Friday, June 26, 2009
Madonna and Michael Jackson were born about two weeks apart, in August 1958, and in effect grew up to be twins. The pair dominated pop music and pop culture for over twenty-years. They dated, in that arranged marriage manner superstars do, and briefly shared a manager in Freddy de Mann. Once Jackson had dubbed himself "the King of Pop" (an move entirely evocative of Napoleon crowning himself Emperor at Notre Dame )it was not long before Madonna was given her title as the Queen. To watch them perform you can see the two clearly in dialogue, look at Madonna's pointed reference to Jackson's signature crotch-grab in her Express Yourself video for a prime example.
Gender and sexuality are lightning points for both stars, in Jackson's out and out refusal to ever discuss the subject frankly (and the ensuing speculation), and diametrically, Madonna's endless reworkings of sexual politics. Just as Madonna is the butch, ballsy, masculine, muscular woman, Jackson was the effeminate, giggling, waif-like man, she is the dominant Mother, he the perpetual child, and both oddly asexual.
But, when does eccentricity become sinister? In Jackson's whimsical persona, tinged as it was by constant scandal and discussion of his sexualities, it becomes profoundly clear how close the parts of Peter Pan and Dracula are. Neverland becomes Castle Bran, Jackson could only refuse to play by the rules for so long before his chimp-loving showmanship becomes tainted with bestial hints, and his unconventional relationships with Peter and Wendy become decidedly dark (if only in the rumours and terrifying potentials).
The pair represent not only two decades of music, gossip, videos, concert tours, endless imitations and countless other cultural products, but also a particular way of being. They're the musical equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor (of course, Jackson's best friend) in that they were they last of their kind, and saw the culture they exemplified fracture around them. As Taylor came out of the golden age of cinema, coming of age as arguably the last great Hollywood star, Jackson and Madonna represent a time in music before albums were disregarded for playlists, when the media sought to make stars untouchable, before the invention of the ubiquitous and banal "down to Earth" pose of contemporary celebrities.
With the fragmentation and apparent democratisation of the media (itself a bluff), the collapse of the music industry as we have known it, and the increased cynicim of a technologically equipped public, who can now snap a celeb on a cell phone and have it seen around the world instantaneously, the mythology of celebrity has decayed. In short we have, like Jackson himself in The Wiz, seen the tricks behind the curtain. Only instead of shuddering in contempt and realising how foolish we've been to idolize so feverently, we've all decided, "Hey, I can do that!", we've all taken up arms and become pseudo-stars ourselves. Witness the British Home Secretary and the Singaporean Foreign Minister commenting on Jackson's death via twitter and facebook respectively to see the abandonment of professionalism for "cool", even in the highest positions of power, as celebrity itself (ie how well know a person is) has entirely overtaken what a person's actual function or relevance is.
Madonna of course remains the ultimate in celebrity, and with Jackson's demise she must feel ever more the pressures of extinction. She is quoted as saying; "I can't stop crying," over the news, and one wonders if she also weeps for herself. Having lost the only other person alive who knows what it is to be what she is, surely she feels a chill somewhere between das unheimlich and "there but for the grace of God". Seeing a megastar (what a strangely '90s turn of phrase that seems) equal only to herself expire, must be the boldest reassurance of mortality she's ever received - yes, stars really do die.
For all his surgical operations, which can be read as attempts to move himself beyond the confines of being human, Jackson is dead. And Madonna will not be sustained by macrobiotic diets and seven-hour gym workouts eternally. Both figures have made themselves seem superhuman, and that is the coldest cut, because they have duped us (ie we have duped ourselves via US Weekly) into believing we can beat death/God/life/nature/existence/decay, that sarcasm and self-tan will preserve us.
Perpetually burned into our consciousness via an MTV they defined, Madonna and Michael Jackson, like Hansel and Gretel, offer us a horrible (a)moral tale.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Reading Roland Barthes' Mythologies and finding myself to be in a situation worthy of his thinking.
I am spending a week at my Mother's house, where in spite of the chaos of my seven siblings, she keeps a pristine room waiting for me. Stepping into it (cleanly decorated, a closet full of clothes I used to wear, unlit candles in an alcove, the strange sensation of sheets always clean and never slept in) I can't but feel that I'm dead. That I'm visiting the room that is a memorial to me, that I am the ghost in my bedroom.
Recently it was my birthday and coincidentally a charity shop in the neighbourhood was going out of business. My Mother and sister bought all the merchandise at a reduced rate, for me, so now my bedroom is also full of some other (dead) people's clothing, mountains of it. One particular fellow's relatives apparently donated his entire wardrobe to charity; in amongst the bags full of 'seventies sportswear and hundreds of neckties, I found three tweed suits, all tailor made for this man. Whoever he was. I am a phantom in a dead man's sportscoat, and most of the clothes are to big for me, but, wouldn't it be fascinating to wear nothing but other people's clothes for a while?
At the bottom of a shoe box I found a section of newspaper from a decade ago, full of funny pictures, dedicated to dogs at the beach. Even the dead have a sense of humour. Obviously here I have to reminisce about Camera Lucida and thus we close the circle.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Drag queens (and vogue balls) are currently the biggest thing in pop music; it seems like you can't be a pop star without a tranny in your video. Of course it's a time honored tradition, a trail blazed by Madonna and Annie Lennox, it's a pop video trope now, but never has it been so predominant. Roisin Murphy has club kid trannys in her Movie Star video, Florence and the Machine has one in Rabbit Heart,whilst Kelly Rowland and Ciara both have singles named for the ubiquitous queenly phrase, "Work". Beyonce of course has a whole drag identity in the guise of Sahsa Fierce, becoming at once her own fan, her own inspiration and her own replication.
Hats off to those artists excited to involve people of magical identities in their work, in front of the camera, but it does of course beg the question, "When will sisters do it for themselves?" It's been a longtime since Ru Paul sashayed into the charts.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I watched How To Marry a Millionaire last night and (dialogues on sex and class aside) I was most capitavated by all of the visual gags, metaphors, and euphemisms for loss of sight.
Most obviously, Marilyn Monroe as the visually impaired Pola, stumbles around the film walking into walls and mitaking burglars for house guests. Afraid that no-one will love her with her spectacles on ("Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses," as she puts it) she sacrifices her vision for an ideal vision of herself. After mistakenly taking a plane to Kansas City when she had intended Atlantic City, Pola ends up seated next to her future husband who is also, "blind as a bat," and whom she has unwittingly met twice before. He is the man who persuades her to keep her glasses on, and well, from then on she sees everything differently, even ditching her gold-digging plans to go underground with her fugitive lover.
Lauren Bacall, as Schatze, is equally unable to see what's right under her nose, continually rejecting Tom Brookman, and his $300 million fortune, mistaking him for, "a gas pump jockey," due to his continual lack of a necktie. Though she loves him, she turns Tom down and almost weds a man she knows to be, "loaded," J.D. Hanley. J.D. asks her, "Do you believe in love at first sight," a question which brings us immediately back to Schatze's first, dismissive meeting with Tom, and her admitted attraction to, "grease monkeys." Her desire is in plain sight here, but love is not the aim of her game, so she tries to disguise the obvious by telling J.D. how ardently she believes in love at first sight, and teasingly, adds fifteen years to her age to make them look like a more compatiable couple. Of course, with age her suitor has developed clearer sight and announces that though it would thrill him endlessly to marry her, "nothing would be worse for you." Though he doesn't quite recognise himself to be on the doorstep of a marriage of convenience, he's still sharp enough to see the relationship for the dead end it is. Meanwhile of course, Schatze sees no other alternative to her dire financial situation, and constantly bemoans her secret millionaire suitor (Tom) for his lack of assets.
Up in Maine, Betty Grable's character, Loco, tends to an admirer she mistakenly agreed to spend the weekend with, alone. He is obsessed with not being seen together with Loco, being that he's a married man, and goes to great lengths to avoid detection. Falling ill with measles, and with Loco as his nursemaid, we see him bedridden with cooling pads of cotton on his eyes, unable to watch over Loco who starts a genuine affair with a ranger. The ranger shows Loco all the land that is 'his', and in viewing the panorama she is convinced he must be a timber tycoon and thus falls for him. Realising she has mis-seen, Loco later has to break it off, only for the characters of both admirers to be fully revealed when she is caught on camera with her grumpy millionaire in front of a pack of paparazzi. Her ranger however comes through as an allr-round good guy and the two marry. There's some sort of "true riches" metaphor running here, but you can look at that in your own time.
Bacall, Monroe and Grable all play models in the film, and in one of the most famous scenes, they display the Summer beach collection for Mr Brookman's private perusal. The tension her between the women the ladies and Tom is of particular note, he in effect conjures them up, they materialise before his eyes, on his command, he forces them to be seen. The rub is that Schatze still steadfastly refuses to see him for what he is.
Interestingly all three female leads have two love interests pursuing them throughout. Schatze has the millionaire she can see and the one hidden from her. Pola has her phoney tycoon, who himself wears an eye-patch, and the near-sighted man she marries, who is never seen without sunglasses or spectacles. Loco is stuck in the cabin with the rich man and the ranger. All three ladies marry the apparently flat-broke men over the millionaires, and it is not until the final scene that Tom comes into focus as the well-heeled gent he is. Of course, upon the revelation of this hum-dinger all three wives faint (off-camera) and disappear with a thud, out of sight.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
The latest elections in the UK have unsurprisingly proven the country's dismay with the current Labour government, and complete incapacity to think outside of the box. As though unable to remember the horrors of the last Conservative government with the accompanying attacks on single Mothers, en masse privitisation of anything to hand and entirely paralytic policies on Europe, the Tories gained 200 seats. Oh yes. And worse still, the British National Party won three county council seats. If you aren't familiar with the work of the BNP, they're the smiling face of British fascism, they're brown shirts in cheap suits. I am utterly horrified, especially as one of their seats is in my home county of Lancashire. Here's Morrissey's view.