• Rock 'n' Roll Unabomber
Michael Jackson - Invincible album artwork

Michael Jackson: The Shelf-Life of the Muse

written by: on January 6, 2011

Rock 'n' Roll Unabomber logoOkay, who among us was surprised by the release of a Michael Jackson record less than two years after his death? Raise your hands. Alright, for those of you with your hands up, did you know you can quit your jobs right now? All you need is a computer and a desire to make great money at home! But I digress; get used to it.

Michael Jackson’s posthumous, eponymous, ridiculous album Michael was recently released. Fans are gushing and the critics are gashing, but in the end, as always, money will be made. Much ado over the stench of the carrion laid before us by music industry vultures misses the point entirely: Had Michael Jackson lived, would it have been any better? I know, I know, we are forever regaled with tales of Jackson’s quest for perfection, allowing him to release only three full-length albums since 1982’s Thriller, but I demand to differ.

Since the masterpiece that was Thriller, Michael Jackson was (brace yourselves) an artist in decline. Bad wasn’t half of what its predecessor was and Dangerous seemed like a spoof of both, while Invincible brought his descent to terminal velocity. The formula remained the same, with a defiant titular rocker, a weepy paean to “our” children, an epic plea for world peace or environmental armistice, and a peppering of funky little throwaways. However, the quality and originality declined exponentially.

Some credit his erosion to a scandal-besieged life; an ongoing phantasmagoria of melanin confusion, facial defacement, little boy touching, baby dangling, specious religious conversion and the curious siring of offspring who, in the most literal sense, would be well equipped as cast members in the upcoming 5th season of “The Whitest Kids U’Know.”

Michael Jackson and the kids painting mocking Jesus Christ

We must admit that Jackson was among the most talented entertainers of the last century, and that even a cursory effort in his Propofol ravaged last days, as displayed in the tour prep documentary “This Is It” could amaze us. But had he lived, cleaned up and focused I’m afraid that this latest offering would be no better than what was greedily cobbled together. His best efforts would have faired no greater than that of present day Paul McCartney, Prince, Ray Davies, R.E.M. or Elvis Costello. For those who’s Muse has abandoned them there is no return.

The ancient Greeks believed that the Muses inspired all art. Of the original three, Aoide was the greatest. Daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory), she blessed her beneficiaries with great musical abilities. She was depicted as proud, alternately generous and devious, but above all a fickle bitch. Stories of her random endowment and capricious forfeiture of talent helped the Hellenes explain how even the most gifted of their lyre strumming epic poets would suddenly go to shit.

In no other area of the arts is the creativity of its practitioners so fleeting as of those who create music. Writers, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers all watch their skills diminish within their lifetimes, but seldom become parodies of themselves. A performer can rely upon his/her training, muscle memory and experience to deliver the goods as exampled by the vaunted final years of Nina Simone or the ongoing primal stage assault by Iggy Pop. A songwriter, however, has only so much to give and no matter how peerless or prolific they were in their prime they are all subject to the withering of their Muse.

Artists are often unaware of their devolving skills, touting each new release as their best, emboldened by sycophantic handlers and adoring fans who, for reasons of loyalty, familiarity, and complacency continue to cling. For all but the strongest willed it’s a symbiotic relationship doomed to stagnation. Would anyone waste their money or enthusiasm on Springsteen’s Working On A Dream or the Rolling Stones’ Bigger Bang if these were debut albums by twenty-something artists? Had you not invested so much in Wilco through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would you be lingering on with Wilco (The Album)?

If only artists could quit in their prime we would all be spared the embarrassment of them handing us their latest creations like children expecting us to hang every half-assed doodle on our refrigerator doors. James Dean will always seem cool and Nirvana will always be cathartic, but Marlon Brando died fat and crazy and Weezer now caters to fist-pumping frat boys.

Other than the Flaming Lips, who did not play by the rules of either Earth or Olympus by waiting thirteen years after their debut to peak, artists do not maintain, let alone expand on, their musical relevance longer than twenty years. Sadly, many rest on the laurels of a well-delivered debut or in the case of Michael Jackson, a career and ultimately era-defining collection of songs.

  • theZanderson

    dood, what about journey?

  • Kristintylr

    This is a masterpiece all on it’s own!!

  • Shawn

    I used to agree with you, but in general, music does not produce masterpieces anymore. There are some esoteric albums that have come out in the past few years that are certainly good in their own right, but they don’t hold a candle to records like “Thriller.” So, until a new band comes out with an original idea in this slightly used millennium, I’ll take Michael Jackson’s throw away songs any day.

  • http://www.trevorgeiger.com Trevor

    Mostly true, but I’ve got some notable exceptions to the rule (besides the wonderful Flaming Lips): Neil Young – Harvest Moon and Ragged Glory were both released in the 90s and are some of his best works. Paul Simon – Rhythm of the Saints and Graceland showcase AMAZING songwriting some 25 years after Paul’s would-be peak. David Byrne – with each and every solo album and weird art project DB continues to shine and prove himself as an amazing songwriter. Thank god he didn’t call it quits after Talking Heads!
    Now, it should be noted that these three are the exception to the rule. However, they are also three of the best songwriters of our time, so if we’re talking about the longevity of songwriters, we should take the greats into account.
    P.S. MJ wasn’t really a great songwriter… Quincy and Temperton were the geniuses behind Thriller.

  • Chris

    Radiohead are a clear exception to this. They’ve released masterpiece upon masterpiece since 1995. Of course, seeing that their last release was in 2007, perhaps their decline will start with their next release, but at this point it seems quite unlikely. Nobody has been as consistent and wildly inventive over the past two decades as Radiohead.

    Also, Bob Dylan hasn’t done poorly as of late. He made a real comeback with Time Out of Mind. That and the releases that followed weren’t anything like the greatness of Highway 61, but they were still artistically sound and enjoyable.

    Most other artists of today haven’t been given enough time to slump. Some did quickly (The Strokes, Interpol). Others haven’t quite met their original greatness, but have stayed very strong (Arcade Fire) and others continue to meet or exceed expectations (Kanye West). Time will tell with these ones though.

    Most of your sentiments are agreeable nonetheless. The Lips waited a while to peak, but they haven’t been able to top The Soft Bulletin, or even come close to it since (not to say that Yoshimi and Embryonic aren’t strong albums). Your other examples are quite right. But hey they’re all still doing well commercially. I’d much rather slap together mediocre material and make a living that way than retiring to a desk job or something.

    Off the Wall
    deserves some credit too. Obviously Thriller is his best work, but we can at least say that MJ released two great albums.

    • Devin

      I would include Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. in the category of a band’s new music containing relevance after 20 years. Both of these 80’s post-punk powerhouses re-united with the full original line-up and have released stellar, new albums (although MOB’s last album was clearly not as strong as the first two reunion albums). Perhaps the trick could also be to break up in your prime and test the waters after a 20 year hiatus.

      • Fabián

        Hmmm…true that Bad “is not a good album” I give you that. But dude, just by chance I found this article, and in the same way I’m listening Michael…(it’s true). It must be his spirit…(that’s kinda joke). My admiration for M still allows me to critizice his job if necessary. I think Dangerous, compared to Thriller, belongs to a different moment in the music in general , and to M in particular. Eg: the producer is Bill Bottrell, not Quincy, with a whole different approach to M’s music. Tough, it’s a very good piece, with important lyrics. Lyrics of an already desperate man. Invincible is descent I know. Anyway, still the flame is very alive in songs like U rock my world, butterflies and break of dawn. Seems like you heard, but you did’t listen

  • Ed

    Kanye West has released a greater album with each one he does, hell even the so-called throwaway “808s & Heartbreak” was interesting as a piece of art in its own right. Johnny Cash had a great last few albums, Dylan is still making great music. You just have to look for a good thing to find it.