Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is it enough to have "good music"?

Today, I saw a theatrical trailer "Michael Jackson's THIS IS IT", the movie that was stitched together out of footage of the rehearsals for MJ's next tour.  The trailer shows lots of big and flashy sets and dance numbers, befitting something that you might see on a Michael Jackson tour.  Lest you think the title might be exploitative, "This Is It" was actually the proper name of the once-forthcoming tour. 

The reaction of my friends to his death fascinated me.  Most of the people who had an opinion were saddened, but a few were self-righteous: one referred to him as "that child molester who shouldn't have a holiday".

Ever since his public troubles began, I basically felt sorry for him.  He was as close to a "Tarzan" as we might find in today's society.  He was a human who was removed from the opportunity to be human.  Fame and celebrity do strange things to people and for most of his life, Michael Jackson was possibly the most famous person alive.  I can't imagine not being able to go to McDonald's or the library without causing a riot.

He had a deplorable family life by most accounts, with an abusive father.  From a young age, he was probably exposed to all kinds of negative human impulses from people who wanted his money or some of his shared glory.  I have no idea if he actually molested children or merely liked to associate with their innocence. 

There's certainly a history of controversial personalities in music.  One of the biggest examples I can think of is the anti-Semitic writings of Richard Wagner.  Wagner's music was not performed in Israel until 2001, and even then it caused a scandal.  Attempting to perform part of "Die Walkuerie" as an encore (it had earlier been forced off the program as too controversial) prompted a 30 minute debate and resulted in some audience members walking out and calling Barenboim a fascist. 

So can we separate the music from the men?  One of my theory professors who is Jewish bears a distaste for Wagner to this day.  To her, the personal feelings of the man (and his post-mortem utilization by the Nazi Party) are insurmountable.  In my opinion, I'd never keep company with Wagner socially, but I can't deny that Tristan und Isolde is one of the greatest and most influential pieces of music in all of history.

I think it is important to remember and study what people think, but great works of art can still be presented when given the correct context.  Nobody should hide that Wagner anonymously wrote "Jewishness in Music" to attack fellow composers; he doesn't get to "live that down".  Everyone should know that parts of Wagner's operas were co-opted by Adolf Hitler for propaganda -- but they should also know that other music of his was considered unimportant or even forbidden.

We do ourselves a disservice to condense everyone into a single label.  Henry Ford is the father of the assembly line and changed the course of human history.  He was also an astonishing anti-Semite and kindred spirit to Hitler.  Hitler read Ford's writings and kept a picture of Ford near his desk, saying he "revered" Ford.

So is he good because he kicked off the American economy?  Or is he bad, because he had a "Six Degrees of Adolf Hitler" number of two?

Similarly, was Michael Jackson a brilliant songwriter and dancer who composed the soundtrack for a generation, or was he a bizarre man-child who was unable to distance himself from the shadow of child molestation?

Turns out he can be both.  At the same time.

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