Friday, July 10, 2009


Saying Michael Jackson isn't culturally relevant seems as silly as claiming Elvis or the Beatles or Bob Dylan aren't culturally significant. Yet two weeks after his death, it still seems to be hip among my friends and the interweb to poo-poo Michael Jackson's cultural relevance. I think that stance was difficult to uphold in the days after he died (especially considering he basically broke the internet in the hours immediately after the announcement of his passing), and has not gotten any easier since. Perhaps Jackson hasn't been musically relevant in a good 15 years, but his cultural significance has remained by virtue of the quality of his '80s music output and his personal and legal issues in the interim.

How else do you explain the sales figures still being reported from Billboard regarding how much Jackson music is moving even now? From June 29 through July 05 (Billboard uses SoundScan to capture data on a Monday to Sunday calendar), Jackson's solo catalog moved 800,000 copies in the U.S. alone. That breaks down to roughly 650,000 physical albums and 150,000 downloaded albums.

SoundScan also reports Jackson owns the top album spot this week with Number Ones, and he holds the top two spots on Billboard's Top Comprehensive Albums chart with Number Ones and Thriller.

Jackson died on a Thursday, so posthumous sales the week of his death really only account for sales made Thursday evening through Sunday night, yet he held eight of the top ten spots on the Top Pop Catalog Albums chart. This week, he has captured all ten spots at the top of that chart. (Numbers one through six and eight through ten are solo, number seven is a Jackson 5 album.)

Despite the fact that I'm amazed so many people didn't have Jackson's music in their collections already, and even more amazed at the shot in the arm Jackson's death has meant to the sales of physical albums, I don't understand how you make a case for his cultural insignificance. I would argue that his last relevant album was 1991's Dangerous, but culturally his entire musical output, his position as a fashion icon, and the freak show quality of his both his celebrity and personal life solidify his relevance.

The holy trinity of '80s pop, consisting of Jackson, Madonna and Prince, will always have cultural relevance as well, regardless of child abuse scandals, adoption problems, or record label lawsuits.


LoneWolfArcher said...

Interesting take Adam. I guess my only argument is that I am not sure popularity is a good gauge of cultural relevance, nor quality of artistry. Otherwise it could be argued that New Kids On The Block and Britney Spears are also cultural icons.

MJ's talent was off the charts, however the last 19 years of his life were nothing short of a senseless, tragic disaster.

Mark Sample said...

Oh, no -- I'm stuck defending something I don't know I really believe! (This happens more and more when there's a five-year-old around, asking things like what happens when you die or why can't you walk down the street naked.)

My tweet ("Is anybody besides me willing to argue that The A-Team was more culturally significant in the eighties than Michael Jackson?") was half-cocked hyperbole, aimed at the even more hyperbolic coverage of MJ's life and death. (For example, despite the already sanctified media myth, MTV did in fact play music videos from black musicians before Jackson came along.)

I can't deny that in terms of record-sales, Michael Jackson is and will remain a brand name to be reckoned with, but I don't want to mistake popularity for relevance, or celebrity for significance. MJ is definitely an icon, but he's also a bit of an empty signifier, a blank page we can project almost anything onto. (Something he no doubt encouraged throughout his career.)

My A-Team reference was a bit facetious, but in some sense, absolutely true for me on a personal level. Of the 12,000 or so tracks in my music collection, exactly one features Michael Jackson ("ABC" by the Jackson Five). Both now and in the eighties the man simply wasn't on my radar screen (nor were the other titans of eighties pop, Madonna or Prince). Whereas I never missed an episode of The A-Team, and when I go back and rewatch the show, I have to say that there's more going on in any single A-Team episode, politically, economically, racially, and historically speaking, than in any MJ song or video.

And don't even get me started on the cultural significance of Manimal.

Mark Sample said...

One more thought on Michael Jackson and cultural significance...

I'm not qualified to psychoanalyze MJ's life (I doubt anyone is), but I think a case could be made that Jackson himself was insecure about his own relevance. This explains why he sought to attach himself to the two greatest musical phenomena of the 20th century that preceded him: The Beatles, by outbidding Paul McCartney in 1984 for the rights to the Lennon-McCartney song catalog; and Elvis, by marrying Lisa Marie Presley ten years later in 1994, thus becoming Elvis's posthumous son-in-law.

In Jackson's mind, these earlier musicians were talismans, whose aura might burnish his own uncertain image.