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3 January 2011

Michael Jackson vs. Kanye West vs. Quincy Jones: a short attention span essay on pop history, real history & their relation to “blood & treasure”

I. THE BASICS

So you’ve heard Kanye West talking shit like he’s the next Michael Jackson, no? If not try this one on for size: “As far as rapping goes, how can I say this? Jordan, Michael Jackson – it’s what I do.”

His attempts to insert himself in a royal lineage are subtle, no?

Well, actually no, he’s not being subtle at all. One of the primary tenants in Kanye’s five-point plan to achieve greatness is his understanding that subtlety has no place in pop.

Here’s why.

1. Big H history is a matter of large forces — war, disaster, fortunes gained & lost. It is not determined by the people (as one of 2010’s dead would have us believe); rather it is determined by the fate of a nation’s “blood & treasure,” that poetic dyad which legacy-minded presidents and statesmen use to make war sound noble & necessary. It is a game of unimaginable resources; of living and dying; of a cast of thousands.

2. Pop history, by contrast, is a fickle bitch. It is usually a matter of memories (feeble ones incapacitated by the pop cult triad of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll); it is a matter of insistence via memoirs which depict all the fair weather friendships & alliances made in a pop art career; it is a matter of shadowy aesthetic influences cast forward arbitrarily a generation or two past their moment of initial fashionability. It’s a story of whispers, rumors and cross-generational games of telephone. Pop history may not be determined by the people, but it’s certainly chronicled in outlets like People (which, come to think of it, sorta does a guy like historian Howard Zinn proud).

At their best, pop stars learn a way to make their pop historicizing meld into real history. For example, say what you will about Michael Jackson, he was no dope when it came to carefully crafting his world-pop-historical brand:

In the release of his 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, he diagrammed the process quite literally. He was trying to turn his story into history. (Weirdly, though he lived for another decade and a half, there never was a Book II. Robert Caro he was not. Even legacy-minded pop stars get distracted).

Anyway, more on all that later…

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II. THE PROCESS

So here’s the thing. Before making the world your stage you need to establish your pop historical propers. And that’s the process Kanye has been in the midst of these last few years. He knew couldn’t just stand on the shoulders of giants; he would have to dance on their graves.

Three days after Jackson’s death, for example, this quote appeared on the internets:

    “You know everyone loves and respects Michael but times change. It’s so sad to see Michael gone but it makes a path for a new King of Pop and I’m willing to take that on. There’s nobody who can match me in sales and in respect so it only makes sense for me to take over Michael’s crown and become the new King. First there was Elvis, then there was Michael, now in the 21st century its Kanye’s time to rule. I have nothing but respect for Michael but someone needs to pick up where he left off and there’s nobody better than me to do that. I am the new King of Pop.”

My fact checking cuz may object: The above quoted passage was later debunked as a fake by the insider-ish music site Idolator!

Well, who cares say I? Because this is where the process of pop history comes in.

Though the specifics of Kanye’s comments may have been invented, the germ of truth contained therein certainly wasn’t. And when word of Kanye’s aspirations made their way to Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s seminal troika of 80s albums, Off the Wall, Thriller & Bad, Jones’s natural inclination was to protect his own pop culture castle.

    Us Weekly*: Kanye West is similar to you in that he’s the producer everybody wants to work with in the last decade….
    Quincy Jones: How man? No way. Did he write for a symphony orchestra? Does he write for a jazz orchestra? Come on, man. He’s just a rapper. There’s no comparison. I’m not putting him down or making a judgement or anything, but we come from two different sides of the planet. I spent 28 years learning my first skill. I don’t rap. It’s not the same thing. A producer has to have some sort of skills that enable him to be a producer. It’s totally different to know what to do with 16 woodwinds you know from piccolos down to bass clarinet. It’s a whole different mindset. No comparison. None.

    UW: What do you think of him?

    QJ: I don’t think about him much. He’s a great rapper, but there are a lot of good rappers. I just did The View with Ludacris, who’s one of my favorites. He’s a beautiful human being and college educated. I joke with him and say, “How did ‘Move Bitch Get Out The Way’ come out of you?” But I was raised around the Mafia when I was a kid in Chicago in the 30s. Chicago’s rough. I’m from the streets, I know what’s up!

And that’s right about where Kanye trumps the now out-of-touch Q & co.

Was it Kanye’s ambitions that pissed off Quincy? Nope, not really. It was Kanye’s musicality or his lack thereof. Watch this dissection of Kanye’s much-lauded 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to understand what got Quincy’s dander up.

But here’s the thing: the genius of Kanye’s album is its deeply-plagiarized mode of production. Created by a who’s who of hip-hop pop culture figures, using a process that one participant, Q-Tip, described as “music by committee,” this was actually the ultimate in 21st century music, a record crowdsourced in more ways than one. And the real point is this: in the short-attention span annals of pop history, quotation beats inspiration almost every time and, if done skillfully enough, they are thought of as the very same thing.

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III. NEXT STEPS

At their best, pop cult figures once they’ve secured their iconic status then manage to insert themselves into the world of real high-falutin’ “blood & treasure” style world history. Ergo:

Make no mistake, Michael did not style himself after a third world dictator merely out of hubris. It was at least 50% calculation. By all measures, Kanye is getting an even earlier and more audacious start. Ergo:

A goofier and more sensationalistic version of hubris, you say; that’s what our more crowded media-landscape requires, say I.

I will end this post with some internet-borne statistics:

Who will you cast your vote for?

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* Note that though the above link to the Quincy Q&A is to RollingStone.com, the actual interview took place in that far less critical (and far more popular) Jann Wenner property, Us Weekly.

I wasn’t joking when I said that the first draft of pop history is written in the pages of People Magazine or its equivalents.


Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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1 Comment

  1. On 2011-1-3 k-sky said:

    Love the Robert Caro reference, the fact-checking link, and especially the Kanye source-youtube. Great stuff. Keep ’em coming.

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