Michael Jackson and Cultural Relevance

Amid the 24-hour barrage of “news” about Michael Jackson’s death last week, I tweeted, a bit tongue-in-cheek, this question: Is anybody besides me willing to argue that The A-Team was more culturally significant in the eighties than Michael Jackson? My friend Adam wondered whether I and other skeptics were minimizing Jackson’s cultural impact, especially when you consider his record sales, both in the eighties and now, with the spike after his death.

As I commented on Adam’s post (and here comes my entire comment, with revisions), my tweet was half-cocked hyperbole, aimed at the even more hyperbolic coverage of MJ’s life and death. For example, despite the already sanctified media myth, MTV did in fact play music videos from black musicians before Jackson came along.

The man was extremely talented and, for a while, extremely savvy with his image and marketing. I can’t deny that in terms of record sales, Michael Jackson is and will remain a brand name to be reckoned with, but I don’t want to mistake popularity for relevance, or celebrity for significance. MJ is definitely an icon, but he’s also a bit of an empty signifier, a blank page we can project almost anything onto. (Something he no doubt encouraged throughout his career.)

My A-Team reference was a bit facetious, but in some sense, absolutely true for me on a personal level (just as my 5th grade soccer teammate John Booth’s U2 tweet, also mentioned by Adam, was true for him). Of the 12,000 or so tracks in my music collection, exactly one features Michael Jackson (“ABC” by the Jackson Five). Both now and in the eighties the man simply wasn’t on my radar screen (nor were the other titans of eighties pop, Madonna or Prince). Perhaps I am simply pop-musically tone deaf — I’ve never had a Jackson ohrworm. In contrast, I never missed an episode of The A-Team in the eighties, and when I go back and rewatch the show, I have to say that there’s more going on in any single A-Team episode, politically, economically, racially, and historically speaking, than in any MJ song or video.

Finally, I’m not qualified to psychoanalyze MJ’s life (I doubt anyone is), but I think a case could be made that Jackson himself was insecure about his own relevance. This explains why he sought to attach himself to the two greatest musical phenomena of the 20th century that preceded him: The Beatles, by outbidding Paul McCartney in 1984 for the rights to the Lennon-McCartney song catalog; and Elvis, by marrying Lisa Marie Presley ten years later in 1994, thus becoming Elvis’s posthumous son-in-law.

In Jackson’s mind, these earlier musicians were talismans, whose aura might burnish his own (in his mind) uncertain image.