Thursday, June 25, 2009


End Of The Seventies

Yeah, I'm going to be little maudlin here tonight.

But for the generation born in the 1960s and '70s, a large piece of our childhood died today.

While many of us certainly grew up with recently-departed Ed McMahon as Johnny Carson's sidekick, he definitely "belonged" to the boomer's cultural experience more than our own. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson? Now that's something else. They were as different from each other as any could be and their deaths were as dramatically different too. Regardless, they "belonged" to us in a unique way. And, their deaths within hours of each other forces certain thoughts of mortality.

Farrah's death was not unexpected. She'd been ill for some time. Her last TV appearance was in, of course, a reality TV show where she plaintively prayed for a miracle from the anal cancer that was destroying her.

Her career was a rather strange one, blasting into the cultural consciousness (as Farrah Fawcett-Majors) like a comet. In one season of "Charlies Angels", she became the "It" pin-up girl of every pubescent and post-pubescent male. Even after she made an ill-advised career choice to split the show after one season (except for a few guest appearances over the next few seasons), she managed to stay linked with the culture. Eventually, she even showed that, amazingly, she wasn't just a pretty face, but could act too doing Emmy-nominated work in made-for-TV movies in the '80s like "The Burning Bed" and "Small Sacrifices."

In short, she proved that she could be something more than just a pin-up girl. The culture captured her at her most radiant -- in a snap-shot, but the lesson she told the post-boomers is that life is a motion picture. She chose to keep moving and reinventing herself.

Those two words sum up Michael Jackson -- "moving" and "reinvention." Even with all the strangeness of his later years, he's not supposed to be still so soon. Boomers can lay claim to the Jackson 5 part of his story -- the last great group to come out of the original Motown empire. At 11 years old, Michael was this incandescent ball of energy -- a miniature James Brown with a scary emotional vocal range. His solo early-70s songs were nice and sweet pop extensions on what he had been doing with the J5.

But it wasn't until he released Off The Wall in 1979, with a new, vibrant sound, that the world noticed that there was something really special in its midst. The album arrived at just the right moment. Rock was in a drudgy period; disco was on its last legs, the economy was a shambles (and, hey! there was a revolution going on in Iran)!! But Jackson produced an album that mixed R&B, disco and rock. It was of the moment while sounding like nothing else in the moment. (The nervous mumbling that builds into an exuberant yelp to kick off album-starter "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" is pure magic.) It was music that insisted that black and white kids could still listen to the same sounds -- despite what the rest of the culture seemed to be saying. (And, yeah, the "new" Michael had a new nose as well -- presaging the type of perpetual physical transformation would make him a tragic figure as the years elapsed).

Jackson took that sound and musical philosophy and launched it into the stratosphere with Thriller.

At the same time, he single-handedly turned music video into an art form all its own. He became the Rosa Parks of MTV -- forcing the then-new music channel to play videos by black performers. MTV insisted that it was a "rock" station, and "black" music didn't fit the format. But Michael Jackson was a product of a generation that grew up with both "black" and "white" music. Having Eddie Van Halen play the guitar sol on "Beat It," may have been a gimmick, but it was one that worked and "fit. As a result, Jackson ended up leading an early-'80s pantheon that appealed to a broader cross-section of music fans than any before or since: Jackson, Prince (my personal favorite), Madonna, Bruce Springsteen all could be heard on Top 40 radio, the last moment before the industry began to segregate itself again.

In 1983, with Thriller selling well, Jackson appeared on a Motown 25th Anniversary TV special. After much debate with the producers, he agreed to play a couple of Jackson 5 songs, but insisted on playing one of his current hits. It was on that show that he sang "Billie Jean" and performed the moonwalk for the first time. In that one show and moment, Michael Jackson told the world that the boomer's "Big Chill" era was over. He inherited it, but was not going to be bound by it. He moon-walked pop music into a different era.

Jackson released Bad in 1987 and it produced five Number One singles, but the magic culture-commanding moment had passed. The tours were immense, but already the "weirdness" had begun, as his face seemed to be something new and strange every time he appeared.

The tragedy of his child molestation charges (which were never proven) is that, even if he were truly innocent, his bizarre personal behavior/facial refigurations soured so much of the benefit of the doubt out of the minds of too many.

That said, Michael Jackson musically bridged the boomer soul-pop of the '60s, stood as a solitary shining light in the '70s and created the musical goulash of the early '80s. At his peak, no one worked harder to create musical perfection. He wanted a sound that had no defining color, appealed to the masses but was dynamic in a way that "pop" music traditionally wasn't perceived. His multiple plastic surgeries suggested he didn't like his own looks, and so was driven to produce outer aural beauty. For the generation that grew up in the shadow of the boomers, he was the perfect soundtrack and antidote to a chaotic childhood, a light in an at-times dark period.

That light has dimmed much earlier than it was supposed to. And a generation realizes that it's older than it thought it was.

UPDATE: The Motown 25 performance that put him and Thriller in a different orbit.

UPDATE II: Ta-Nehesi Coates has some great thoughts (and, d'oh! -- almost the exact same title as I used for a slightly different version of this I did for NBC's web-sites).

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