Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

>sigh.< I know I'm not going to win this, but…

…I’m going to write it anyway.

So my buddy Adam – a huge music enthusiast – wrote this blog entry about Michael Jackson’s legacy, mentioning my Tweet about Jackson and U2.

Look: I don’t stand a chance in a musical debate with Adam. He knows his stuff inside and out while I tend to write about music – on the rare occasions that I do – from a very “in my gut” standpoint that’s rarely defensible through means other than, “I dunno, I just like it.”

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not saying Jackson was culturally insignificant, and I’m not saying that he wasn’t, infact, at his peak, probably the most powerful popular culture force on the planet. I admit that I never understood the weird, panting, teary-eyed throngs of devoted admirers, but I’m not denying that he shaped pop music and the music video like nobody else.

All I meant in that Tweet was that I think U2 is a better musical force and in the long run, matters more in a bigger sense. (Also, for what it’s worth, I don’t think being relieved by the fact that more people wached Barack Obama’s inauguration than Michael Jackson’s funeral counts as “poo-poo”ing the latter’s legacy. If anything, doesn’t it just bolster the importance of the former?)

Here’s the U2 disclaimer: I’m not even a huge U2 fan.The only albums I own are The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, and Achtung Baby, and the second two were freebies. My wife owns How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

And yet I have said for years that I think pound-for-pound, U2’s long-term importance and impact surpasses most other rock bands and rivals even The Beatles. (My wife, a huge Beatles fan, will have none of this, of course. My argument in that case rests almost solely on longevity, but it’s not one I’m making here. That’s another day.)

As it happens this year marks 29 years since U2 released its first album, Boy, and coincidentally, Jackson’s solo discography spans 1972-2001, also a 29-year period.

The way I see it, nobody ever touches the way Jackson’s popularity spiked in the 1980s. For some reason, I keep visualizing this concept like icing spread on a cake, with the thickness of the icing at a given point representing popularity and influence. In Jackson’s case, the piece from the 1980s is just freaking smothered in it. Nobody else’s cake is ever going to have a piece so monumentally buried in this icing.

But after Bad, Jackson’s relevance starts its law-of-diminishing-returns cycle: His music becomes less important even as the sideshow aspect of his life takes over, and while that keeps him in the spotlight, I don’t think it keeps him culturally relevant.

U2 will never have that much icing on a single piece of its own cake. But then, neither does their presence and influence wax and wane as severely. Theirs is a cake with a moderately thick layer of icing, but far more uniformly spread, and frankly, it’s over a bigger cake, since their nearly-30-year album career is a cohesive band effort, while Michael’s first solo albums were still done within the context of the Jackson Five, and it’s only with Off the Wall that he comes truly into his own.

U2 released 12 albums from 1980-2009; Jackson ten albums in 29 years (and I’m not counting compilations and similar repackagings). And while Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987) without a doubt represent the domination of a decade, they also serve as a reminder that at best, Michael Jackson was truly and expansively relevant for roughly a single ten-year period.

The U2 music catalog, by contrast, is far more consistently meaningful and impactful over almost three full decades. Thematically, the group has almost always tackled far more difficult issues through its music than Jackson did, and stylistically, its members have never shied from drastic changes in sound and approach. (What knocked Thriller from its #1 album spot on the UK charts, by the way? War.)

Jackson was a genius at writing and performing and crafting pop, no doubt whatsoever. I’ll even say he may be the best ever in that regard, because despite my never having owned a Michael Jackson album, his songs will spiral up in my brain out of nowhere and sit there for DAYS. I will find myself whistling “Dirty Diana” for no reason, though I know maybe three words in the whole song. I’ll hum random segments from “Bad” when I’m in the car, though I haven’t heard the song in months.

But I’ll also say this: I’ve never heard a Michael Jackson song that really moved me. Never had a Michael Jackson song put a lump in my throat. Never got that gut-punch, heart-racing oh-my-God-I’ve-got-to-listen-to-that-again-RIGHT-NOW from a Michael Jackson song. I’ve never cranked the volume, rolled down the windows, hit the gas and sung along out-of-tune and at the top of my lungs because it felt so damn good to a Michael Jackson song.

Again, not even being what I’d call a U2 fan, I can name songs that hit those emotional notes without even thinking hard: “Bullet the Blue Sky”, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “Desire” and “All I Want is You”, right off the top of my head.

Explain the current soaring Jackson music sales? Doesn’t the spike almost, in fact, prove how much his relevance had faded? Where was his relevance in April? Everybody’s getting their fix because the last time they bought a brand new Jackson album was in 2001, and their Thriller cassettes and first-release Bad CDs are long gone.

There’s also this: Our generation, the one which grew up on old-school MTV and fueled the Michael Jackson ’80s, is one well-noted for its obsession with that decade and the pop culture of our youth. We flock to VH-1’s parade of retro shows, and we carry touchstones of that age into today’s realm. I point you to the fact that my daughter and her friends all know the words to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’“, and this was before she even knew I had the Greatest Hits CD in the car.

Again, I’m notnotNOT a music scholar, and when I try to write things like this I always feel like I’ve jumped around and not supported myself very well, especially coming up against Adam. And again, I’m not saying that at his peak, Michael Jackson wasn’t a pop song revolutionary and spectacular presence who just about ruled the freaking world, and I’m not saying that his death isn’t awfully damn tragic, especially given his musical magic and his troubled roller coaster of a life.

But I think that life will wind up casting the longer shadow. And that’s sad.

July 10, 2009 - Posted by | 1980s, Current Affairs, eighties, Music | , ,


  1. Wow, when you step in it you REALLY step in it. ;-)

    Comment by Jim | July 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] (just as my 5th grade soccer teammate John Booth’s U2 tweet, also mentioned by Adam, was true for him). Of the 12,000 or so tracks in my music collection, exactly one features Michael Jackson […]

    Pingback by SAMPLE REALITY · Michael Jackson and Cultural Relevance | July 11, 2009 | Reply

  3. Hear hear, Mr. Booth!

    I totally agree. I have zero MJ songs in my collection as I was never a huge fan. Yes, he had a large pop culture impact but I see it more for the dance moves and general circus that seemed to follow him more than for actual singing talent. I grant that’s probably not fair as I’m focusing more on the last 25 years of his life, rather than the first 25 but it’s what sticks.

    U2, however, I own more than a few albums and truly feel their lasting legacy will be excellent music + honest philanthropy while still remaining seemingly “normal” guys. Plus, they’ve remained friends and bandmates for over 30 years with very little lull in the timeframe. That’s a pretty stellar accomplishment for anyone really, let alone “rock stars”.

    Comment by Jen | July 13, 2009 | Reply

  4. Jim: Sometimes I just have to get it out of my head to make room, you know? :)

    Jen: U2’s longevity – and their ability to remain mostly consistent in their output and energy and creativity – never ceases to amaze me. This is what fuels the ongoing Beatles/U2 debate between Jenn & me, and it’s a fun one. Her major point is that rock music before the Beatles sounds TOTALLY DIFFERENT from rock music after the Beatles, and she’s right: that kind of groundbreaking is tough to challenge. But my counterpoint is that the Beatles were unable to sustain it for more than a decade. Maybe I’ll mention it at the Festival just so we can have some fun :) (Although that might not be the best place for an Irish band vs. British band debate…)

    Comment by jrbooth | July 14, 2009 | Reply

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