Wednesday, 1 July 2009

King of Pop

‘Where were you when you heard that Jacko was dead?’ This was an e-mail I received from someone who thinks I am her friend (because I tolerate her), yesterday. I replied that there were so many exciting things happening daily in my busy and exciting life that I could not remember where I was and what I was doing at the exact moment when I heard that the ‘King of Pop’ was dead. (As it happened, I was driving from place A to place B and cursing under my breath every five minutes as I was stuck in the morning rush hour traffic.) Then I read on Charlie Brooker’s blog that souvenir shops were selling tee shirts with printed slogans such as ‘I was at Glastonbury when Jacko died’. Is this turning into a ‘flashbulb memory’ event, similar to the ‘Diana moment’ 12 years ago, I wondered.

The response, certainly the online one, to Jackson’s death has been unbelievable. Google news had so many searches for him that they thought they were under automated attack. Wikipedia got roiled because so many people were trying to update the page on Michael Jackson. And Yahoo’s story on his hospitalization apparently got more than three quarters of a million page-views in ten minutes. On twitter, as many as 30% of tweets related to Jackson on the day of his death. People are in danger of running out of superlatives to describe him. He is the greatest; he was their idol; he touched their lives; he changed their lives; he will live in their hearts forever; he healed the world; he eradicated racism in the world; we have not just lost a legend, we have lost a part of our heart; and so on and so forth.

A distraught fan posted the following:

Michael Jackson was a brilliant singer i really miss him now i heard that he died from a heart attack i am really upset about it and i wish he was alive now so i can get his new songs he makes but because he is dead i'll never get to hear his newer songs he will make. Rest in pease Michael Jackson

Here is another heartfelt tribute:

a absolutely loved michael jackson i was going to see him in the o2 i had even booked V.I.P, i loved michael he was my dear freind i met him a couple of times in 1972 and recently in 2004 i am also a freind of uri geller michael's freind, i wish i was there to protect him, and now i give my thanks to his fans freinds including me and family, we love you michael R.I.P

If you thought that the public outpouring of grief was tad hysterical, you would not be the only one. In the UK, similar noisy, public breast-beating had taken place after Diana died in a car crash while trying to flee from the paparazzi who wanted to photograph her and her then lover Dodi Al-Fayed, who was also in the car at the time. It seemed that there were lots of people, whose lives were so empty that the death of an emotionally disturbed woman who had not done an honest day’s work in her life, who had no discernible talent other than fluttering her eyelids coquettishly at the camera and hooking up with stinking rich men, and whom they had never known personally, left them feeling utterly bereft. Diana was compared to Mother Teresa and, at her memorial service, Elton John sang a saccharine (and nauseating) version of Candle in the Wind. We must thank Barrak Obama for not joining the chorus of maudlin, cliché-ridden tributes, unlike Toni Blair, the then British prime minister, who managed to get himself in every photograph and look more grief-stricken than the family.

It would be fair to say that by the time his tired heart beat for the last time, Jackson’s glory days were behind him. He had not released a new album for eight years. His last album, Invincible, was branded a failure despite debuting at number 1 in not just the USA but also in 12 other countries and selling almost 10 million copies worldwide. Indeed, all of Jackson’s albums after Thriller, with possible exception of Dangerous, were branded as failures despite achieving mind boggling sales: Bad sold 30 million copies (in the UK, according to Wikipedia, it sold more copies than even Thriller, and it also holds the record of all its released singles, five in total, reaching the number one spot in the USA, a feat no other album has managed to achieve in the history of US Billboard); Dangerous sold 35million copies; and HIStory, a multiple disc album, sold more than 20 million copies. These are figures most artists can only dream of; sells of each of these albums were five to ten times more than what most artists achieve in their whole careers. It was Jackson’s misfortune that all of these albums were always compared to the seminal 1982 album Thriller, which sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. I once heard Louis de Bernieres saying in a literary programme that he was resigned to his fate that he would always be asked about and probably associated with only one novel, the mega-successful Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, although he had written novels before and after it. Joseph Heller wrote several novels, most of which were very entertaining, but they always suffered in comparison with his debut novel, Catch 22.

After Jackson’s death, a friend, who revels in arguments the point of which, insofar as there is one, is scoring petty points—his general strategy, during these arguments, alternates between presenting lopsided, preconceived judgments as facts—believing, mistakenly, that bullshit will baffle brain—and focusing on non-issues, eliding the crux of the argument—tried to convince me that ‘Bad’ was awful, and sent me a link of a survey carried out by the Rolling Stone magazine, which apparently came to the same conclusion and in which 23,000 Americans participated. Bad, my friend argued, is bad because Jackson wrote the lyrics of the majority of the songs in Bad, which, in his considered opinion, are not up to scratch, especially in comparison with Thriller, where Quincy Jones wrote most of the lyrics. I wrangled with him a bit but my heart was not in it, primarily because, if truth were told, I am not a die-hard, obsessive Michael Jackson fan, although I have liked his music—from Off the Wall to Invincible—for its melody and rhythm. I also think that his voice was unique and had a dulcet quality to it, thought it was not the sweetest. I have never thought that the lyrics—I can’t be bothered to investigate who wrote the lyrics; I am not interested—, either of Thriller or of subsequent albums, were profound commentaries on the human condition—they are, like those of countless popular Pop and Rock numbers, rather silly. (I once heard a song, where the singer shouted at his beloved that he liked very much to ‘come and go’ between her ‘kidneys’. In case you wondered which end he was planning to enter, the singer left you in no doubt as he provided description of the procedure, which was graphic enough to turn most healthy stomachs.) I doubt that lyrics contributed substantively to Jackson’s stratospheric popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s and his iconic status. Another argument often put forth by those who just cannot stomach the commercial success and popularity of Jackson’s music is that he had become a brand, implying that a behind-the-scene PR machine was in overdrive. This is a specious argument: Jackson was no more a brand than say Elvis or Beatles were. Indeed, it was Bernie Epstein, the Beatles manager, who is credited with first creating the concept of commodity tie-ins for pop music. Remember Beatles lunchboxes and Beatles cartoons?

My friend also threw in, during what he described as his polemic, the oft-heard tattle about Jackson’s personal life: the (unproven) charges of child sex abuse, the progressive lightening of Jackson’s skin colour over the years—‘The man could not even accept what he was, and tried to become what he was not, and could never be’— and the plastic surgeries. This is not surprising; people find it difficult to extricate Jackson’s music from his persona, from all the allegations, scandals, and the inevitable media frenzy that blighted his later years. Perhaps it is impossible to separate the real Michael Jackson from all the media speculation. May be only those—if them— who were near and dear to him had an idea what sort person Jackson really was. The rest of us should not even try.

The public life of Michael Jackson can be roughly divided into three phases: the first phase as a child prodigy when he was the star performer of the Jackson Five; then the dazzling height in the eighties and early nineties, post-Thriller, the phase of multi-million-selling albums, spectacular live tours and television appearances; and finally, the phase as a freak, his behaviour becoming increasingly erratic—if anyone initially thought that the whole thing was a propaganda initiated by Jackson’s PR machine, they would have soon be left in no doubt, as the news of Jackson spending long periods in a hyperbaric chamber began circulating, that the man had not just lost the plot, he had lost the whole library— , increasingly coming to resemble a manakin who had had a run in with a lawnmower, getting dragged through the courts on charges of sexual abuse, getting mired in debts, leading an increasingly nomadic existence—moving from one continent to another—, and career coming to a grinding halt. Posterity, however, will remember Jackson for his musical genius and for all those wonderful performances with which he entertained us. The final phase will be a mere footnote. A long footnote, perhaps, but only a footnote.

Book of the Month: Offshore (Penelope Fitzgerald)

Penelope Fitzgerald was sixty when her first novel, The Golden Child, was published. This late bloomer had pursued various careers including journalism, working for BBC and Ministry for food, and being a full time mother of three, before she found her niche as a novelist. Over the next two decades, Fitzgerald published eight more novels that established her reputations as one of the major figures writing in English.

Fizgerald won the 1979 Booker prize with her third novel, Offshore, piping to the post, in the process, Patrick White, the Nobel laureate, and V.S. Naipaul who had won the prestigious award previously and who went on to win the Nobel himself two decades later. However, according to Paul Theroux, the American novelist who was on the panel of judges that year, Offshore was a compromise choice.

In his scabrous (and therefore utterly engaging) memoirs, Sir Vidia's Shadow, Throux devotes a couple of paragraphs to the 1979 Booker prize and how Offshore came to win it. The Bookie’s favourite that year was apparently V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend In the River. Writes Theroux: ‘A Bend In the River was shortlisted for the Booker prize that year. I was one of the Booker judges. I reread the book . . . But when it came to the decision I voted against it. Mine was the deciding vote. I preferred Patrick Whites novel, The Twyborn Affair. “Patrick White? Over my dead body,” one of the panellists said. Another said to me, “I thought Naipaul was your friend." . . .In the end we compromised on Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, and most people jeered at our choice. They said Naipaul should have won . . . It was thought that because I was a judge, Vidia [V.S. Naipaul] should be a shoo-in. Not at all.’

Penelope Fitzgerald wrote novels that are known for their brevity. Offshore, at hardly more than 50,000 words, is no exception. It describes a houseboat community living on the river Thames near Battersea Reach. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place on the barges which, rise and fall as they may with the tide of the Thames, are, in fact, not going anywhere. The same can be said of the lives of the characters that inhabit this delectably quirky novel. Many of them are either ill at ease in the society out there ‘on the land’ or are plain misfits. The novel traces their longings, prejudices, secret crushes, aspirations, sense of camaraderie, and, in the process, almost imperceptibly, poses questions about dilemmas that have eternally faced the human existence. The ending is abrupt, which, I think, is apt in as far as it adds salience to the sense of surreality that pervades the novel. That said Offshore is probably not the book I would recommend to be acquainted with this remarkably gifted writer. Start with The Beginning of Spring; move, next, on to The Gate of Angels; let the writing style grow on you; then pick up Offshore. I guarantee you will enjoy it.

Penelope Fitzgerald is almost unsurpassable when it comes to vivid characterization with, I would risk calling, oxymoronically, maximum economy, and, in Offshore she achieves near perfection. She also manages to give a remarkable background visual feel to the narration with such ease that you almost don’t notice it. Fitzgerald—Beryl Bainbridge and Jane Gardam are some other names that immediately come to mind—had what I would describe as ‘minimum fuss’ style of writing. She seemed to abhor ostentation or adornment of any kind. If ten words would do, why waste fifty, which would add nothing to the descriptiveness, but will most definitely to the reader’s ennui?

It is a cliché, but length is not everything, and, makes no mistake, this novella is a gem. Did it deserve the Booker? Probably not; but that is only because I happen to think that Naipaul’s Bend In the River is one of the greatest books of the 20th century.