The King of Product

Michael Jackson - MichaelIn a piece on the latest Michael Jackson album, Michael, appearing in the New York Times, Jon Pareles writes:

Pop careers are built, among many other factors, on quality control, on a musician’s instincts about what to reveal to the world and what to hold back. And Jackson, who had not released a studio album since ‘Invincible’ in 2001, was notoriously perfectionistic.

Now other people have sorted through the discards, the rough drafts, the fragments, the songs that could have interrupted the flow of an album, the songs that might be forgotten gems or embarrassing dead ends. And other people have decided how those songs will be heard.

Clearly, Pareles is not happy with the album.

But that’s not the point here.

Rather, consider his first assertion, that a career is built, in part, “on a musician’s instincts about what to reveal to the world and what to hold back.” Has this really ever been the case? Is it the musician who has the control or is it someone else? Pareles, in the course of his piece, cites Elvis. Did the King determine “what to reveal to the world” or did Col. Tom Parker? Whose instincts mattered most in that relationship? Arguably the one who was taking care of the business of the business that was to become “Elvis.”

And subsequently in rock, as is the case with other genres, although there may be exceptions to the rule, isn’t it that what many “successful” careers are predicated upon: Not the quality control or sensibilities of the performer as much as how the performer is packaged for the widest possible consumption.

“Now other people have sorted through the discards, the rough drafts, the fragments. . . . And other people have decided how those songs will be heard.” Again: This is a surprise?

Two points: One is that people—true fans—are probably just as intrigued with the flotsam and jetsam of a performer’s output as they are with the carefully crafted, finished product. The throwaways reveal a humanity that might otherwise be absent. While any “perfectionist” might be embarrassed by this material, that’s really not the point. Readers can have access to early drafts of things like Eliot’s The Waste Land and see what it started like and how it ended up as the masterpiece it is; T.S. might not have been happy with that, but grad students everywhere have probably gained a greater appreciation of the writer than they otherwise might have had.

And don’t “other people”—be they in the control room of the studio or controlling what gets released or merely heard—always have a substantial influence on the commercial work recorded by performers?

Michael Jackson is now Pure Product. There is no longer any “King of Pop” or “Wacko Jacko” to contend with. He exists purely as a means by which others will derive (1) enjoyment or (2) revenue. And those who are interested in (2) are going to do the least they can in order to satisfy those in the first group—just enough to get a return on their investments, quality notwithstanding.

Video: Michael Jackson – “Hold My Hand” (ft. Akon)

Michael Jackson: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, eMusic, MOG, wiki

4 thoughts on “The King of Product”

  1. The corpse fucking of MJ might make Elvis pale by comparison. At least Elvis has a family who seem to have some consideration for his legacy. Jackson’s family is a nightmare.

  2. Seems to me Hendrix’s legacy took a posthumous beating for a while, until his father got control of the estate. I’m not sure everything released since then has been gold, but a lot of it has and they seem to be putting some care and thought into the releases. I’m not a huge MJ fan, but you would hope somebody would take the same care with his unreleased stuff… but I doubt it.

  3. I’d like to think what is ultimately revealed by an artist is in essence their decision–no matter how many collaborators, musical, technical or otherwise are involved–except in the instance of Svengali-type management and/or ruthless labels. But not everyone has a Col. Parker, nor are they subjected to the pressures of massive, mainstream commercial expectations.

    Btw, once they got Alan Douglas out of the picture, the Hendrix family has done a decent job of respecting his legacy (with the reissues) and satisfying hardcore fans (with the limited release albums), IMHO.

  4. I totally agree with Bob. Who will look after the musical reputation of Michael Jackson? His money grabbing father? I do hope his legacy is not going to be dragged through the mud and tarnish, just to make some one rich.

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