Did Michael Jackson's Death Save His Reputation?

As it happens, I was a rock music critic during Jackson's brief arc of greatness. I can remember being hugely impressed by "Off the Wall" -- and awestruck by both the ambition and execution of "Thriller." Like half of America, I was shouting at the TV during the Motown moonwalk. But I never even bought "Bad," and the videos, to my mind, quickly became a collection of puerile subjects, silly lyrics and predictable dance moves (strut, spin, pose, grab crotch, repeat). The only Michael Jackson song I listened to during the next 20 years was 1991's "Black or White" -- and that was only to hear Slash's guitar riff.

The deaths of loved ones lead to introspection, while the deaths of famous public figures lead to retrospection. Now that he's gone, looking back over Michael Jackson's career, it seems obvious that he was a transitional figure. He began in the Top 40/LP/Network television era with the Jackson 5. Then, he reached his peak as a solo performer -- indeed, briefly, the "King of Pop" (though not later on, when he claimed to be) -- by mastering better than anyone else the newly emerging technologies of MTV/Music videos/modern studio recording. During that brief interval, he made a handful of seminal contributions to popular music.

But, unlike, say, Dylan or Lennon/McCartney (even though he owned their music), I think Michael Jackson was not necessarily a genius, but a supremely talented entertainer. And, so, around his small bag of tricks, Jackson essentially built a persona and a musical empire out of pieces borrowed from more creative sources. Unfortunately, the copy is never as good as the original -- and once you got past the small corpus of great songs and the moonwalk, to me, Michael Jackson's shtick grew tired and shopworn real fast.

And, remarkably, even in that, Michael Jackson became a creature of this new era. Ours is not an age of originality -- at least not at the level of art. Television, YouTube, the Web, digital music, not only have ferocious appetites for content -- making sure that every plot device, every character cliché is repeated a million times each day -- but they also make omnipresent every filmed, photographed or recorded piece of creative art. As such, the idea of anyone coming up with something so fundamentally new and appealing that it knocks the world on its collective ear -- as Michael Jackson did in the early 1980s -- is almost absurd.

Jackson Was a Transitional Figure

Instead, we now largely live in a "mash-up" culture. We snatch up bits and pieces of other people's creations, old and new, and glue them together to create something distinct, fun, shocking and entertaining -- but almost never truly original. Or we toss up bits of cultural detritus into the blogosphere to watch them be speared by hundreds of clever comments -- creating in the process a new, but ephemeral, creative artifact.

Even here, Michael Jackson was, one final time, a transitional figure. On the one hand, and culminating in "Thriller," he was the last artisan Pop Superstar. What he and Quincy Jones created still has the feel of a hand-wrought masterpiece. But, even then, Jackson was also fast becoming the first modern Mash-up Entertainer -- a shiny assemblage of other people's inventions designed to hide (though with ever-less efficiency) the increasingly grotesque, decaying and pathetic operator within.

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