Process, Post-Structuralism, & Dialogue Partners
The Artist

The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson's Music

A marvelous essay on the music of Michael Jackson and the racist criticism of it through the years.  Some excerpts:

Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. It was the lie that constituted minstrelsy. It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the '20s and '30s, of R&B in the '50s and '60s, of funk and disco in the '70s, and of hip-hop in the '80s and '90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn't Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn't Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn't Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

Given this history of white coronation, it is worth considering why the media took such issue with referring to Michael Jackson as the King of Pop. Certainly his achievements merited such a title. Yet up until his death in 2009, many journalists insisted on referring to him as the "self-proclaimed King of Pop." Indeed, in 2003, Rolling Stone went so far as to ridiculously re-assign the title to Justin Timberlake. (To keep with the historical pattern, just last year the magazine devised a formula that coronated Eminem—over Run DMC, Public Enemy, Tupac, Jay-Z, or Kanye West—as the King of Hip Hop).

Jackson was well-aware of this history and consistently pushed against it.


his greatness is in his ability to augment his words vocally, visually, physically, and sonically, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Listen, for example, to his non-verbal vocalizations—the cries, exclamations, grunts, gasps, and improvisatory vernacular—in which Jackson communicates beyond the strictures of language. Listen to his beat boxing and scatting; how he stretches or accents words; his James Brown-like staccato facility; the way his voice moves from gravelly to smooth to sublime; the passionate calls and responses; the way he soars just as naturally with gospel choirs and electric guitars.

Listen to his virtuosic rhythms and rich harmonies; the nuanced syncopation and signature bass lines; the layers of detail and archive of unusual sounds. Go beyond the usual classics, and play songs like "Stranger in Moscow," "I Can't Help It ," "Liberian Girl ," "Who Is It," and "In the Back." Note the range of subject matter, the spectrum of moods and textures, the astounding variety (and synthesis) of styles. On the Dangerous album alone, Jackson moves from New Jack Swing to classical, hip hop to gospel, R&B to industrial, funk to rock. It was music without borders or barriers, and it resonated across the globe.




Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)