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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”


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. Read more »

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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9 December 2009

MJ — by Kehinde Wiley & on fire

I’ll admit it. I get off on death. Skeletons. X’d eyes.

No, not the phenomenon itself, but certainly the aftermath — the way it makes you consider what comes ahead and what came before. It’s not a kink but a forced form of contemplation.

I am pretty sure that the popular position of contemporary art insiders is that Kehinde Wiley‘s work is as crass as my sentiment. But I like it and, in this piece unveiled this past weekend at Miami Art Basel, Wiley makes it clear that crassness is the way much of our culture operates. This portrait, in its echos of Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens classes up the crassness, while pointing out that our flaws are the same as they’ve ever been: pretense, greed, a put-on nobility that belies who we really are. (Note the MJ depicted in the painting bears little resemblance to the entertainer at the time of his death.)
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2 November 2009

What happened to Robert Hilburn’s rock’n’roll heroes?


I have a soft spot in my heart for Los Angeles Times emeritus pop critic Robert Hilburn. Back when I spent more time writing about music than enabling its makers to make a career at it, Bob was kind enough to invite me to the newspaper’s dining hallĀ for a pep talk. He eventually commissioned me to write a handful of articles for the paper and provided some general life encouragement, but I was less thankful for his professional assistance than for his being. His sunny, angst-free demeanor and real enthusiasm for the soundtrack of his life was clear and real. He provided a ray of light at the end of the long tunnel that is freelancer life.

But what is Hilburn’s legacy as a critic? I have mixed feelings. His Wikipedia entry gives a good summary of his critical philosophy. (Unlike many pop critics he definitely had one.):

    If you took away as few as four dozen artists from that endless row of dominoes, rock would have collapsed as an art form. Imagine your record collection without Bob Dylan, the Beatles or U2. Because of that, he felt one of the main challenges of a critic was to focus on those musicians who contributed to expanding that art form.

This approach has its problems, however, which this summary also articulates.

    In search of those artists, [Hilburn] says he frequently ended up writing about false promises; artists who ran out of ideas, self-destructed or compromised their music in hopes of wider sales. But he was also fortunate enough to connect with the most important artists of the rock era.

Basically there was something about Bob’s warm, humanistic approach to music appreciation that caused him to vacillate between getting hoodwinked by hype and falling in love with his subjects.

Well, Bob — having accepted a buyout from the LA Times in 2005 — has spent the last few years writing a book, the just published Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life, and that’s led to some deeper analysis of how useful his critical approach is circa 2009.
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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28 June 2009

MJ salute…in black or white.


The only thing I could think about when I heard the news was everything save its import as news per se. What I thought about was the prior death of Ed McMahon; the nearly simultaneous passing of Farrah Fawcett; and last month’s sign off by Dom DeLuise.

I returned to a far earlier time. These were icons of so many adolescences, including my own. The world that raised me would forever be turned upside-down. It was preparing to one day be forgotten.

Farrah capsized.

I was reminded of May 16, 1990, the day both Sammy Davis Jr and Jim Henson died.
That day, at age fifteen, it seemed as if the entire cosmology of people who were famous to me as a 10 year old might die simultaneously. With last week’s news, it’s as if Cannonball Run were a snuff film; as if the cast — and a constellation of “could be” cameo stars — were being targeted for elimination, one-by-one.

The idea I’d like to play with here is The Problem With Nostalgia, one of the many being the sad truth of it’s ephemeral nature. To explore this, let’s try on for size a pair MJ pictures that have been replicated less frequently in recent days.

(Prior two images via The Floacist)

In the first, MJ is pictured with another all around entertainer, Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). I’m guessing most readers of this BLOG (generally speaking, you are within fifteen years of my age) will recognize him.

I’m just as certain a large number of people will not recognize the man whom MJ is pictured with in the second photograph. He is not pictured in his prime. And he’s been gone for almost generation. (Hell even Jackson, pictured with naturalistic afro, may be unrecognizable.) Anyway, that man is Fred Astaire (1899-1987), the most famous song and dance man from vaudeville and early film, and a major stated influence on Jackson. Viz MJ’s video tribute to Astaire as muse

…versus this mash up, which sets Astaire against MJ’s music:

Having slipped into retirement for the first time in 1947, Astaire is emblematic of what happens to the wide renown of The Most Famous People In The World if their fame derives from popular culture.

It fades.

I’ve heard it said that the only person who cried real tears for Michael Jackson was Madonna. She’s the only one who gets it, the only one who understands.


The picture at the top of this post gives a hint of how so many of the newscast memorials to MJ have been cast. He is pale and ghostly, like a phantom rider. (This one or that one? You decide.) He is too aware that his time of passing is imminent, too knowledgeable that he has maximized his use value in this world. Even his blackness — which once served as a culture warping contrast to the skin of Sinatra and Astaire — had been bleached away. In that picture at the top of this post, MJ is not so much here as in stasis, trapped in an extended goodbye.

I prefer to remember MJ as the creator behind one of my earliest cassettes, a man who — because of an equally early acquisition of Van Halen’s 1984 — ended up on a shelf where it literally seemed as if he was being looked after by an angel:

Of course, MJ’s presence was more complex than that of a simple blessed being. As the maker of Thriller, he designed a perfect introduction to horror for pre-adolescents; yet more curious is the fact that when he then had his hair set on fire by Pepsi Cola itself, the reaction wasn’t horror, but humor. That incident introduced a generation to notions of sarcasm and ironic hilarity. It gave us our Icarus-like understanding of fame. Those who fly to close to the sun must get burned. MJ would become a Ghost Rider, indeed.

But I’ll be frank. The recollection I am going to cultivate, the nostalgia that will become my truth, is that MJ was someone not-quite-real — porcelain-perfect, he’ll have the skin he always wanted, and he will be surrounded by friends, and he’ll be in a happier place, glimmering gold.

A picture of what I mean by this after the jump…
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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