Some thoughts on Michael Jackson, his life and death, and how Nirvana, Star Wars and The Matrix factor into it.
Since yesterday’s news that Michael Jackson died there has been lots of conversations about Jackson’s life. Within a short time it seemed a bit ridiculous the indulgence people were having with Jackson, not to mention their own revisionist history. I don’t think anyone has taken Michael Jackson seriously in over a decade, but the way people were pontificating it seemed like they had always remained true Michael Jackson fans.
Was it really that surprising Michael Jackson died? He was 50, not exactly young. He has been on legal and illegal drugs since at least the 80’s when he became addicted painkillers in the aftermath of the Pepsi commercial. He’s undergone countless surgeries, some of which had his body trying to contradict the way a body should normally be. He’s lived a life detached from reality for who knows how long. When you think about it, the surprise might be that he lived to 50.
Jackson has been a sideshow act for over 15, almost 20 years. He hasn’t been taken that seriously as an artist since he released Dangerous in 1991. More people were creeped out by him than there were fans of him. (Various child molestation accusations and the Martin Bashir interview special will do that, not considering the numerous other weird things he did.)
So, with everyone getting caught up in the wave of apparent grief over Michael Jackson (which is really grief over people’s own youth and memories), I tweeted the following yesterday. I was more affected by Kurt Cobain’s death than Michael Jackson’s
My opinion, so you think no one would have a problem with it. Surprisingly, people criticized me for the statement. They thought I was making light of the situation, or thought Nirvana had more talent, or didn’t get what Michael Jackson was all about, or blah, blah, blah.
I was a kid when Michael Jackson was the biggest thing in the world. I had his records. I even saw him in concert in Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. I remember sitting around the television watching his videos because they were events. Trust me, I get Michael Jackson. He was one of the most talented artists in history.
There is no comparison, Michael Jackson was insanely more talented than Nirvana. Jackson has a string of hits and accomplishments in music that dwarf Nirvana. I’ve even stated before in this blog that I think Nirvana is one of the more overrated artists now in music, especially Cobain. And why is that? Because Cobain killed himself near the band’s apex, which skews how people view the band and their music.
Was I distraught over Cobain’s suicide? No, but it was just surreal that he was gone. He brought about a scene that I was immersed with throughout high school. One of my good friends from high school, Johnathan King, and I went down to the Old Market the night the news broke about Cobain’s death. We hung out at Dirt Cheap records, talked, and just wondered about life. (We also joked how there would soon be a Kurt Cobain movie directed by Oliver Stone that would be terrible.) We were seniors in high school, less than two months away from graduating, and one of our favorite musical acts was no more. It kind of added to wondering about the future.
Nirvana had changed the game in music and culture when they burst onto the scene. All of a sudden, acts like Michael Jackson seemed out of place and stale. Let’s not forget, it was Nirvana that dethroned Michael Jackson on the Billboard album charts in January of 1992. Nirvana is like The Matrix, and Michael Jackson is like Star Wars. With me? Follow as I write my stream of consciousness…
You could say Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad are like the original Star Wars trilogy. The best in each is the second release, Thriller and Empire Strikes Back. Taking it further with those two, the climax in each is transcendant in life and culture. The song Thriller was the last release off the album, and the climax of Empire Strikes Back is the reveal of Darth Vader as Luke’s father at the end of the movie.
Each of their follow-ups were hugely successful, but they could never measure up to being the pinnacle of its generation. How could they? Bad sold 30 million copies worldwide, 8 million in the US, but Thriller sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Return of the Jedi has made $475 million worldwide, but it is considered the weakest of the original Star Wars films and perhaps even fourth best of all the Star Wars films.
In 1991, when word leaked that Michael Jackson would be making a new album, people were of course excited. He was still Michael Jackson. In the mid 90’s, when George Lucas revealed that he was beginning production on a new Star Wars trilogy and sent Star Wars fans into delirium. Anticipation for both of the projects was heightened. But then a funny thing happened to both right before they were releaed. They were made irrelevant.
Less than two months before the release of The Phantom Menace, in 1999, The Matrix was released and it ruined the subsequent Star Wars films. It’s story, action, effects and delivery were cutting edge and pioneering at the time. A scifi film came from nowhere and stole George Lucas’ thunder. Sure, The Phantom Menace was released a bit later, was the #1 film for awhile, made gobs of money, took people back to their childhood of the original Star Wars films, but it paled in comparison to The Matrix. Lucas seemed to be employing an old playbook and people’s connection to The Phantom Menace was due to the original Star Wars trilogy. It had nothing to due with the film, which was a disappointment. As time has passed, nearly everyone concedes that The Matrix is a superior film to The Phantom Menace.
Less than two months before the release of Dangerous, in 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind was released. It slammed the door shut on 80’s music and culture. It brought about a huge change in music and culture in general with everyone and everything trying to ride the wave of alternative/grunge culture. A Seattle band came from nowhere and stole Michael Jackson’s thunder. Sure, Dangerous was released a bit later, was the #1 album for awhile, made gobs of money, took people back a few years to their memories of Thriller, but it paled in comparison to Nevermind. Jackson was irrelevant. As time has passed, Nirvana’s Nevermind is seen as the next generation’s Thriller, the apex of a period of music, while Dangerous sped up Michael Jackson’s decline.
Michael Jackson and George Lucas continued to release new works, but they never connected to the populace like their previous works. They seemed disconnected from the times and culture. Both of them are the butt of jokes now (Well, Michael was before his death.) and anything they are involved with is met with scorn. (Did anyone have any confidence in the latest Indiana Jones film?) If you really wanted to, you could research how both of them were keenly aware of children with their work. Lucas was always marketing to it, and Jackson was always trying to return to it. Fans of both like them because of the nostalgia factor, it takes them back to when they were younger, not because they have put out anything in years that is good.
(I thought of a number of connections between Lucas and Jackson, but don’t want to delve into it. I’ll let someone else do that.)
Likewise, Nirvana and The Matrix burned out quickly after shining brightly. Sure, people talk about the underwhelming results of the next two Matrix films and the Nirvana studio albums, but it doesn’t diminish their legacy like it did with Michael Jackson and George Lucas.
We mourn when celebrities die young because of the unmet potential of life. Why are Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and John Lennon still relevant? Sure they were talented, but it went up to another level when they died. The Dark Knight became an ever bigger movie event last year because it was on the heels of Heath Ledger’s death. Ledger was playing the role of Joker, a historic villain, and the events made the movie a must-see event
The outpouring of grief over Michael Jackson is almost insulting. How many of those grieving have listened to a Michael Jackson album in the past 10 years? How many were disgusted by the allegations of child abuse? How many likened him to a freak? And now they are all in mourning? Please. Most people are mourning nostalgia, their own childhood fading away, the fact that they are getting older.
I’m sure there are a number of fans who are sad over his death, but let us not get swept away by the emotion of the day. Michael Jackson was amazingly talented at one point, but that was 20 years ago.
I’m sure if Jackson were to have died awhile ago it would have more of an effect, but then came the child abuse allegations, the payoffs, the drugs, the plastic surgeries, the weirdness… It was non-stop for 20 years.
Yes, Michael had a tragic life because he was always trying to recapture his lost childhood and never had the chance to live a normal life, but does that excuse everything he did that was negative?
Yes, I was more affected by Kurt Cobain’s death than Michael Jackson’s. However, Len Bias’ death tops them all in how it affected me. That’s my opinion, but perhaps you know better what affects me.
Ending my stream of consciousness. I should probably get an editor at some point.