Friday, June 26, 2009

R.I.P Michael Jackson

"Goodbye, King of Pop"

Of course I could not allow the most significant death of the MTV-toting popular cultural movement to pass without adding a few words. The media coverage has been surprising to some because Michael Jackson was not currently recording music and was fifty (50)but what they fail to note is that the man wasn't just a star but he was the star. Time doesn't allow for too much detail right now but even without his statistical brilliance on the pop charts, MJ is the main reason why the pop/R&B stars can enjoy the vast cross-racial appeal now. Back in the late 1970s--before MTV emerged, black artists were mostly pigeon-holed into one frame, R&B, but when he released "Thriller" in 1982, all that changed. MJ was the first to create the possibilities of men of color in popular music. His albums, singles, endorsements, stage performances all became the ultimate, not just for black men but for everyone. MTV rolled around and the videos that he conceptualized--"Thriller" especially--were larger than life.

Yet, this doesn't answer the question why we care so much about him now. Consider though that most of the current pop acts that people pine for and worship (Rihanna, Usher, Justin Timberlake) are obviously influenced by MJ's "full package" approach to music. He made art and they all strive to do the same, to be mentioned in the same breath as him decades from now. This media storm is even more remarkable when one considers that he was the only one of his peers (that trio of him, Madonna and Prince, all fifty coincidentally)who was not still recording music. Yet people cared time and time again for the sinewy details of his personal life, grabbed up the expensive tickets for his London concert (July) and still could moonwalk.

On top of it all, we cared fiercely to see if he would get the redemption perfectionists like him crave. We wanted a last hurrah, a triumphant show that if necessary he could muster up some of the old magic. We do not like when our stars struggle or show, finally, mortality settling in. We want them to live forever, to excel always, to make the world seem alright. Who watches the mighty Roger Federer just merely to win a, we want an exhibition, a flawless display of skill that is beyond mere human execution. For the music critics, Radiohead occupies that rarefied space currently of enviable love from critics and fans. If they follow up the blissful "In Rainbows" with anything less than ideal or remotely commercial, we will feel a sense of betrayal, a letdown beyond words. Not everyone reaches such idealized heights in our eyes but it brings with it its own set of issues, that we are miostly unable to rationalize.

Michael Jackson leaves a rich musical legacy: great pop music that transcends its time and genre. That immense Beatles catalogue that his children will now inherit. His family and fans are left with a lifetime of good and not so good memories. In the days to come, we will hear the rumours, the possibilities of prescription-drug overdose, the state of his accounts. Endless critics will tear into his child-molestation cases but the truth is that it all plays a part of his life, his legacy.Bob Dylan may be the most culturally relevant musician alive, David Bowie the most vastly copied and Radiohead the most acclaimed band but MJ was the greatest entertainer for the vast part of four (4) decades. Take a second to reflect on that. Bless.

Michael Jackson was fifty (50) years old.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Together Through Life (Bob Dylan) (2009)

Talking Blues

(a mini review)

In my review for his Modern Times album two years ago, I stated that death was an idée fixe for Bob Dylan but now here he comes, rushing through a new album unto an adoring public, full of, well, the blues.

The album starts off tantalizingly with Dylan rasping over some nifty guitar work on Beyond Here lies Nothing, a track that sets an immediately likable yet casual tone. His supporting band compliments the track with effective accordion and a bluesy atmosphere. It’s a sure-fire hit, the type of song he can pull off in his sleep but for once his voice doesn’t grate as much, thus the track isn’t obscured into some wizened meaning. For those who can’t digest his music because of the voice, no need to worry, this song is just for you.

The only weak moment here, interestingly enough is track two, Life is Hard. The album’s concept was built around it as a single for Oliver Dahan’s upcoming film My Own Love Song. Given how contrary Dylan can be in the eyes of endless analysis, one can deduce that the song’s basic drawl would’ve bored him into an entire new direction. So whereas critics continue to pigeon-hole him into a death phase without really hearing the upbeat sections here, he has simply moved on. Some people they tell me/ I have the blood of the land/ in my voice, he croons on I Feel a Change Coming On, as if to reiterate this point.

Which is not to say he has gone all skylark on us now because beneath this sense of resolve lurks a flinty type of realism and humour. If Time out of Mind through to Modern Times was to sort out his issues with mortality, then Together through Life embarks upon another sort of adventure, one where all restriction is wedged away. Shake, Shake Mama undercuts its stark lyrics with a pop, bluesy shuffle of feet. Dylan has no time for tears or fears this time around, just workman-like fun. Tracks like Jolene and My Wife’s Hometown crackle with wryness and a sharp intent that belies his years.

Of course, to critics, this new-found aimlessness can be a good thing or indicative of the finality of his career that they’ve been announcing since the 1980s. Dylan, as he is wont to do, attaches no weight to either camp but just merely records music and let the chips fall where they may. This is within itself, and I’m sure he is marveling at this feat, is a type of restraint rock musicians can only dare dream about. Love him or hate him, Dylan may be the very first one of them to ascend to this rather fanciful and critically-free ether.

RATING: 8/10