Friday, June 26, 2009

"The Man in the (Rear-View) Mirror" or "World Without Glove"

I’m feeling a little left out of the whole Michael Jackson mourning process. Much like Kurt Cobain, Jackson never really impacted my life the way I’m told he was supposed to.

A lot of that has to do with my upbringing. Where pop culture was concerned, the ‘80s hardly even happened in my neck of Wisconsin. During Jackson’s peak years of media dominance, the majority of music being played in the Brooker household fell into either the Contemporary Christian or Oldies genre. My main exposure to the King of Pop came via jokes in Bloom County strips and the Z93 DJs who yammered away during my morning school bus commutes. The former taught me that he was a creepy freak straight out of some macabre children’s book. The latter made him emblematic of the depravity, decadence and unbearable annoyance I came to associate with Top 40 radio.

I was familiar with some of his songs, sure. Half the girls in my fourth grade class were enamored of him (really not that impressive a feat, as there were 12 students total in my fourth grade class). I really didn’t have much of an opinion on his music, but my inborn contrarian streak made me dis him at every opportunity, to the chagrin of the young ladies of Leon Elementary. I specifically recall Katie Pottinger getting rather upset with me for insisting that there would not be any Michael Jackson songs played at my wedding. (For the record, there were not.)

When I reached my twenties, I started piecing together my Lost Decade by listening to some of the music I’d ignored at the time. Compared to a lot of other musical decades, I still find the ‘80s pretty lackluster, but there’s a lot of greatness there. Digging into the archives led me to quite a few amazing artists, from Talking Heads to Kurtis Blow to Laurie Anderson, not to mention a mighty impressive string of one-hit wonders (one area where the ‘80s truly dominated).

And eventually, I even got around to exploring the works of the Great Gloved One. Listening to Michael Jackson 15 to 20 years after the fact was a peculiar experience. There was no denying the man had recorded some great songs – “Billie Jean,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Black and White,” just to name a few. There was also no denying he’d recorded a lot of saccharine dreck full of subpar lyrics and ostentatious chirping. Taken as a whole, though, the Michael Jackson oeuvre really made me appreciate the vision, drive and dedication of a deeply troubled, endlessly electrifying musical genius. A genius named Prince.

To me, Michael Jackson’s most important musical legacy is inspiring Prince to spend more than a decade soundly and consistently kicking his ass. Accounts vary on whether their rivalry was friendly or bitter (my absolute favorite Prince and MJ anecdote suggests some acrimony), but there’s no question that each man pushed the other to greater heights. In my estimation, Prince’s heights soared far, far higher than Michael’s. Jackson dominated headlines and ruled the charts, but Prince’s output was more prolific, his skill set more versatile and his sound more timeless (Batman not withstanding). When Jackson started making revolutionary music videos, Prince went ahead and made a groundbreaking feature film. And Thriller may be the all-time best seller, but Purple Rain is a perfect album.

In my mind, it’s clear that Prince wins this contest, but I also doubt he would have reached those peaks if he hadn’t been constantly glancing at Michael Jackson in his rear-view mirror. I know that Jackson deserves plenty of credit in his own right – heck, his Jackson Five vocals alone would earn him a place among the greats – but where my own personal musical education is concerned, I’ll think of him most fondly as a supporting player on the path to Sign o’ the Times.

- Ira Brooker


  1. You know what you said about Jackson and Cobain? That's EXACTLY how I feel about Prince. Actively tried to get into him about 6 years ago and got a Purple-obsessed work colleague to make me some tapes (yes, TAPES, Godammit). I listened to each of the early albums patiently and attentively. And I have never played them since.Apart from When Doves Cry (which I actually liked as a kid and still do)and Sign O' The Times the only thing in his entire oeuvre that didn't annoy me was the odd, languid instrumental outro to the song Purple Rain, because it sounded like great soundtrack music.

    Jacko on the other hand as corny and MOR as most of his output was, still gives me chills on records like 'Human Nature', 'One Day In Your Life' and 'Off The Wall'. It's a sweet, non-confrontational, good-time sound, the polar opposite of what I usually consider to be great music, but 20-odd years later most of it still works on me: as nostalgia, as warmth, as pop-cultural referance point. Prince, on the other hand, may as well not have existed to me. I get what you're saying, and I know from all the music press I've read and all the friends I know who adore him, that I'm wrong and he's supposedly the coolest. In this case, I'm more than happy to be wrong.

    And for the record, I loved Nirvana, and think it's a real tragedy that Cobain copped out on the cusp of the most fascinating transition, from niche act to global household name: something tells me they would be doing what Radiohead are now, having fun with musical form, pushing the boundaries of mainstream rock while retaining the gut-level appeal that made them so compelling in the first place. The other tragedy is that they're forever associated with fret-wank stoner bores like Pearl Jam.

  2. Trying to get into someone I feel I should like is such a frustrating effort. To bring it around full circle, I've been trying that with Radiohead for years, but I just can't get past mild appreciation.

    Prince can be a tough sell. I have a lot of music lover friends who cannot stand him at all. To me, he's one of the most bizarre and inventive figures in the history of the music industry. I'd mention him in the same breath as Bowie, though only at the tail end of that exhalation (which is still closer than anyone else).

    I will concede that Prince's musical lows sink considerably lower than Michael's, partially due to the sheer breadth of his catalog. But even in his worst moments, he usually gives me something to love.