Politics & Policy

When Kings Die

A music antiquarian comes to terms with Michael Jackson.

On Thursday, June 25, I tuned in to the Fox TV news with Bret Baier, expecting to hear the opening line, “Welcome to Washington.” Instead, Fox was broadcasting images of emergency medical activity in Los Angeles, along with Baier’s announcement that Fox had suspended “political news” because Michael Jackson had fallen to cardiac arrest.   

At first it seemed an eccentricity on Fox’s part. When broadcaster Shepard Smith came on the air and exclaimed that “no one alive” in the early Eighties could fail to know the lyrics of a certain Michael Jackson tune, I supposed the station must be a nest of Jackson fanatics.

But it was no different anywhere else. Quite abruptly, the momentous events of our day — the mass uprising in Iran, the global economic crisis, nuclear threats from North Korea, political warfare in Congress — had yielded, like the Red Sea’s waters, to what people were calling the most traumatic piece of news since JFK’s assassination and 9/11.

Now that was stupefying. The death of a pop star in his own home, however regrettable, cannot be compared to John F. Kennedy’s murder on a Dallas street — or to the destruction of 3,000 people in our epoch’s most wanton display of mass murder.

Undeniably, though, many people felt Jackson’s demise just as they felt 9/11. They took on the same sense of personal devastation from an impersonal piece of news, and they will forever remember where they were when they heard the news, as everyone who registered JFK’s murder still remembers that moment.

I stood outside all this. While I knew Michael Jackson’s name and might have recognized a few of his main tunes, I couldn’t have recited his lyrics or named his titles. My lyrics were those of the Catalogue aria or of “Pari siamo.” I didn’t recognize a king of pop. The king of my music was Herbert von Karajan, the conductor who ruled over Europe for most of the Cold War.

When Karajan passed away in 1989, Berlin newspaper headlines announced crisply, “Der König ist tot” — “The king is dead.” That matter-of-fact statement was loaded with Teutonic irony. It came from the compensation many Germans feel they must make for their discredited traditions of monarchy and autocracy. Karajan was the Michael Jackson of his universe. He stood at the summit of his art, idolized by tens of millions; he pioneered the video for classical music as Jackson did for pop; his financial success was on a comparable scale.

But Karajan was a king with limited powers. His culture obliged him to save his money, whereas Jackson’s allowed him to grow his renown through indebtedness. Jackson’s negative balance, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, is inversely comparable to the fortune Karajan left behind. And then there was that ironic note on Karajan’s passing. We might hear discordant notes about Jackson, but irony would not be one of them.

Anglo-Saxons are at once more solemn and more permissive with their kings and queens. England’s broadly indulgent traditions have gone hand in hand with the lively workings of a tabloid press. And we Americans are yet more impulsive in these loyalties. Never having had a real king or queen, we compensate our pretenders with extra doses of adulation and affection, while even our central media have taken on the sensibilities of tabloids.

I knew all that, but still I was haunted by Shepard Smith’s dictum about “no one alive.” Could an antiquarian like me, a cultural corpse, find a foothold in Michael Jackson’s music? All the suppliers were sold out of his records, and in my heart I had not yet joined the legions of downloaders. But then my wife, who had grown up with Jackson’s music in her native Tokyo, dropped a copy of Off the Wall on my desk, and I played it alongside the TV coverage.

The popularity of that CD is not hard to understand. The whole production is consistently smart, with instrumental backups that manage to be unhurried and propulsive at the same time. Jackson’s penetrating countertenor is burnished, flexible, and dead-on accurate. It’s a genuine bel canto sound, and if you listen behind it you can hear a sentimental echo of Maria Callas, another singer whose go-for-broke attitude — much more than Karajan’s suave, calculating style — enshrined her among audiences that never fail to love artists who pour blood into their art. Next to Callas, Jackson misses the last degree of ruthlessness — for example, at the end of “She’s Out of My Life” — but if he had shown himself in Handel or Bellini he might have found the real steel of the belcantiste. I’m sorry we’ll never hear it.

Finally, though, Jackson lives in the popular imagination because of how he is seen as well as heard. Sibelius complained about symphony orchestras that while they are often told to sing, no one ever asks them to dance. The same can easily be said about opera singers, whose directors tend to leave them plodding on the stage. The Broadway musical rightly insists on the dance as well as the song; and Michael made the form his own. It’s uniquely American, it embodies our love of graceful exuberance, and it has brought cheer and release to people around the globe.

There, it seems, is the core of truth behind the traces of scandal and danger in the life of a celebrity, the posturing of TV journalists, and the exclamation marks in tabloids. Under that morass of distractions lies the simple, central genius of song and dance American-style. It’s a pity, in particular, that the global mania over Jackson’s death blocked news from the streets of Tehran, even for a weekend. But then the ayatollahs know that Michael Jackson and his fans are not their friends. For all his distresses, Jackson was freedom incarnate, and tyrants always hate that. “Their tanks will rust,” Mikis Theodorakis wrote. “Our songs will last.”

–David Landau, publisher of Pureplay Press, is a novelist and historian who also writes about music.

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