Okay, 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.”
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.