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Moonwalking towards Gomorrah

An unapologetic liberal, I confess that I am occasionally drawn to the cultural critique offered by the right. I thought of both Robert Borkshence the title of this postand Allan Blooms invocation of Michael Jackson as representative of the decline of Western civilization. Blooms chapter on contemporary music in The Closing of the American Mind is a must read. Here is one memorable paragraph.Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs . . . And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feeling are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.I like Michael Jacksons music and dancing as much as the next middle-aged white guy, but I couldnt help but recall this passage as I watched the inexplicable outpouring of grief over Jacksons death.



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Bloom's rings hollow - at least in this instance. I was reading Aristophanes' "Clouds" last night, and was struck by a line in which Strepseides expresses frustration with his son, who "never cuts his hair."Let teenagers be teenagers - they're hardly the lens through which an entire culture can or should be judged. That applies doubly to their musical tastes.

That would be Bloom's criticism.

Let teenagers be teenagers theyre hardly the lens through which an entire culture can or should be judged. That applies doubly to their musical tastes.But the state of contemporary popular culture is undeniably retrograde, in the sense that, far from helping provide support for sublimation of unruly impulses, it (popular culture) encourages the unleashing of those impulses. The results are predictable: teen pregnancy, unwed mothers and fathers, gangsterism, ... There was even (is?) a band named Devolution that produced more than one song encouraging/glorifying, masturbation.

Check out this column today in the LA Times. I have no idea whether the writer is liberal or whatnot.,... much Michael Jackson?Newspaper editors and TV producers undercut the value of serious news media when they let website hits and social media volume dictate their coverage.Tim Rutten June 27, 2009Given his recklessly eccentric and peripatetic personal life, Michael Jackson's premature death seems almost foreordained -- one of those deaths Yeats had in mind when he wrote of a friend's lost son: "What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?"Still, the global outpouring of grief and the frenzy of public attention focused since Thursday on Jackson's death is an acknowledgment not only of his popularity but of the reach and influence of America's most successful export: popular culture. Jackson was an icon and, in the end, perhaps, a prisoner of that now all-pervasive, world-girdling force...

The racial importance of Michael Jackson breaking into big time stardom through Motown and MTV is a point not to be missed.The Jackson five songs of old to an oldster like me were real fun -by the time of "Thriller", I didn't care.Folks of different ages and backgrounds will view his cultural impact differently (and maybe their prisms may not always be nice.)But his cultural impact was and is enormous and should not be easily fliped off.His personal story is another story...

The operative word for explaining the Michael Jackson is, I think, "moonwalk". He had some "moves", as the kids say, and none more distinctive than that remarkable ability he had to look like he came from nowhere and was inevitably going nowhere. Godot on his way to the ones who wait for him. It allowed him to stick to one short measure of time, to not-look-back and not-look-forward, to live in the momeent, a literally dazzling moment lit by his super-dazzling clothers. He had some other moves, but none of them lasted more than two seconds, and he was always changing directions, never leaving NOW, as if he lived in a succession of utterly discrete instants, with only the boring thump of rock rhythim to paste the moments together. Great for highly rhythmic, staccato sort of dancing (and he was a truly great dancer), but not the stuff which a whole life can be made of. No continuity. No real connections. No real self. I'd say his dancing was the end-point of the Humean nihilism that's been creeping up on the West since the Scottish Enlightenment. Odd how insidious philosophy can be, considering the books are there for all to read.See? Philosophy eventually seeps into the general culture like it or not. Oh sure, Michael Jackson was more complicated than just his dancing. But the Humean cultural nadir explains a lot of why he appealed to so many. He embodied the cheap values of the day, the fugitive, hedonistic pleasures always so popular when people are given nothing more solid, no real program of what it is to be a fully human being. He himself, poor man, ended up like Dorian Gray, deteriorating instant by instant, instant by instant. Sad, sad, sad.

Great post. With the self-centered excesses of being an adolescent in modernity still fresh in my mind, I can't help but agree with Bloom's critique. Jackson's life was tragic and a cause for reflection on how modern mass culture-- along with its corrupting handmaidens of materialism and consumerism--can be as physically destructive as it is spiritually destructive. Instead, the usual suspects are offering Jackson's death as yet another libation on the altar of celebrity. I was much attracted by the theatre, because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire. Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage, although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet where he suffers himself, we call it misery: when he suffers out of sympathy with others, we call it pity. But what sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage? The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author. Whether this human agony is based on fact or is simply imaginary, if it is acted so badly that the audience is not moved to sorrow, they leave the theatre in a disgruntled and critical mood; whereas, if they are made to feel pain, they stay to the end watching happily.--St. Augustine, Confessions, Book III, 2.

Wow, Ann. Very interesting. Let me add something on a much lighter note. My friends who are Boston Red Sox fans are repeating the joke told after Bill Buckner booted a routine ground ball resulting in the loss of game 6 for Boston in the 1986 World Series. Question: How is Bill Buckner like Michael Jackson? Answer: Both wear a glove on one hand for no apparent reason.

It might be interesting for a dance critic to compare the glorious James Cagney tap-dancing on the bar (I forget which movie) and Gene Kelley dancing in the rain with Michael Jackson and various forms of "art dance these days. Gesture is more expressive than words anyday.

"Kids, who can tel lwhat's wrong with these kids today?'Why can't they be like we wer, perfect in every way?What's the matter with kids today?"Bye Bye birdie

His undeniable talent, especially his dancing, masked to some extent, the popularity among large segments of the population of wanting to be seen as bad. Not necessarily evil, but bad, as in bad boy (girl), dangerous, rebellious...Is this a faint echo of Aleister Crowley's command, Do What Thy Wilt, no qualifiers.

I put Michael Jackson and Elvis in the same category--and don't forget the former married the latter's only daughter.They both had a great deal of talent, and through that talent, some way to connect ordinary human beings to something transcendent. And they both had their demons.Their deaths, for the respective generations involved, hit harder because it seemed, in some way, that they could escape it. Jackson's Peter Pan. Elvis in those Hawaii movies.I think the quote from Bloom is too pretentious, and too mean to teenagers. One could write just as mean and pompous a sentence about middle-aged men obsessing about titanium golf clubs, etc.

Michael Jackson popularized various styles of pre-existing street dancing, such as "popping" and "locking". The Moonwalk is really the 'backslide' perfected by street poppers in the 1970s. To credit Michael Jackson with the decline of civilization is insane. He adopted what was basically the 'people's dance' and polished its form into theatrical entertainment.To all you people philosophizing about Michael Jackson's dancing (!), just take a listen again to your (no doubt) vinyl records of Mozart and Bach. You'll hear plenty of folk dances and tunes polished into a classical form. As for pop music, yeah the beats are hot but the lyrics are vapid. If you want the other way around, try Roger Waters (one of my favorites, actually).

Brian,Please read more carefully. I didn't say that Michael Jackson *caused* the decline of civilization. I said he was the *end point* of the process of enculturalization that started back in the 18th century with Hume's skepticism, hedonism, and abandonment of a persistent self. Surely you don't maintain that poor Michael had an awareness of a valuable underlying self, do you? As has been noted before, he turned his own face into what seemed to be a mask! He was victim, not victimizer, as far as I can see. My point is that we are consciously or unconsciously products of what prior thinkers have thought and of their imposition of those thoughts on history. Like it or not, we are shaped by the past, and, as FAulkner put it, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even really past". If you prefer your influences to be unconscious ones, go right ahead and ignore what went before. But don't be surprised when your life ends differently from what you had expected or hoped for.One more word of advice from an old fogey: you can't really reject the past unless you know it very well. So study the historians and read those classics. You can't throw bombs very effectively unless you know what the targets really are.

Listen here, whippersnapper. Back in my day, we had respect for the elderly. Fred Astaire may not have held his crotch and Ginger may not have had any wardrobe malfunctions, but they could dance circles around Michael and Janet. And it just drives me up the Wall when youngsters drop no-names like Roger Waters. So there.

I think that some of the comments here in relationship to critique of popular culture would have been more applicable to Lady Dis death. The only basis for my dissent on that score with some of the other posters here, is that while Michael Jackson did possess some of what is being described, he ALSO had authentic, God given artistic ability in terms of dance and music. And he devoted his entire life to its perfection. I think that is what is being celebrated in his death.I listened to an interview with Miles Davis once and he was asked to define jazz. He didnt much care for the term jazz, let alone smooth or west coast jazz. He said, in his view, jazz is the music of the people.Jacksons art wasnt exactly of that caste but he popularized it and that is not a bad thing.Michael Jackson popularized very classical art forms such as dance and the artistic community is acknowledging the contribution and sheer talent of his dance. I have never been an afffecianado of dance. However, I remember once seeing an interpretive dance piece and I understood completely what the dancer was communicating through her movement. It was an epiphany and began my appreciation of that form of art. In Jacksons dance I can see razor sharp precision and movement. It is incredible!The artist has no obligation whatsoever to anything other than his or her art or craft. Michael Jackson lived and died that vocation - the vocation of the artist.

I think it is a safe bet that Bloom won't be an invited guest to Jackson's memorial service/seance/funeral/whatever.Ann, the comparison of "Jacko" to Dorian Grey is perfect!

Re: Jackson as an "icon."Icon is used, particularly in modern culture, in the general sense of symbol i.e. a name, face, picture, edifice or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance.And his significance was ?????

Fred Astaire may not have held his crotch and Ginger may not have had any wardrobe malfunctions, but they could dance circles around Michael and Janet.While I think it makes about as much sense to compare Michael Jackson and Fred Astaire as it would to compare Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti, nevertheless, here are a couple of quotes about Michael Jackson from Fred Astair himself.

"Oh, God! That boy moves in a very exceptional way. Thats the greatest dancer of the century. - Fred AstaireI didnt want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you Michael!- Fred Astaire (shortly before his death)

Blooms chapter on contemporary music in The Closing of the American Mind is a must read. I have not read The Closing of the American Mind, -- and if that quotations is representative, I am not inclined to -- but the contemporary music of 1987 is not the contemporary music of 2009. By today's standards, Michael Jackson was tame.I don't see how there is any comparison at all between Dorian Gray and Michael Jackson. Dorian Gray sold his soul so he could retain his physical beauty. I have been struck by what a good looking person the young Michael Jackson was. I had really forgotten. But with his many plastic surgeries and skin treatments, he turned himself into a genderless, colorless, almost noseless humanoid. It's almost the exact opposite of Dorian Gray.

Phooey on the myopia and snobbery of critics. Here's Gilbert Seldes. esteemed cultural critic, waxing elequently in 1922 (and exhibiting the blatant racism of his day) on the superiority of 'white' popular musicians of the caliber of Paul Whiteman(?) compared to black musicians. How many people this side of 70 even know who Paul Whiteman was, compared to say, Ellington or Basie?The apocalyptic tone of this echos a few of the foregoing comments and the inital note -- preserving the last vestigers of a dying civilization, indeed! To me, it's the same old stuff.I say the negro is not our salvation because with all my feeling for what he instinctively offers, for his desirable indifference to our set of conventions about emotional decency [!], I am on the side of civilization. To anyone who inherits several thousand centuries of civilization, none of the things the negro offers can matter unless they are apprehended by the mind as well as by the body and the spirit....There will always exist wayward, instinctive, and primitive geniuses who will affect us directly, without the interposition of the intellect; but if the process of civilization continues (will it? I am not so sure, nor entirely convinced that it should) the greatest art is likely to be that in which an uncorrupted sensibility is worked by a creative intelligence. So far in their music the negroes have given their response to the world with an exceptional naivete', a directness of expression which has interested our minds as well as touched our emotions; they have shown comparatively little evidence of the functioning of their intelligence.Nowhere is the failure of the negro to exploit his gifts more obvious than in the use he has made of the jazz orchestra; for although nearly every negro jazz band is better than nearly every white band, no negro band has yet come up to the level of the best white ones, and the leader of the best of all, by a little joke, is called Whiteman....[To the negro], [t]he shakes, thrills, vibratos, smears, and slides are natural... although they produce tones outside the scale, because he has never been tutored into a feeling for perfect tones, as white men have; and he uses these with a great joy in the surprise they give, in the way they adorn or destroy a melody; he is given also to letting instruments follow their own bent, because he has a faultless sense of rhythm and he always comes out right in the end.

Did Michael Jackson invent original sin and is the Enlightenment now the decline of civilization?Michael had his problems and the difference with many is that his were on public view. He did have many redeeming qualities. But his art was unmatched. We can choose to center on the crotch grabbing and the bad boy video. But beyond that this was a singular art that may have been unmatched in song and dance. He appeared to have quite a heart, imperfect as he (and we) are. I am betting the Lord forgives and pray for the Lord's light on a remarkable person of our time.

Though I think some of the accolades are a bit over the top, I agree with George D. Compared to the ridiculous frenzy that accompanied the death of Princess Di, or even Tim Russert or JFK Jr., eulogies to Jackson are tame and are most definitely grounded in what he did not who he was. I think his music was good for what it purported to be -- I don't think I ever heard anything he did that I didn't like, and I honestly love some of it. His voice was special -- listening to him sing a cappella at the age of 11 or 12 still gives me chills. And his dancing was special. The ability to make the complicated look simple, and to make the simple grab your attention and hold it -- you have that talent or you don't, and he most certainly did. He had high standards and it seems unfair to lump him with the made for video mediocre talents who tried to emulate him. The fact that his personal life was so bizarre seems to have made people more not less judicious in talking about him after the fact. It comes as no surprise to learn that he was grievously abused and lonely as a child.

ETH is spot on. But I'm doubtful that the self-centered excesses of adolescence are fresh in his mind. If I'm wrong, he is wise well beyond his years.

David Nickol,I've read somewhere too that Fred Astaire was extremely impressed by Jackson after the first moonwalk performance. Closing of the American Mind is worth reading in entirety. Because it has been so well known, I assume it isn't hard to find a solid summary somewhere on the web. But the whole thing is, again, worth reading. Even if you would disagree with some or all of its arguments. (I, for one, disagree with at least some its critique of popular culture in a democratic society.) For educated but non-specialist readers like myself, Bloom was a really good writer of prose about political philosophy (the sort found in Peter Berkowitz today).Also give Bloom's Love and Friendship a shot - you or readers of Jane Austen's P&P. It's published in draft form because Bloom died before revision, so is kind of clunky. But worth reading because there are countless insights in every single chapter. (The spirit of Rousseau also runs through the book from start to end.)

In the late 1960s I was working at the Central Harlem branch of Family and Community Services, a division of Catholic Charities. The office was on the corner of West 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. From the window of my office I could see the marquee of the Apollo Theater. One of the things I most remember was how, walking along 125th Street, it seemed you heard a single sound coming from all the record stores on the street: the sound of the Jackson Five. I didnt follow Michael Jackson after that. Today I was struck by several things I found on the internet. One, on the N.Y. Times home page, was a quote from a woman in Australia: As a troubled child myself, your music gave me hope and comfort and kept me alive. Another, from Martin Scorcese, reminded me of the Fred Astaire quotes posted earlier on this thread:

Michael Jackson was extraordinary. When we worked together on Bad, I was in awe of his absolute mastery of movement on the one hand, and of the music on the other. Every step he took was absolutely precise and fluid at the same time. It was like watching quicksilver in motion.He was wonderful to work with, an absolute professional at all times, and it really goes without saying a true artist.

The last one, titled Thinking About Michael, was posted on Andrew Sullivans blog:

There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age - and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life. But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell. I loved his music. His young voice was almost a miracle, his poise in retrospect eery, his joy, tempered by pain, often unbearably uplifting. He made the greatest music video of all time; and he made some of the greatest records of all time. He was everything our culture worships; and yet he was obviously desperately unhappy, tortured, afraid and alone. I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours' and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out. I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life. And I pray that such genius will not be so abused again.

"I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out."I would say that this is over the top and misleading. Since the beginning of the world no culture has been ideal or perfect. We fantasize the Middle Ages but it contains some of the worst murderers in history. Culture will always have what we term "original sin." So culture does not create nor destroy us. Michael made choices and so do we. We speak of the mercy of God with just cause. But if we can return to his art as George D and Barbara do we see something so special which even distinguished him among the gifted.

I think Michal Jackson had a great deal of talent, and frankly I hadn't paid that much attention to the talent until the media forced us to take this trip down memory lane. He was such a natural from the beginning, and he did it all, such as the musical writing as well as the dance arrangements. It wasn't until Thriller that everything started falling apart, and we could no longer hold the word "talent" in our heads with the name Michael Jackson because of his subsequent outlandish choices. May he rest in peace!

Bill Mazzella:You call Sullivans post over the top and misleading. Specifically, you say culture does not create nor destroy us, as if you were rebutting Sullivan. But he never said its as simple as that. He said that Jackson bears responsibility for his bizarre life quite similar to your he made choices. Sullivan simply added this: it wasnt only a question of those choices; the culture bears some responsibility, too.

Gene --I wonder how much responsibility Jackson bears for his own life. And was he an awful person? I doubt it. Crazy, yes, bad, no. Last night MsNBC played a remarkable series fo BBCf interviews with him. Poor man, poor man. His father (who had been a boxer) beat him and the other children brutally and made fun of Micheal's nose unmercifully. (That explains that, o doubt) Jackson said that fortunately he was fast so his father caught him only half the time, but then it was "terrifying". Anyway, Michael struck me as more than a little crazy. For instance, he denied over and over that he had had more than two plastic surgery operations and claimed that his white skin was a result of virtiligo *a disease which results in patchy skin). I think he actually believed what he was saying. He was obviously highly intelligent. There is an interview of him in a room at an antique store filled with objects he has already bought for a house he would build later. Exquisite stuff of the highest quality craftsmanship, I think he was simply a child among children, and quite lost. I might be naive, but I was convinced that the sexual charges against him were untrue.Complexity, complexity.

I suspect an Allan Bloom of the future will be extolling Michael Jackson at the expense of some future cultural reprobate--perhaps another Lord Bryon, e.g.? just ain't what it used to be. What upsets me most about the outpouring for Jackson--an absolutely boffo talent who was almost as personally disreputable as, Jerry Lee Leis or Frank Sinatra--is that Farrah Fawcett's passing was buried under the avalnache.

I'm less willing than Paul to concede the high ground to conservatives on this one. Substitute Bernie Madoff or Mark Sanford into the Bloom quote and it still largely fits. People in their forties or seventies are no less apt to be a drain on their culture and milieu than 1987's thirteen-year-old, who today may well be your solid citizen down the block, dismayed now over lost investments or the implosion of conservative morality.Each of the last three generations have seen its elders wring hands over the state of popular music. A few things: individual artists are almost always pawns of corporations looking to maximize profit. Jackson was seemingly no exception, and it seems likely he was a pawn of his own posse, too: people looking to maximize their own gravy train.While I might be dismayed at the anger of popular music--quite a lot of it from about 1970 on, it's increasingly difficult to take seriously those who protest against it, given that one can read similar diatribes in previous American generations and going back to the Renaissance. Either we've been on a 600-year decline in Western culture or there are some serious Chicken Littles on the loose from the henhouse.

BTW, Allan Bloom used to say that he is not a conservative. The full quote:"I am not a conservative - neo or paleo. Conservatism is a respectable outlook, and its adherents usually have to have some firmness of character to stick by what is so unpopular in universities. I just do not happen to be that animal. Any superficial reading of my book will show that I differ from both theoretical and practical conservative positions."

At the genuinely conservative First Things blog, Richard Scott Nokes compares MJ and the story of Saint Guinefort, and sees the veneration of the pop star as a failure of the Church:

In both cases, the cults were propelled by two engines: the ignorance of the people, and the desire to venerate. As with the angels, we are created as creatures of praise. We seem to be hardwired to praise something, to worship anything. Just as we will eat rotten food and filthy water if no healthy food and clean water are available, we will venerate dogs and celebrities if we see no truly worthy objects of veneration before us.Etiennes effort to stamp out the cult of Guinefort failed because he did not address the need of the people to venerate. Their impulse was good; it was simply directed at the wrong object and without providing a new object for veneration, Etienne was dooming the people of Sandrans to eventually drift back to their old ways.It does the Church little good to cluck and shake our heads at the dismaying display of veneration for Michael Jackson, for in truth he is a martyr, a martyr to our cultures true god: Celebrity. If we simply cut down Celebritys Asherah polesJohn & Kate, Paris Hilton, Barack Obamawe leave the job half-completed, ensuring new idols will spring up in their place. If we take away rotten food and filthy water, we must replace it with healthy meat and milk. The worship of false saints, be they greyhounds or pop stars, needs to be replaced by the worship of the Lord. As the Philistines found with their idol Dagon, false idols cannot stand in the face of the one true Lord (1 Sam 5:2-5).

Michael Jackson was a creep. If we apply the standards of the Dallas Charter, he was absolutely a child abuser. I'm disgusted that the wall-to-wall media celebration of his death has papered this over. And I'm surprised that contributors and commenters on this blog, usually not reticient in condemning members of the clergy who have done much less, have not spoken up about this.I'm sorry he died, to the extent I'm sorry when I hear about other complete strangers who die, and I hope he is in God's hands. But in adulthood, he was a foul person. May God have mercy on his soul.

Jim,Michael Jackson was an artist, and I think he is being celebrated for his art, not his private life. I have gone back and watched a couple of his performances, and he was not merely good. He was astonishing.I think perhaps in his private life, he was more pathetic than foul. I think that's probably true of a lot of members of the clergy who have abused young people as well. We are always so horrified when a child is abused (and of course rightly so), but when that child becomes an adult and abuses children himself, then the child who was so pitied as a victim becomes an adult who is loathed for being a victimizer. If the sexual abuse of children did them no harm, then there would be little reason to be upset about it. And yet when the abused becomes the abuser -- when the damage of child abuse manifests itself in later life, as it so frequently does -- there's no mercy. On the one hand we almost always have to hold people responsible for their actions as adults no matter how badly they suffered as children, unless they are downright insane. On the other hand, it's kind of like slashing children with knives and then blaming them for having scars when they grow up. May God have mercy on all our souls.

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