Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mark's posts on Race

Judge Dread (The 1970s cockney reggae answer to Eminem)

Michael Jackson (1958-2009) (The myth of pop's greatest legend)

Michael Jackson's swansong: 'This is It' (2009)

'Gangsta Rap', Louis Theroux's Weird Weekend, BBC2 (New Orleans rap and the glamorization of violence)

Literacy in the hood (on Fifty Cent's new self-help book 'The 50th Law')

Three kings for Christmas 2009 (Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Orson Welles)

Jews, Race and Popular Music (review of Jon Stratton's 2009 book)

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

A couple of days ago I awoke early to hear the shock news that Michael Jackson had died of a heart attack at the age of 50. The Sun's headline that day - "JACKO DEAD" - caught the ambiguities of moment. Jackson had attained royalty status as the 'King of Pop' yet he was also 'Wacko Jacko', the most eccentric celebrity and global icon of our time. Paul Morley squared this circle on BBC 2's Newsnight Review by explaining that Jackson had culturally died, in effect, in the early 1990s, and his celebrity image - "remnants" as Morley put it - had been recycling in the media ever since.

Certainly, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a turning point in Michael Jackson's long and fruitful career, or perhaps they were rather a point of inflection, like the middle of David Lynch's strange narrative in 'Lost Highway': a time when a charmed prince turned into a disillusioned king. The reason was that Michael Jackson was essentially in between and could never be anywhere else. He was adolescent, between ages -boyhood, manhood and fatherhood never sat easy with him - but equally he was between races, genders and musical styles. Jackson was the man in the middle: empire builder of a hegemonic brand that fused song, dance and show business glamour.

By jazzing up exhuberant black disco-pop and blacking up easy listening ballards, there was a sense in which Jackson's heyday post-Motown albums set the gold standard for both urban music and R'n'B slowjams. Yet as his image and stage show became more bombastic they seemed to be less and less meaningful, to the point where his ego sent a giant statue of himself floating down the Thames. By that time, his sales had gone down and coverage of his scandals gone up, leaving Jacko to disappear and focus on his process of personal reinvention: as an adolescent child-man, a young black woman (like Diana Ross or Beyonce) straightening his hair, singing like a girl and gradually getting whiter. Despite dancing opposite so many young models and frequently grabbing his twitching pelvis, somehow mature sensuality never seemed to enter his performance. He never really lasted with his wives and employed a surrogate, but those women gave him children that were half-white. In the Jackson family myth, it is his father that represented the hyper-masculine stereotype of blackness he sought to so obsessively to escape. When an increasingly white Jackson got his revenge, all his fights were choreographed. Upon his death, however, the black community reclaimed him and that was the mark of his abilities as a bridge-builder.What was that cultural centrality of Michael Jackson all about? In the last two decades, as his face changed and his skin lightened, his age seemed to settle at about 14 and his idealistic politics (at least expressed in music) remained equally universalist and utopian. Sometimes angry, sometimes happy, he seemed to oscillate around a kind of sexless, exhuberant universal centre point of identity. His personality was extremely introvert, but his performance style was extrordinarily extrovert. And in that Jackson was both the consumate performer and ultimate consumer, an American perfectionist believing that the world could be reshaped to his own desires by money - a masochist running from the pain of persecution he had himself created. Finally he disappeared into a kind of frail cyborg simulation of himself, with his children's faces shrouded in veils of gothic mystery. His last incarnation left 'Jacko' as a dandy wrecklessly bouncing about the planet, like a balloon propelled by the gas wheezing out of it: out of control, occasionally flickering into the public eye but representing nothing more than showbiz insanity. Then came the annoucement that he was to stage a huge series of fairwell concerts: a final chance to display his perfect stagecraft.

After the news came of Michael Jackson's sad demise it seemed obvious that his comeback tour would have put a huge strain on his frail psyche and aging body. What was perhaps more surprizing was the whole Elvisness of his death. There were the instantaneous outpourings of grief (now on Twitter) by friends, fans and celebrities, lurid news stories about Jackson's addiction to prescription medication, retrospective re-evaluations of Michael's contribution to popular music. A Times journalist hit the nail on the head by saying that nobody alive in the field of music had a bigger legend than Michael Jackson, but nobody had done more to get in the way of their own legend.

Now that the King of Pop has got out the way of his myth, I will take the opportunity to predict cultural cavalcade similar to that of Elvis:

  • Tacky newspaper insights into Jacksons private life and last days.
  • Bootlegs, box sets and other posthumous releases.
  • A few Jackson biopics.
  • An academic re-evaluation of Michael Jackson with PhDs, conferences, monographs, special journal editions and of course readers.
  • Michael Jackson's estate emerging as a financial player in protecting and licensing the Jackson brand and cleaning up the Jackson image.
  • Tribute concerts and live-after-death video screen spectaculars.
  • Insider revelations in the form of books and documentaries from friends and family egged on by entertainment journalists (Uri Geller is probably already ghostwriting his).
  • Coffee table Michael Jackson photo-albums.
  • A new generation of fans who will cite June 2009 as the starting point of their interest in Michael.
  • Neverland opening as a pilgrimage site.
  • A national day and or stamp in America featuring Michael Jackson.
  • Jacksonian retrospectives and re-evaluations of various sorts.
  • Spooky Jackson-a-like sightings.
  • The rise of Michael Jackson impersonation as a spectator sport.
  • A vast cultural afterlife (think "Dead Elvis" by Greil Marcus).
  • Anniversary events, fan holidays and conventions.
  • An ambiguous separation between the two Michael's: as 'Wacko Jacko' the potential paedophile and cultural joke (freighted with slights against emotional fandom and anti-Americanism), and as 'Michael' the gentle humanist and univeral musical legend.
  • Estranged pronouncements that his servile and misguided fanbase is forming a "religion".

The King of Pop's life has just ended, but his cultural career is only just beginning. He was weird, wired, unique, and the stage was his true home... I will finish, fittingly, with a recollection of reading Mixmag last year, on their 25th Anniversary edition, polling various DJs and musicans about what was their highlight in 25 years of dance music. Daft Punk said it was first seeing Michael Jackson first do his moonwalk at the Grammys in 1983. When I read that, I was unsure about whether the robotic duo were just joking. Seeing footage of the event again last night, I was sure they were not. Whoever Michael Jackson actually was - and we really don't know - he contributed such passionate vocal stylings, well crafted beats and choreographed gestures to the would of pop culture that the rest is bound to pale.

For more commentaries on MJ click here, here and here. Also see this bibliography.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"I don't deny history": on necessarily forging a passport to the past

Opening his 1953 novel The Go-Between, Leslie Poles Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Hartley's dictum evokes the historian as traveller. He or she takes on the privileged role of both explorer and translator. Sometimes reluctant, sometimes shrewd, this confused interloper relentlessly investigates with the aim of sketching a narrative map to explain the terrain of yester year. In the process they become a tourist of Otherness in a land where eccentric natives necessarily go mute.

Having been to a departmental research symposium today, I enjoyed it when my colleague Brian Machin presented a piece on his attempts to trace a family member who died in World War II. In his research Brian found several accounts that did not match and he began to consider the instability of memory as a source material for historic narratives.

As a researcher, Brian was stuck behind enemy lines without a solid map. We have often discussed the dilemmas of history and memory that he encounters and I have no intention of stealing his thunder here, but I want to discuss some things that struck me during Brian's paper. In particular, while the central narratives of history are freqently deconstructed for being "porous" and ideologically motivated, it seems to me that we sometimes forget an associated issue: that of the historian as a reflexive agent in the narrative they are creating.

I recalled James Clifford's argument about anthropologists, that by subtly exporting Western language and concepts (for example, the bloodline notion of the "tribe") researchers have actually created the very phenomenon they are claiming to report. Transposed to the colonizing narrative of history, here the historian is not just editing the past, but empire-building from the present, making in an effort to annex the foreign country that they are actually creating through their maps. And I suppose that - since ideologies are slippery and hidden as "known unknowns" - that process happens in part unconsciously, as we project on to the past. The historian therefore plays God as their subject then becomes a zombie-like doppelganger, wandering the half-forgotten marshlands of narrative memory, looking for a closure that we can choose whether we want to give them. I suggested to Brian that, in a sense, he was responsible for closing that narrative that he had started to excavate / create / curate.

The episode reminded me of Jean Baudrillard's comeback when he was accused of eschewing the historic mode of explanation. With a whiff of irresponsibility he replied, "I don't deny history. It's an immense toy." If history is such a toy, why do we play with it the way we do? To call the narrated past an individual and collective projection is not to reduce it to mere psychology. Ideologies always become values and beliefs, which in turn give events personal meanings. These meanings are emotionally expressed as memories which in turn contribute by allowing survivors to select facts and interpretations that acts as founding moments in accepted historic narratives. Finally those narratives feed back to become a resource for personal and social identities once again. (Think, for example, of the role of national identity in understandings of the trauma of war.) To cut things short I would say that we tell stories about ourselves on the basis of faulty premises, basis because our own ideologies act as founding filters for our emotively remembered past.

I wondered, would my colleague Brian have written differently if he had no family connection to his subject? Although the dispassionate historian is a myth, the distanced historian can more easily become a punk. I am thinking of Michael Lesy's book Wisconsin Death Trip in that respect.

Lesy both closed his narrative of frontier America (around local insanity) and opened it up again (but juxtaposing a craftily selected range of historic and fictional sources). The result was entertaining - as Lesy trawled through various vandals, arsonists and tear-aways - but I always thought it was a bit irresponsible on its author's part. I mean, how would you like it if your family was selectively portrayed as a gaggle of frontier fruitcakes? Oddly, one answer came from an enthusiastic reviewer on who took Lesy's story as unproblematic reportage and explained that it had motivated him to examine his own family roots in Wisconsin. To me he seemed like naively mistaking a constructed parody for an authentic resource.

Relativists might say that, well, as audiences we all make up the meanings in our own heads. What this argument forgets is that historians give us the initial resources and tools that we deploy in our quest. While people do make their own meanings, they do so in contexts not entirely of open or of their own making, situations in which - whether for pleasure, closure, or ideological affirmation - readers frequently collude with narratorial leadership.

Historians, then, necessarily forge their passports to the past in the process of (re)making the terrains that they travel. Their debt is not to some mute original fiction, but ultimately to the ideologies, values, beliefs, feelings, and of course disciplines, that guide them as authors.

Mark's posts on History

'I Don't Deny History' (Considers historians as ideological agents)

Walter Benjamin's 'Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century' (1939) (A good example of history as critical commentary)

Public Image Limited - Manchester Academy, 19th December 2009 (A rebel relives his history, again)

What are imagined memories? (How do fans use pop's past?)

Frank Sidebottom RIP (On the passing of one of Manchester's comedy legends)

Popular Music and British Television (Brief review of Ashgate's 2010 edited book)

In the Shadow of Your Rattan Cane (Chaplin's Modern Times as a critique of modernity)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mark's posts on Gender

Tears, Tiaras and Transsexuals (considers the performativity of male cross-dressing)

Kraftwerk (men and machines make music)

Florence + the Machine (dark and dreamy feminity at the Manchester Academy)

The New York Dolls (aging trash metal legends play Liverpool's O2 Academy)

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll (Ian Dury biopic 2010)

Heaven 17: Inside Outsiders Playing to Win (30 years after 'Penthouse and Pavement')

Without Fathers: John Lennon and Jim Morrison (review of Lennon Naked and When You're Strange)

Metal on Metal: Notes on the Crash in Popular Culture (Cars, technology and masculinity)

Don Cherry: Canadian Patriot (Canada's premier hockey commentator)

In memory of Mick Karn (1958-2011) (Japan's bass player and his artful play with gender)

Marilyn: The Last Sessions (More 4 documentary on Marilyn Monroe's pyschoanalysis)

Tears, Tiaras and Transsexuals

With its focus on the first transsexual beauty contest in Las Vegas, the documentary Tears, Tiaras and Transsexuals aired on Channel 4 last week (17th June) and it weighed in somewhere between a serious exploration of gender realignment and car crash docu-soap television. Though the musical soundtrack was nothing particularly special, I'm doing a post for it here because it had a lot to say about what Judith Butler might have termed the performativity of gender. It also made an interesting comparison to a documentary that the infamous Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry (pictured below) made on transvestitism.

In Perry's documentary, a focus group of British transvestites sat round explaining how they felt so straight-jacketed by masculinity that they could only express their feminine side by dressing like women (or in Perry's case young girls). Surprizingly, this positioned the British transvestites as hyper-masculine men short-changed by the limitations that came with the traditional polarity of their gender. They were, ironically, more manly than most.

In contrast, the documentary on the unconventional beauty queens made clear that some transsexuals, at least, are actually effeminate gay men (and post-ops). One of the touching aspects of the documentary was seeing their early family photos as boys and more hearing commentaries from their more conventional - and wonderfully understanding - relatives about their transformations. There was an interesting kind of ambiguity around the nature or nurture issue and whether their identities emerged on the genetic middle ground between genders, or was a kind of abberant learned behavior.

While the transsexual contestants' biographies and family backgrounds were examined in some detail, relatively little was said about their relationships, boyfriends or working lives. What clearly came across, however, were the dimensions of class and sexual orientation. Although one contestant worked at a make-up counter, it seemed that most were from working class backgrounds. Since there are transvestites and transsexuals from all classes, I wondered whether the Las Vegas show - with the lure of its prize money, career potential, and the particular way in which it bolstered their self-esteem - only selected working class contestants.

It was also clear that the contestants were part of a supportive homosexual culture. Not only was the glitzy Las Vegas competition organized and run by gay men, but the documentary showed that the contestants had grown up and met their partners in gay communities. This is significant, because the divas had adopted gender ideals that marked out them out in very narrow terms. Their idea of feminity wasn't about, say, having period pains or becoming mothers, but was instead structured entirely upon looking glamorous and voluntarily objectifying themselves. One was then left wondering which male gaze they were so enthusiastically courting. There were times when they created a riot of gender confusion, freaking out macho homeboys down on the Las Vegas strip. Yet when the various divas did their thing for the camera, they had a tendency to to throw voguing poses that caricatured femininity in a very stylized sense. The poses performatively marked the contestants out as part of gay culture. A final pont here was that the contestants sometimes referred to their female names as created identities, saying things like, "When I created Dana, she was a wild and adventurous person."

I was left considering how this set of transsexuals, at least, were fundamentally gay men who wanted to participate in a charade of feminity in order - ironically - to find their place in the gay community. Their backgrounds showed that many had tough times growing up: stealing their sister's clothes or mother's make-up, hiding their emerging identities, being taunted when they came out. Their acceptance in the gay community propelled them on their journeys to emulate and perform womanhood of a sort - a sort that was really a kind of gay hallucination about the place of womanhood in the (dominant) world of heterosexual desire.

While Perry's fellow transvestites were uncomfortably macho, the queens converging on Las Vegas were, then, playing it straight.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Other resources

Birmingham Music Archive and Birmingham Music Heritage

Celebrity Culture (Andy Miah's 2005 Scottish conference)

Discogs (discographies)

eBay (memorabila auctions)

Experience Music Project

Home of Metal (archive)

IASPM 2005 (conference proceedings)

MediaEd (educational documentaries online)

MediaActive (special issue on celebrity)

Open Content Australia (also see OCR Research Review blog on 'political music')

Popsike (record price evaluation database)

Raving (DJ History ebook)

Society for Music Theory (they have two journals)

Spotify (music streaming application)

Upstairs at Graceland

Wolfgang's Vault (streamed concert bootlegs)

... please email me if this page requires updating.

News stories

Image: Salvatore Vuono /

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (clubbing documentary)

Music Industry

Google v PRS over Youtube (March 2009)

... please email me if this page requires updating.

Youtubes on punk

The infamous Today interview of December 1976 needs no introduction:

Sex Pistols interview with Bill Grundy

Sex Pistols interview with Bill Grudy (with commentary by Steve Jones)

Sid Vicious casually imploding on US public access TV, with Nancy taking over:

Sid Vicious interview (part 1)

Sid Vicious inteview (part 2)

PIL were at the forefront of the post-punk movement, with Lydon still posturing in this American interview:

PIL on the Tom Synder Show (part 1)

PIL on the Tom Synder Show (part 2)

... please email me if this page requires updating.

Youtubes on music and race

'Sharevari' on the Scene show (the missing link between Kraftwerk, disco and Detroit techno)

Vanilla Ice on the Arsenio Hall show

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Youtubes on live concerts

In October 1992 singer Sinead O'Connor tore up a photo of the Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live to protest against child abuse in the Catholic Church. Not long after, she was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in New York. The incident in proved that a vast audience could be critical on ideological grounds:

Sinead O'Connor heckled at Bob Dylan Anniversary tribute

Sinead O'Connor interview (about the incident)

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Youtubes on club culture

Sit down, stand up (an unusual dance from DC10 club in Ibiza 2007)

The Wunderkind DJs (child stars)

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Youtubes on fandom

In 2007 the Chris Crocker phenomenon and its immediate cultural aftermath was a particularly interesting play on fan stereotypes:

General scholars homepages

Chas Critcher (moral panics)

Jeremy Gilbert (cultural theory)

Christina Goulding (ethnography, consumerism, dance)

Lawrence Grossberg (cultural studies, hegemony

Matt Hills (fan cultures)

Mark Jankovitch (cult fandom, film)

Henry Jenkins (fandom)

Angela McRobbie (cultural studies, gender)

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Popular homepages and blogs


Also see...

Interactive Culture (Birmingham-based scholars looking at changing media technologies)

Interesting music stuff (Conferences, etc, created by University of London music librarian)

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