s possible to read Passage à L’Acte as arresting Mockingbird‘s narrative at a specific moment emblematic of the trauma that is “the indoctrination of the young female into a strict gender hierarchy”—and remember that the moment agonizingly extended here is the moment when Scout, the tomboy, is on the verge of leaving her house to go to school, and her father has made her put on a dress, and she really doesn’t want to be wearing this dress—what’s being lingered on in Pogo’s work is something more like a generalized temporality, unbound to any single solid subjectivity; something more like lingering itself.*

In her 2003 condemnation of the Harry Potter books in the New York Times, A.S. Byatt cites Auden and Tolkien on the creation of “secondary worlds” and claims that Rowling’s wizards inhabit “a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature.”  (This is the same piece in which Byatt blames the Problem of Harry Potter on “cultural studies,” which must be a question for another post.)  If we accept this sense of “secondary worlds,” then the world of Pogo’s “Alohomora” is secondary-secondary-secondary-secondary; but it’s also unmistakably a world of its own, at once new and foreign and maybe all too familiar.  I would tentatively submit that part of what thousands of people have responded to in “Alohomora” and Pogo’s other videos, in and through these multiplied layers of mediation, is a keen sense of the strange absorptions, the foreign temporality, the radical unintelligibility—in a word, the queerness of childhood.  This is an audiovisual space in which figures of the child, and maybe the viewer as well, are allowed to “hang suspended in an intensity that is a motion, an emotion, and a growth, even though, from certain conventional angles, it may look like a way of going nowhere” (Curiouser 311).

Which might be why I think the creator of this eerie alternative video for “Alice,” featuring public-domain home-movie footage of an anonymous boy dancing on the beach like Anna Paquin in The Piano, gets something exactly right:

*One word for the unit that is Pogo’s musical building-block would be “mora,” defined by the OED as “the smallest or basic unit of duration of a speech sound,” from the Latin mora meaning “linger, delay.”   “For as long as I can remember,” Pogo says in an interview, “I have always detected small sounds in musical arrangements that appeal to me. I find myself with a natural desire to hear those sounds over and over.”  Aloha, mora:  simultaneously a lingering goodbye and a delayed hello, which is one way of conceptualizing a certain relation to childhood.  But we actually know that “Aloha” doesn’t figure in J. K. Rowling’s etymology for “Alohomora”—how? because she clarified it in court, as she was suing Steve Vander Ark, the compiler of an unofficial Harry Potter lexicon.  The ironies get a bit dizzying: Rowling says that the word’s actual derivation is “from a West African word that meant ‘friendly to thieves.'”

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