Thursday, July 2, 2009

Things our teenager selves loved

I wasn't going to post anything about Michael Jackson, partly because of the everyone's-doing-it-so-I-can't (the same thing that sometimes prevents me from ordering the same thing as anyone else at the table), and partly because I didn't believe I really had much to say. Unlike every other person on the web, I can't remember when I first heard his music. From the current standpoint, there's no denying his impact on the pop music scene. I know I knew it growing up, and I know I never paid much close attention to pop music growing up. But it filtered in, and I think what Michael Jackson's death hammered into me was how quietly this music entwines itself with your life, even when you aren't looking. There's something unnamable about the music, something immediately likable about it (it's easy to see why it was such a sensation, even from those delightful Jackson 5 videos), something that leaves you saddened at the loss, a loss that began years before, and grateful that music is something that stays around. How fortunate a gift music is.

In the past few days, there have been tributes, there have been the awkward moments recalling the numerous Michael Jackson jokes that underscore that aura of sadness that enshrouded his most recent years, that misplaced idealism, the bizarre fixations on his face, the questions never answered, and most potent there has been his music, heard anew. I'm not sure whether it excuses or makes us forget the man himself, but it seems to have restored something of our faith in him. I've been tearing through the writings of Charles Ives in these days before the 4th of July. Ives has much to say about the character of man, about spiritual strength endowing music with substance. It's presented me with a conundrum, one which has been debated of late: what impact does/should a musician's personal life have on our appreciation of his or her music? Does Elia Kazan's naming of names affect how we receive his movies? It certainly did for years, as Karl Malden's death notices point out frequently. What of Wagner? It's a hard thing to reconcile, but I believe art is greater than a human's faults. Plenty of mediocre work is done by perfectly nice people. But whatever Michael Jackson's personal failings, the truth about which I'll never actually know, they don't take away the power his music, music that invites us to envision a world of closer unity, and even helps create it by sharing his music.

I'd love to close with a pithy line of Jackson's or Ives's, but all I can think of are the lyrics to Fame, actually. Even if he doesn't make it to heaven, he does light up the sky.


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