Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

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Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

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Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

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As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

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Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

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Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old. ❖


1983 Pazz & Jop: Who Else? A Goddamn Critics’ Band, That’s Who Else

Only rock critics will understand how such a thing could be, but for a while there it looked as if R.E.M.’s Murmur — known jocularly among skeptics as Mumble — might actually outdistance Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 10th or 11th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. This dire possibility reflected the ambivalence with which the most happening year in American pop since whenever filled those who make their livings (or at least cover their expenses) writing about rock and roll. Quintuple platinum or no quintuple platinum, rock critics found 1983 an overwhelming year in all the wrong ways. To quote Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan, free-lancer whose 11-page ballot gave me the idea of sharing my essay with the voters this year: “There are only a couple of 1983 records that really matter to me (have become part of me, have changed me, have taught me important things about life or love or Woody Guthrie or food or baseball, have reminded me of stuff I already knew but forgot, you know what I mean).”

I know exactly what he means. Since the passion for music-that-matters defines rock criticism, every year voters worry that it’s becoming extinct. And since “matter” is as subjective a concept as “boring,” for some of them it does become extinct, whereupon they either start faking it or find a more remunerative vocation and play their old records a lot. But never before has the nay-saying reached such a pitch, and never before have I been so disinclined to explain it away. For years I’ve cited the continuing abundance of excellent albums, which many nay-sayers now readily acknowledge, as a healthy alternative to any perceived dearth of — how shall we say it? — intense significance. But while the flow in no way abated in 1983, I noticed an unwelcome new pattern in my listening — it was rare that I played any album for pleasure once I’d reviewed it, and even rarer that such pleasure went deeper than the aural surface. In fact, if I’d followed Lester Bangs’s dictum and arranged my list in strict order of turntable time, my top 10 would have comprised tuneful groove albums from Gilberto Gil to Neil Young. More specific modes of signification just didn’t sing to me.

I still believe that if more voters had more access to more music they might feel better about things. No doubt narrow-minded trend-hopping pseudointellectual sloth — epidemic among rock critics, as any empty-headed out-of-it antiintellectual good-for-nothing could tell you — contributes to this problem. But have a heart — so do time and money. Most critics are now semiprofessionals who buy or if they’re lucky trade for many of the records they hear, while those who remain on the mailing lists often work in offices where any noise louder than the muffled clickety of word processors is frowned upon. I was struck by the experience of Utility Poobah Steve Anderson, who got to know two of his top 10, Womack & Womack’s Love Wars and the Local Boys’ Moments of Madness, only because I slipped him my extra copies. How was he to figure out on his own that he’d take to those and not to the Blasters’ Non Fiction or Hilary’s Kinetic, which I also gave him? Worse still, how is he to guess which of a confusing, ill-reviewed bin of reggae or hardcore or funk or Brit-hit records to take a flier on? Full appreciation of democracy’s pluralistic bounty requires a pluralistic affluence which most rock critics are too marginal to enjoy.

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And marginality gives rise to ambivalence like nobody’s business — cultural marginality even more than economic marginality. Early rock journalism was a subsistence living at best, but at least in the ’60s it was on the inside of a collective experience which combined pop reach and profitability with defiance of the so-called mainstream. The broad thrust of rock criticism ever since has been to sustain that paradoxical synthesis as popular rock and roll became the mainstream — hence what I like to call semi-popular music. But it’s been so long since pop reach and profitability seemed a natural part of rock and roll that for many younger critics (and musicians) the whole idea of, to choose a telling instance, vital top 40 radio seems like an insupportable contradiction. And these days it probably is. Yet ponder this mixed message. Not surprisingly in the absence of albums-that-matter, Pazz & Jop’s oft-heard singles-are-better-than-albums plaint swelled this year into a deafening unison chorus. And not very surprisingly, given the shape of the year, the singles list was dominated by biracial top 40 smashes rather than the customary indies and imports and new wave airplay hits and black dance records. What does seem strange is that for the first time more than half of the top 25 also appeared on the top 40 albums — the ones that don’t matter. In other words, the classic pop process in which music is tested by massive exposure and validated by public pleasure didn’t end up making our voters feel good. It didn’t instill in them that sense of pop community which rock criticism was invented to analyze and celebrate.

I accept in part the common sense explanation for this statistical oddity — that with singles where the action is, the best we can expect is half-assed albums with great singles on them. Indeed, lots of nay-sayers apply this analysis to Thriller itself. Of course, like incorrigible art-rocker Michael Bloom (“If I never hear ‘Beat It’ again it’ll be too soon”), some voters aren’t fans at all; about a quarter of the 207 P&J respondents weren’t sufficiently impressed with the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles to list him in albums, singles, or videos, all of which he topped. And while a 75 per cent response is phenomenal anyway — only “The Message” has ever equaled it — one doesn’t expect that the biggest pop phenomenon since Elvis would have encountered even that much resistance at the time of, say, Rubber Soul. By now the natural orneriness of rock and rollers has been all but institutionalized in predictable patterns of reaction and polarization — Boston Rocker readers recently ranked Michael just below Quiet Riot and Duran Duran on their go-away list. I think Jackson’s achievement holds up so well critically that I wonder whether some of the scrupulously well-reasoned debunking to which he’s being subjected doesn’t have a lot of kneejerk in it — if it doesn’t signal a willful refusal of any pop community at all.

Not that I’d claim Thriller as the best LP of 1983 myself — it’s uneven enough that I suspect its biggest supporters of trying to bolster their dreams of pop community by ballot-stuffing. In fact, I ranked it 30 in 1982, and then exercised my option of upping it to 6 as a “late-breaking” 1983 album. (Thriller might have won even bigger if our rule — which allows any record receiving at least half its previous year’s total to carry that total over, with the earlier points subtracted when the same critic lists a record two years running — had been clearer.) For me and the voters, something similar happened in 1980 after MJ broke five singles off 1979’s Off the Wall, though back-to-back comparison with Thriller quickly destroyed my attraction to the fashionable minority theory that Off the Wall is the superior album. I do truly hope Michael isn’t planning to wed Brooke Shields on MTV in an all-out chart push for “The Lady in My Life.” But for me every Thriller hit except “P.Y.T.” has thrived on massive exposure and public pleasure, including “The Girl Is Mine” (which I’ll take over “Michelle,” Rubber Soul fans) and “Thriller” itself. In fact, “Thriller” is the rare song that’s improved by its video, which fleshes out the not-quite-a-joke scariness of showbiz power for Michael (and his fans) and the not-quite-a-joke scariness of “the funk of 40,000 years” for (Michael and) his (white) fans.

One sign of how lukewarm Pazz & Joppers felt about albums this year is how few points they alotted the ones they liked — a mean of 10.6 (and a median of 10.0) in the top 15, as compared to 11.3 in 1982 (when the scarcity of albums-that-matter also occasioned much gnashing of teeth) and 10.9 in the two previous years. But Jackson averaged 13.1, and R.E.M. was right behind at 12.8, a remarkable index of collective enthusiasm in albums with so many mentions. For some critics, in other words, Murmur was a semipop event the way Thriller was a pop event. And significantly, only 29 named both albums.

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While willing to grant that my failure to make a deep connection with R.E.M. may be generational (see Managing Poobah Tom Carson’s explication de texte), I’m with the Jacksonites — choosing Murmur as a Pick Hit over the Blasters’ amazingly durable Non Fiction was my personal miscall of the year, and as I relisten dutifully all that happens is that Murmur slips further down my list. A “consistent and enjoyable” record, sure, steeped in pop usages ripe for rehab from its hooks to its guitars, from Mitch Easter’s deceptively offhand textures to Michael Stipe’s deceptively inarticulate soul. But what it has to say (assuming Carson’s not explicating through his hat) defines it irrevocably as a critics’ record, not just in the know-nothing way that term is used to dismiss disquieting innovations, but in its central preoccupations. That is, Murmur’s subject is the dilemma of cultural displacement to which the broad thrust of rock criticism addresses itself, and while I take this dilemma seriously, I go back far enough to crave pop outreach nevertheless — even when the central preoccupation of the music involved is the glamour and danger of the star system, which is in a sense the dilemma’s obverse and in a sense its cause.

Which brings us, yes it does, to video. I didn’t spend much time pondering my decision to substitute a video poll for last year’s rather inconclusive compilations competition; I just wanted to give traditionalists and retro-rockers a full franchise by opening the album vote to reissues. (The 16th-place, 19.8-points-per-mention finish of Jerry Lee Lewis’s import-only 12-disc Sun Sessions box, virtually unavailable as a promo, was some show of strength; The Jackie Wilson Story came in 68th, The Best of Slim Harpo 74th, and Big Maybelle’s Okeh Sessions 95th.) But the voters gave the video option a lot of thought, as their quoted outpourings only begin to suggest, and a full one-third declined to participate for reasons ranging from regretful ignorance to indignant avowals of the ineluctable modality of the audible. This negative fervor seems fishy to me; beyond all the sociopolitical analyses and perception theories, many of which I go along with, I smell turf war. I’ve already stated my own objections to videos in general and MTV in particular, but I like some and even learn from a few. Anyway, if displaced adpeople are going to use rock and roll to power their shitty little movies, I want to provide the most demanding rock and rollers with a chance to give them what for.

The voters did just that, selecting not songs but audiovisual artifacts — the top five were also top-25 singles, but in radically scrambled order, while only one of the remaining selections even finished among the top 40. What’s more, MTV’s effect on the rest of the poll was negligible — the only artists the critics might have underplayed without it are the Eurythmics (oh well), Eddy Grant (lose some, win some), and (mustn’t forget him) Michael Jackson. Basically, that’s a plus — I go through all this because I believe that people who convert their musical perceptions into written discourse have a special role in keeping the music honest. But there’s also a sense in which it’s a minus — just one more example of how unremarkable the results were. I mean, Men at Work’s Cargo surely deserved a mention or two.

In the end, I don’t blame the poll’s conservative drift on the voters so much as on the year. With three of eight albums repeating from 1982, it was the worst year for black artists since 1978, which given the singles list should signal Stevie Wonder to get hopping and George Clinton to move his release schedule up to October or so. It was also a terrible year for women, with Exene Cervenka, Annie Lennox, and the recrudescent Linda Ronstadt (come back, Ol’ Blue Eyes, all is forgiven) the only finishers, though Chrissie Hynde, Christine McVie, and Yoko Ono are already righting that for 1984. Blacks and women would have done better if the list had gone down to 50 thusly: UB40’s 1980-83, Divinyls, Moses, Culture Club’s Kissing, Jett, Midnight Oil, Ramones, ZZ Top, Green, Plimsouls. Offsetting the strongest finish in almost a decade by Mr. Bob Dylan, who admittedly made his strongest album in almost a decade but still hasn’t made me like it, was the heartening shortfall of expedient work by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and overpraised work by the Police.

Of somewhat more concern is the relative paucity of rookies — not first-time old-timers like Tom Waits and Paul Simon, but fresh blood. I count maybe seven up-and-comers, the fewest in many years, with Aztec Camera, Culture Club, and the Replacements the only ones that inspire much hope in me; this is what happens when young avant-gardists hang in there, I suppose, but it portends hardening of the arteries nevertheless. Even more distressing is what happened to independent labels. Except for Twin/Tone — home of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s irrepressible Replacements, the biggest and most gratifying surprise of the poll — and Richard Thompson’s Hannibal operation, only the reissue specialists at Charly/Sun and the gloom merchants at Factory/Factus fully qualify. The continuing semi-independence of Mango (where the marginal finish of 1982’s fourth-ranked Sunny Adé, whose Ajoo also finished 90th, makes the juju king look more like a critical novelty than is flattering to him or the critics) and Slash (where the Violent Femmes, though maybe not the Blasters, would have done just as well without Warners) is better than nothing, I guess, but I’m worried about what the latest pop explosion could mean for the visibility of the alternative capitalists who provided me with more than two dozen of my favorite 1983 albums. Trickle-down theory has never held much appeal for me.

Independent labels from the Brill Building manqué of New York dance music did gain one on the singles list, weathering the contemporary-hits blitz just as the Lyres’ good little Ace of Hearts garage-band simulacrum did. And aided by a time rule designed to favor rookies and indies (which disqualified well-supported “mini-LPs” by the Style Council, Roxy Music, and U2), both categories made big noise on the EP list, with Los Lobos and Let’s Active the T-Bones and R.E.M.s of the year and the powerful outreach of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (whose record has been picked up and improved by EMI America) a promise of Flying Burritos to come. Since the EP is speed-rock’s natural medium, I’m also pleased that this year two hardcore-identified items finished in the symbolic money.

I could go on, believe me, but I’d only be objectifying my own feelings, which more than usual are in no special harmony with those of the electorate. This is only appropriate. My pet metaphor for P&J ’83 takes its cue from the surprising showings of Reed and Richman and Thompson and Dylan and Newman and Parker and Waits and Simon, not to mention X’s John Doe and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and the Blasters’ Dave/Phil Alvin. Every one of these artists has the lineaments of what in 1969 or so began to be called a singer-songwriter; since it’s known by now that songwriters (and singers) are most effective when they conceive music as well as melodies (and words), they work closely with bands, but they’re still basically expressing themselves, giving private responses a form that’s musical before it’s either collective or public. I wouldn’t sign off before offering up my own hard-earned lists — longer than ever this year to underline my continuing faith in pluralism. But I want to leave as much space as possible for other voters to give their private responses public (and in total context even collective) form. It won’t keep the music honest by itself, but maybe it’ll help a little.

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Top 10 Albums of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

2. R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S.)

3. Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues (Sire)

4. X: More Fun in the New World (Elektra)

5. The Police: Synchronicity (A&M)

6. U2: War (Island)

7. Lou Reed: Legendary Hearts (RCA Victor)

8. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Jonathan Sings! (Sire)

9. Richard Thompson: Hand of Kindness (Hannibal)

10. Bob Dylan: Infidels (Columbia)

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Top 10 Singles of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” (Epic)

2. The Police: “Every Breath You Take” (A&M)

3. The Pretenders: “Back on the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

4. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (Tommy Boy)
Prince: “Little Red Corvette” (Warner Bros.)

6. Eddy Grant: “Electric Avenue” (Epic)

7. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic)

8. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (Sugarhill)

9. Run-D.M.C.: “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.s” (Profile)

10. Talking Heads: “Burning Down the House” (Sire)

— From the February 28, 1984, issue


Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.


When Michael Jackson Needed A Guitar Solo, He Called The First Lady Of Shred

She is the hellraiser whirling around the King of Pop in the climax of Moonwalker — the cat-suited punk sporting a pointy guitar and an explosion of peroxide blonde. She prowls the stage with Michael Jackson in concert footage from 1987, wearing a three-foot mohawk and a light-up fiber-optic suit, topped only by the guitar solo she unfurls in “Beat It.” She is Jennifer Batten, a guitarist who spent a decade touring the planet with Jackson in support of albums like Bad and Dangerous. Twenty years after their last concert, Batten is still in awe of the energy he brought to the stage. “Every drum hit, Michael did something with his body,” she says. “Most people, if they did that for one song, they would have to take a nap.”

Batten’s affiliation with Jackson, and subsequent work with Jeff Beck, have made her into something like the first lady of shred guitar, an iconic female virtuoso in a world with surprisingly few of them. Despite a younger generation of formidable players like Carrie Brownstein, St. Vincent, Marnie Stern, Mary Halvorson, and Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster, the culture around electric guitars still bulges with an unbecoming bro-y-ness — a boys’ club attitude that Batten says is finally starting to change.

In 1978, she entered the Guitar Institute of Technology — now Musicians Institute — in Los Angeles. She had never performed live and never jammed much with other musicians. (“My mother,” she says, “didn’t want me to go play with strangers at night.”) Shortly Batten discovered something for which her limited experience had not prepared her. Of the entire student body, about 70 players, she was the lone female. “That’s when it really hit me that, ‘Hmm, maybe this isn’t such a normal choice,’” she says, chuckling. “It was a real shock. I don’t know that it even crossed my mind that it would be off-balance at all.”

In 1989, a guitar magazine that interviewed Batten revealed its subscribership as 98 percent male — a higher percentage than that of Playboy or Penthouse. The link between masculinity and electric guitar culture can seem, from one angle, obvious: An academic study by Steve Waksman called Instruments of Desire defines the instrument as a kind of gadget-dick hybrid: a “technophallus.” But anatomy, of course, is not destiny. Batten believes the divide around her instrument instead reflects the persistence of oppressive ideas about gender. “Even now, it’s not okay for women to be aggressive,” she says. “For many generations, if not thousands of years, women were [told to] make the babies and make the food and stay out of the limelight. In a lot of cultures, whether it’s recognized or subtle, women picked that up. And a lot of rock ’n’ roll is really aggressive.”

Batten was playing in five different bands when she got the call, in 1987, to audition for Jackson. She showed up to find no band, just a video camera. She played funky rhythms, followed by her solo arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a product of her years of jazz training. Then she tapped out the monstrous solo for “Beat It,” originally recorded by Eddie Van Halen.

A few days went by. Batten was asked to rehearse again, this time with a band. It seemed to go well, but still she heard no final verdict. After even more rehearsals, she was given a passport, a plane ticket to Tokyo, and a makeover that traded her brown hair and glasses for an electric mohawk and heavy makeup. After her arrival, as a gesture of goodwill, Jackson closed Tokyo Disneyland to the public and let his 100-person entourage enjoy themselves without crowds or nagging fans.

Batten was frolicking in the Disneyland gift shop with Sheryl Crow, then a background singer on the tour, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to find the King of Pop standing there. “He said, ‘I like how you’re playing the “Beat It” solo,’” she remembers. “And I thought, ‘Wow, what a great surprise and a validation.’ That was when I knew I had the gig.”

Jennifer Batten performs Wednesday and Thursday, March 8 and 9, at Iridium as part of Her Story, Her Voice, a month-long series of concerts celebrating female musicians.



“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), Jeff Koons’s gilded monument to kitsch, sits on a pedastal in the Whitney while Vice reporters sneak into the abandoned Neverland Ranch to document what horrors remain. At this point, the King of Pop’s legacy is rooted more in macabre folklore than music, and the “Thriller” video has nothing to do with it. In fact, people—apparently a lot of people—are still having MJ encounters five years after his death. At Michael Jackson Betwixt/Between, a posthumous birthday party for the pop icon sponsored by Hendrick’s Gin, photographer Shannon Taggart presents an illustrated lecture on “the curious afterlife” of Jackson and his ambiguous dead/alive status as a “contemporary mythological figure,” based on her work with a number of spiritualist mediums who have reported encounters with him. Stick around for a lively affair with drinks, music videos, and karaoke.

Fri., Aug. 29, 8 p.m., 2014



Artistic Director Ellie Covan ran Dixon Place as a Paris salon when it opened in1985. Tonight she presents the world’s longest-running LGBTQ Performance
Festival for the 23rd time. HOT!, the NYC Celebration of Queer Culture, features a
different performance (plays, music, film, dance, puppetry but rarely just one by itself) every night, with titles such as “Michael Jackson was innocent, and I didn’t kill Jonbenet Ramsey… but I was there,” an uncompromising (and “sexy”) look at the corrupt U.S. court system, and “Ombra,” a multimedia dance performance citing the influences of Dante’s “Paradiso” and Plato’s “Cave,” occurring episodically during a dance party for which, just for that evening, Dixon Place transforms into a club. Performances are character arc-centric and take place in locations as diverse as customer service purgatory, underground rap clubs, a Polish forest haunted by Baba Yaga, and Cornflake County, New Jersey.

Mondays-Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: July 5. Continues through Aug. 2, 2014


Ol’ Dirty Master: The Discomforts of Balthus

Inside the Metropolitan’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor galleries is the perviest art exhibition to be found anywhere in New York: “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations.” The canvases on view there depict little girls as modern-day sex kittens in the guise of Old Master Venuses.

Before Ian McEwan’s poisonous literary plots, David Lynch’s Gothic film fictions, and Eric Fischl’s masturbatory portraits of suburban ennui, there was French-born Polish artist Balthus, né Balthasar Klossowski: the fox in the henhouse of the Western nude. Never a formal inventor, this retrograde painter ignored avant-garde ambitions to become modernism’s leading antimodernist, with a twist. The original upskirt artist, Balthus devoted a career to obsessively depicting female pubescent sexuality. Today, there is no question that Balthus was a pedophile. A precursor both of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert (with whom he was constantly compared after the publication of Lolita in 1955) and the real-life Polanski, Balthus physically transgressed a battery of ethical and legal codes. His paintings, on the other hand, committed no such crimes—instead, they continue to fascinate by pushing the limits of eroticism, as well as by symbolically ripping apart the psychosexual barriers skimpily separating right from wrong.

If Rubens is art’s most notorious chubby-chaser, then Balthus was painting’s most memorable crotch-shot man. Evidence of his hang-up defines the Met’s otherwise polite show, which concentrates chiefly on the early decades of the artist’s career—the 1930s to the 1950s—as well on a set of 40 ink drawings of cats he made when he was 11 years old. Curated by Sabine Rewald, a renowned Balthus scholar, and featuring 34 hard-to-borrow paintings, the Met’s exhibition expends a tremendous amount of energy on interpreting the Frenchman’s feline fancy (the French word chat, like its English counterpart, also refers to the vagina), but precious little on his crucial leitmotif: little girl lust. It’s as if the curator and her wall texts are too embarrassed to squarely face the artist’s lifelong psychological problem. In view of Balthus’s canonical popularity (the Met and the Pompidou held a storied retrospective for the artist in 1984), it’s patently absurd today to muffle his enduring theme. At this late juncture, one doesn’t have to embrace the tabloid impulses of NBC’s To Catch a Predator to want to call a freak a freak.

As McEwan once wrote with respect to his own uneasy lit: “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information.” A lesson one learns when attentively reading Atonement, that becomes doubly important when scanning a picture like Thérèse Dreaming (1938). In the painting of Balthus’s first underage model—the then-12-year-old girl is included in no less than seven of the canvases on view—she is shown reclining in a pose that is part absent-minded innocent and part outright exhibitionist. At her feet, a fat tabby cat laps at a bowl of milk (a sexual metaphor if there ever was one). Moving upward from the diagonal drawn by the animal’s hind legs, one finds the painter’s glory: a panty shot worthy of the most fevered cheerleader fantasy. Meanwhile, Thérèse’s surroundings—restrained in palette and composition—enact the perfect foil of a bourgeois portrait. Despite being painted inside the artist’s squalid Paris studio, Balthus stage-managed not only his sitter’s suggestiveness, but also the dark furniture and bric-a-brac that turns a sordid picture respectable in everything but spirit.

Balthus’s trick, in the words of Robert Hughes, was to tension the “co-existence between surface calm and predatory desire.” This strategy managed the opposition of debauched and traditional elements in each painting, and proved the artist’s go-to mode whenever his libido threatened to tip the scales. Take the twin canvases The Salon I (1941–1943) and The Salon II (1942). Pictures that similarly locate bare-legged girls in ravished and submissive poses—one is splayed on a couch, another kneels on the ground, reading—their stilted arrangements also suggest the scaffolding of an older classicism. Balthus cribbed heavily from two sources he loved, early Renaissance formality and Biedermier realism, the Mitteleuropean 19th-century antecedent to America’s mid-20th-century Norman Rockwell moment. The results were paintings with racy subjects treated with old-time fussiness. What he called the “timeless” nature of his art also turned out to be his beard.

If Balthus was a hawk who relished painting doves, his less sexualized pictures are like ducks on a mission: Dignified on the surface, they pedal away madly down below. That is certainly the mood animating a number of tamer but still disturbing pictures at the Met. Consider, in this light, Brother and Sister (1936) and Girl in Green and Red (1944). In the first, a pair of unsmiling children conducts a strange game of physical constraint. In the second, the artist’s then-32-year-old wife appears as a poker-faced, barely pubescent gamin—the knife plunged into the loaf of bread on the table in front of her a sharp reminder of the threat the painter evidently felt underage female sexuality held over him.

There are those who would tame Balthus by saying that the subject of his paintings is not, technically, childhood sexuality, but adult restraint. Yet the truth is that the vast majority of his work banishes such thoughtful abstractions. More immediate than obscure, Balthus’s pictures speak directly to the rotten part of the heart. Think of him as Walter White in Breaking Bad. It beats thinking of him as the brush-and-oil Michael Jackson.



Neal Medlyn is no nightclub Elvis. He’s an impersonator of the highest order—that is, one who reveals something about his subjects that they cannot reveal themselves. His manic Miley Cyrus is awkward and literally tripping over herself to please. His Insane Clown Posse tribute, Wicked Clown Love, highlights the inanity and necessity of group ritual. Since 2006, Medlyn has been accumulating new icons for his “Pop Star Series”—a collection of seven live performance-art pieces, each centered around a particular musician. Tonight, he will premiere the series’ ultimate piece, King, a grand incarnation of—who else but—Michael Jackson. Medlyn’s covers promise to be like none that have ever come before.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Oct. 24. Continues through Oct. 26, 2013


Mission Park Has the Originality of a Basic-Cable Cop Drama

Poor old Michael Jackson never experienced anything like a real life unmediated by money, power, or the acquired narcissism of the super-famous. So most of his song lyrics–poems about satin-jacket-clad street gangs and law-breaking smoothness-evincers–sound like things he saw on TV. The narrative shorthand of basic-cable cop dramas colors the American psychic landscape, tainting the expectations of jurors, and inspiring the work of lazy screenwriters like some sloppy, unshaven muse who’s had it up to here with your loose-cannon police work. The tense prologue of writer-director Bryan Ramirez’s Mission Park, in which a group of mostly Latino middle-school kids robs a taqueria and shoots an old lady, evokes a tactile, scary reality utterly betrayed by the following 90-minute string of hackneyed, basic-cable plotting and dialogue. Bobby Ramirez (Jeremy Ray Valdez) and his adopted brother, Julian (Will Rothhaar), garner both grudging respect and simmering jealousy from their street-hardened childhood friends when they graduate from high school. The story skips the next six years, jumping ahead to the brothers’ final weeks at the FBI training academy, during which Ms. Vivica Anjanetta Fox barges into a single scene to bark out the film’s stupid premise: Bobby and Julian–despite being total rookies–are enjoined to infiltrate the narcotics gang run by their childhood buds. You probably saw the ensuing narrative of betrayal, murder, and undercover investigation on Silk Stalkings, Miami Vice, 21 Jump Street, Hardcastle and McCormick, Profiler, or The Cosby Mysteries. The whole point being that if you’re inspired to write based on experiences you had while watching the USA Network, please at least try to be as awesome as Michael Jackson.


Four-Color Revolution

In his introduction to this superbly illustrated compendium of underground newspapers, editor Geoff Kaplan channels the 1960s’ exuberant ad-hoc vibe by referring to his book as “Power of the People,” despite the title on the cover—Power to the People. The more inclusive of offers insight into the cultural power exuded by the 700 color reproductions gathered here, all culled from papers published between 1964 and 1974.

Kaplan posits that the brash, sometimes outrageous graphic treatments used by underground designers represented a “vehement challenge to the dominance of official media.” A revolution in information technology back in the mid-’60s made it possible for anyone to become a publisher — the only requirements were “an IBM typewriter with interchangeable typefaces, a lot of artwork (cartoons, photographs, drawings, illustrations) and an urge to express his or her social, political, or cultural point of view.” A confluence of history and demographics helped give rise to this onslaught of smudgy newsprint. The Baby Boomers were confronted with an unpopular war, and, as one essayist in the book points out, “the friction between draft age (18) and voting age (21).” Additionally, the use of LSD among many editors and designers “gave the social insurgency of the sixties, and the underground newspapers associated with it, their peculiar and distinctive stamp.”

With youthful fervor shaping the politics and psychedelic drugs driving the look of the underground press, readers expected, and received, visual invective: The New York–based Other Scenes depicted a naked woman’s rear end expelling the names of 1968’s presidential candidates — Humphrey, Nixon, Wallace — in curling, piled-up letters. Often just as polemical, the London-based papers Oz and The International Times featured complex typography entwined with vivid illustrations. Like Beatles songs, the graphics coming out of Swinging London were a mix of sterling talent and witty production—one Oz cover splattered red ink over the famous photograph of South Vietnam’s police chief executing a Vietcong infiltrator with a shot to the temple. (The caption ridicules President Johnson: “The Great Society Blows Another Mind.”) An International Times cover gave theorist Guy Debord’s seminal treatise, “Society of the Spectacle,” the comic-strip treatment, with a female character proclaiming, “Culture? Ugh! The ideal commodity—the one that helps sell all the others!”

From “Old Mole,” 1969

The authors of Black Mask (printed in Alabama in 1966) paid homage to earlier rabble-rousing manifestos with the proclamation, “A new spirit is rising. Like the streets of Watts we burn with revolution. We assault your Gods — We sing of your death. DESTROY THE MUSEUMS — our struggle cannot be hung on walls.” Stark black bars and a leaping Black Panther logo complement this ardent rhetoric. (Although Power to the People has been printed at lavish scale, keep a magnifying glass handy—the yellowed tabloids are necessarily reduced, but the text of the articles, by turns riveting and rambling, can often be discerned in these crisp reproductions.)

Some publications leavened politics with practical advice. The feminist organ Off Our Backs provided clear line drawings that in one issue explicated the proper insertion of a diaphragm and in another the correct way to change a tire — “a simple and gratifying task which has generally been left to men for cultural, not physical, reasons.”

There are sly layout Easter eggs scattered throughout Power to the People. In the upper left corner of one page, a splay-legged lass on the cover of the San Francisco Express Times welcomes the new year with a headline cribbed from “Sympathy for the Devil”: “’69 — ‘Pleased to Meet You—Hope You Guess My Name.’ ” In the lower right of the facing page, a New York Times headline reports “Free Concert Causes Huge Jam Near San Francisco,” an early dispatch from the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont show that December.

“You may never have taken LSD,” Amherst professor Nick Bromell once observed, “but America has.” Power to the People concludes with stirring graphics from the Chicago Seed that reinforce this ’60s spirit. Railing against a senseless war, pollution, and police violence while celebrating the many social and cultural advances of the time, this passionate artwork, like Renaissance painting, crystallizes a spirit that is obviously dated, but also timeless.

Seven American Deaths and Disasters
By Kenneth Goldsmith
Powerhouse Books, 176 pp., $19.95

The first bulletin comes amid pop songs and advertisements for Thanksgiving turkeys. You can imagine a secretary looking up from her typewriter, a mechanic rolling out from under a car, a soda jerk’s hand stilled in midair: Did someone on the radio just say the president had been shot?

Poet Kenneth Goldsmith has edited and transcribed moment-by-moment radio and television broadcasts of seven traumatic events in postwar American history, achieving on the printed page something akin to the always surprising emotional wallop that Andy Warhol’s best “Disaster” paintings still pack.

Goldsmith begins with the JFK assassination, followed by the shooting of RFK five years later: “John . . . er, Robert Francis Kennedy died this morning at 1:40.” He employs different fonts for each tragedy—classy Roman for the gunning down of John Lennon, techie sans-serif for the Challenger space shuttle explosion—and although there are only transcriptions on the page, your brain begins supplying inflections and images that flesh out the deadpan format. As the second World Trade Center tower collapses, you can hear aborning conspiracy theory in two reporters’ on-the-spot observations.

“You’d almost think there was some type of secondary explosion.”

“Ugh! Oh! I mean that’s . . . that’s . . . that’s . . . ”

“That would . . . that would . . . that would . . . And you have to wonder how that . . .”

“Let’s just think about this logically.”

“There is no logic.”

“Oh my God!”

Add in the horror of the Columbine shootings and Michael Jackson’s pathetic demise and you realize that, through his keen ear, Goldsmith has discovered something roiling the hearts of those left behind: sorrow, bewilderment, maybe survivor’s guilt, and relief that, for now, your own bullet has been dodged.


De Palma’s Passion Is All Tricks–and Undervalued

Your life surges ahead as it is, pretty much, but maybe tinted blue. Maybe everything around you is tilted a bit, and strips of light glow on the wall, like an SUV with its brights on is idling on a ramp facing your window blinds. Your world looks not like noir but like the idea of noir in a Michael Jackson video.

You get used to it.

You read somewhere on your reading-machine that years ago Brian De Palma made a movie, Passion. Every muckety-muck at some film festival jeered it, and the movie vanished, and now, a lifetime later, it’s been rediscovered, released at last, reappraised and roundly toasted and available for you to enjoy on your laptop or flatscreen or your reading machine, which nobody uses to read anymore.

So, you settle in. You pay your laser dollars. You watch it. Turns out to be like one of those core samples scientists used to take out of glaciers, the air of long-gone eras in a preserved sequence. Here’s a parodic women-in-the-boardroom melodrama, the principals color-coded—blonde (Rachel McAdams), brunette (Noomi Rapace), redhead (Karoline Herfurth)—and love-triangled, each dominant for one act of the film, and each given to swapping personalities just when it would be most dramatic to do so. Here’s quaint corporate backstabbery whose big-money specifics are so vague, so risible, that you half-expect the movie may pull back at any moment and reveal that all this has been some oddly well-shot afternoon soap the characters are watching.

Here’s an early expression of concern that what we mostly see in our lives are screens, often screens showing screens, except for those moments when we’re staring into cameras—you know, during sex. Here’s paranoid sex-video stealing. Here’s once outré bedroom gear—Eyes Wide Shut masks, a red-licorice strap-on, a string of anal beads as chromed and wide as trailer hitches—in a film that’s less sexually explicit than most cable TV shows.

Here’s a familiar, bravura split-screen sequence recalling Dressed to Kill in its pairing of high art (this time ballet) and kinky stalking, but this time the effect seems less a new way of seeing than an acknowledgement of how we see already: With your web browser open, and the movie itself only taking up half of your device’s display, your screen is already split. De Palma trisects it.

Here’s ’90s Cinemax After Dark’s idea of lesbianism, and some sexy saxophone pillow music (from Pino Donaggio) that sounds like the tears of a Nagel print. Here are sumptuously lit corridors and staircases of the sort that are forever turning up in thrillers that aspire to the psychological (and Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety), the kind where the architecture is meant to suggest a disoriented mind. And here at last—a little later than would be ideal—is a ’70s De Palma murder, and then the wee brunette with the dry-crackle voice sinks into a drugged-out, wrongly accused plot recalling that Steven Soderbergh thing you saw on TCM last week, Side Effects, the one that ground that other girl with the dragon tattoo through something like the same pharmaceutical Hitchcockisms.

You pause Passion to check to see if maybe it were made as a parody of Side Effects. It wasn’t. It’s a remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime, from 2010.

You end up watching Side Effects again.

After that, it’s back to Passion, for a final third of fakeouts upon fakeouts, for scenes where De Palma, like some grand old pop star, seems to be greatest hits-ing us, giving us a pleasurable encore.

And then you wake up. You see the movie hasn’t been lost and found. It’s just getting a half-assed original release, dumped onto video on demand, gutted and ignored by critics. You put it on again, to see if they’re right. They’re not: If a new Woody Allen film came as close to the spirit and quality of vintage Woody Allen as Passion does to vintage De Palma, the world would plotz. I mean, Christ, have you seen Blue Jasmine? At least De Palma doesn’t think the Sweathogs have opened up a San Francisco chapter.

You resolve to tell the world.

Then you wake up.

You watch Passion again. Then Love Crime. Passion is pretty good. If you cared enough to make a list, it might be your fifth or sixth favorite De Palma. You could even argue it’s about something: the surveillance state, or sex on film, or some style-section piece De Palma may have read about how women sometimes don’t support each other in the workplace.

Then you wake up.