Monday, July 06, 2009

Musical Icons

Yes, I'm going to do it, so let's just get it out of the way, shall we?

I apologize for silence on this blog.

Ok, there. Not so bad. (This is all in reference to the rule that you aren't supposed to apologize for lack of blogging). I'd like to tell you all that it was a Cagean experiment in blogging, but that would be untrue. What is a more likely culprit is much needed downtime from academia. And yes, I include my blogging (and reading of other blogs) in that.

I've been busy reading the messages and posts re: MJ's death, career, wackiness, rage, etc. and I've felt particularly grateful NOT to be famous. I find it sad that death should be the catalyst for a discussion of MJ's music on the blogosphere, Twitter, and the AMS-L. I do think, however, that death seems to give music new life. We listen to it with new ears (to borrow from Proust)...ears that resonate with nostalgia, yet filter out the noise of a very public life. I can't say a whole lot about MJ's music, except that I'm conscious now of how big a part it played in the scenery of my life. There have been several times in the last week or so when I've said, "THAT's Michael Jackson??" in response to hearing a song. I like this sense of uncovering a secret. I'm sorry that I paid his music little mind when he was alive, but perhaps that is a symptom of being trained in listening to the music of DWG (that's "Dead White Guys" for those of you following along at home). Of course, being that I specialize in 20th-21st century music, that claim doesn't really work.

I want to write about icons, actually. It is a word that is tossed around, particularly in regard to Michael Jackson, and I feel it is appropriate. If I was not struck by his music, I was very much taken by his iconic presence. On Friday morning, the day after Michael Jackson passed, I had a rather surreal experience while walking through Boston's South Station. In an almost uniform manner, almost every single person in the station was reading the Metro, which featured a large headline that said something like, "The King of Pop is Dead." I don't recall the actual headline, but I was struck by how this seemed to be a fiction, even though I knew it to be true. It was like walking through an episode of the Twilight Zone, where in a parallel world, Michael Jackson had died, and all the bizarre inhabitants of the world moved their unblinking eyes in tandem across the pages of the Boston Metro, and coordinated the turning of those pages.

Madeleine L'Engle, in a wonderful (though quirky) book entitled Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols, writes this about icons:

Our need for icons begins in early childhood when we hold on to the favourite little piece of blanket, or the beloved stuffed animal. The blanket is not a blanket, nor is the animal a mere animal; they are icons of all-rightness in a world that early shows itself to be not all right. They are icons of tender love in a society that daily becomes more brutal and violent.

Perhaps L'Engle's description does not exactly jive with our images of "Wacko Jacko," but like the blanket or the stuffed animal, MJ the icon was the "all-rightness", whereas MJ the person was definitely "not all right." Here was an icon who asked us to start with the man in the mirror...the icon could ask, the man could not.

To continue with L'Engle: "An icon is something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God and God's demands on us..."

In watching the grief of thousands over MJ's death, I believe that this was probably very true for some of his most devoted fans. But the real tragedy of the human icon is that they are indeed looked through--basically a means to an end. For the blanket, it doesn't mean too much, but we might take a moment to examine the cost of using musicians in this way.
If you haven't already, I encourage you to take a look at the following posts regarding Michael Jackson:
The Musicological Michael Jackson (Musicology/Matters)
Rage in his Feet (2'23 and cross-posted at Musicology/Matters)
I Want You Back: A Musiceulogical Inquiry (Musicology/Matters)
Michael Jackson (Ryan at amusicology)
and an ongoing compendium here (once again, brought to you by the great bloggers at M/M).


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea