Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

To Bury The King, Not To Praise Him

The PopCulteer
July 10, 2009

The people all turned you away…

With this being the Pop Culture blog here at The, I’d be remiss in not commenting on the year’s biggest pop culture event, the spectacle surrounding the death of Michael Jackson. I think I can bring a unique perspective to this because I was not a fan. I did not idolize him, nor do I consider him a great, innovative musician or humanitarian. He was a human being and an artist. His fans and family have my sympathy, empathy and condoloences, but I cannot share in the spectacle.

He was not MY “King Of Pop.” I resented the hype surrounding him, and I didn’t like the way he swooped in and bought the publishing catalog of The Beatles, then turned around and started pimping the songs for use in commercials. I feel he was over-rated in many ways, but also underestimated in some areas. Ultimately, he led a sad and tragic life, a tragedy which is compounded by the amount of joy he brought to others. A joy which seemed to escape him in his own life.

There is much speculation and fascination about how Michael Jackson wound up living such a remarkable, and strange, life. He never had a childhood. He had to deal with a domineering and abusive father and took to self-medication to deal with the pressure. He hated being famous, but didn’t know how not to be famous. With his passing, this morbid voyeurism will only intensify. His accomplishments and offenses will be exaggerated, distorted and eventually become the stuff of mythology. You can’t blame people for being curious about how this person changed during his life.

Much praise has been heaped on Jackson since his death. He has been lauded as a visionary musical force of some sort, who wrote original uplifting songs that were a positive force for humanity. That view doesn’t really hold much credibility on closer examination. Michael Jackson was a savvy entertainer who, with the help of talented collaborators, was able to borrow heavily from different musical styles and trends, and create solid, well-crafted pop tunes. His music was not ground-breaking, nor was it always particularly uplifting. His big breakthrough hit, “Billie Jean,” is about denying the paternity of a woman’s child. “Beat it” glorified a romanticized vision of gang warfare at a time when the Crips and Bloods were a real problem. “Thriller” is a cute little tune about his love for cheesy horror movies.

Don’t get me wrong, those are memorable songs. Many feel that they are the music that defines the 1980s. But don’t tell me that they’re “uplifting.” Sure, you can point to “We Are The World,” but even Jackson admitted that he swiped the idea for that from Band Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”

Jackson had a good run, more than five years as a top-flight hit maker. There’s nothing wrong with making well-crafted pop music, and at his peak, nobody could come close to him. But well-crafted pop music was all it was. It did not transform the world. It had a nice beat and you could dance to it. I give him credit for choosing his collaborators well. He could not have had such an impressive string of hits without the likes of Quincy Jones.

As an entertainer, Jackson was indeed something special. He transcended rock and soul music. I admit that I cringed every time one of the pundits on TV this week compared Michael Jackson to John Lennon, because I feel Jackson does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Lennon when it comes to songwriting. However, as an entertainer, Jackson had few peers. He really knew how to put on a show.

He was like some kind of mutant cross-breeding experiment, with blended genes from Wayne Newton, James Brown and Judy Garland. Even if you hated his music, you have to admit that he presented it in an entertaining way, and he put a hell of a lot of work into that presentation. A Michael Jackson concert was like Las Vegas barfed a Southern Baptist revival onto the Nuremberg rally, with Busby Berkley directing.

Jackson does not get enough credit for his sense of humor. He knew how to poke fun at himself, and even took an Andy-Kaufmann-like glee in helping plant some of the crazier tabloid stories. He leaked photos of himself in a Hyperbaric Chamber to The National Enquirer on the condition that they refer to him as “bizarre.” He later poked fun at the tabloid rumors in the video for “Leave Me Alone,” which piled irony on top of the pranksterism by having him complain about some of the same stories that he had planted himself. If only Sarah Palin had such a level of self-awareness. As freakish as he may have seemed, at least Jackson was in on the joke. In fact, he may have had the last laugh.

As I said, I cringed when Jackson was compared to John Lennon. Lennon was assassinated at a point where he’d just picked up his career again after a five-year layoff. He had already scored the number one spot on the singles and albums charts on the day that he was gunned down. Arguably, he was poised to attain new creative heights. Jackson, on the other hand, seems to have died from years of self-destructive behavior, and was more than two decades removed from his most impressive works. Creatively, he was a spent force.

I don’t have any problems with people comparing Michael Jackson to Elvis Presley. In fact, it’s the most apt analogy you can find. Both men had an undeniable cultural impact that reached beyond the music that they created. Both inspired a fiercely protective fanbase and touched countless lives with their star quality. They both had legions of loyal fans who would buy tickets to their concerts without any concern about the quality of the show or the condition of the performer. Both men had become parodies of their former selves, objects of ridicule in their final years, the butt of many a joke. Both succumbed to personal demons to deal with the pressures of fame.

And both were real human beings who left behind loving families–families whose grief can be all-too-easily forgotten amid the showbiz glitz. I saw part of the memorial service for Michael Jackson last Tuesday, and for me there were only two really touching moments in the entire three-hour extravaganza. Near the end, when Marlon Jackson asked Michael to hug their brother for him in Heaven, and when Jackson’s daughter, Paris, spoke about her daddy. Those were much-needed reminders that, underneath the glitz, behind all the plastic surgery, a real human being–a brother, son, father–died too young.

Scary mofo singing. What is he, a freaking Sleestack?

Until that point, the memorial service was much like Jackson’s life, an embarrassing, ridiculous cluster***k of epic proportions. It looked like a desperate attempt to cash in on the death of Michael Jackson by re-creating “Motown 25” with B-List talent. Starting with Jackson’s brothers, wearing those idiotic gloves, blowing kisses to Stevie Wonder (uh, guys, I’m guessing he didn’t see that) and ending with the scariest human being I’ve ever seen (right) singing the first line of “We Are The World,” Jackson’s memorial service was an all-you-can-eat buffet of showbiz excess and Hollywood glitz, with just enough psycho talk from self-serving politicians and preachers to balance out the “Oh this is my big star turn” performances of Jackson’s songs by people that we didn’t even know knew him to make you think you were watching a parody of a celebrity funeral from the glory days of SCTV. It was a mockery of a travesty of a circus spectacle.

Jackson probably would have loved it.

So did his fans. When the DVD of the memorial service goes on sale, I’m sure they’ll buy it up by the pallet-load. It was the first time I can recall seeing a funeral copyrighted by an entertainment conglomerate. You see, now that he’s dead, Michael Jackson is really going to rake in some money.

You can expect a whole industry to spring up. Analysts are already predicting that the death of Michael Jackson could revitalize the rapidly-failing music industry, with sales of Jackson’s music already spiking, and an inevitable flood of tributes on the way. I’m sure that Sir Elton is already hard at work re-writing “Candle In The Wind” again. You know that MJ impersonators are going to start popping up like Elvis impersonators did in the late 70s. There will be DVD and possibly theatrical releases of his final concert rehearsals. Tribute albums of covers should start hitting stores soon.

And then the books will hit. With Jackson dead, all the confidentiality clauses he had people sign are null and void. All the chauffeurs, maids, cooks, managers, musical partners, ex-wives, surrogate mothers, sperm donors and anyone to whom he may have paid a settlement can write whatever they want to. You can’t libel a dead man. He can’t sue you any more. We may not get the truth about the most controversial allegations against Jackson, but we’ll get more sides of the story than we ever have before.

We’ve already seen the magazine racks fill will attempts to cash in on his death. There will be conspiracy theories coming to bookstores soon, too. Someone will attempt to psychoanalyze him from the grave. Others will use him to pimp their personal philosophies or causes.

I’m sure all of his brothers will have their own “Michael and me” books in stores. And I’m sure the family will collaborate on a big, expensive coffee-table book (ready in time for Christmas). There will be biographies, authorized and “un,” and tributes and books that have little to do with Jackson, but still slap his picture on the cover to cash in (there’s gotta be a book on Motown with ten pages on Michael Jackson that they can rush-reprint).

Within months you’ll see Christmas ornaments, Franklin Mint figurines, collectible coins, commemorative plates, music boxes that play “Man In The Mirror,” plush Michaels, action figures, and more….all advertised in Parade Magazine.

It’s a shame, because it all obscures the sad truth. A man died too soon. The “whys” and “hows” don’t really matter much. A lot of folks are using his passing to deal with their own losses. They’re sort of mourning vicariously for their own loved ones bonded by the community of fans of Michael Jackson. Much of the country is using this as an escapist catharsis to step back from their own personal, and our country’s public, drama, taking a moment to mourn the loss of their youth, or our innocence. There is a profound sense of loss in the air. Michael Jackson’s death is serving as a focal point, a shocking moment so we can all stop and reflect. For the first time in years, Michael Jackson matters again.

For those of us who were not fans, who are not caught up in the thrall of “the happening,” or who are just generally pre-disposed to laugh in the face of tragedy, the respectful thing to do is to let the people who wish to do so mourn. At least for a reasonable amount of time. Maybe they’re the lucky ones, because they don’t have the cynicism that prevents some of us from managing to care about the loss of an entertainer, or singer, or freak-show attraction. Some of us are just on the outside of this phenomenon.
But if we have any decency, we can at least respect the loss of a father, son, and brother. We should hold off on the potentially hurtful comments.

Besides, we can use the time to come up with some really good jokes for when it’s not “too soon” any longer.

Cool Comic Of The Week

“Wednesday Comics,” published by DC Comics, is a pure, unadulterated pleasure. This project recreates the thrill and the feel of the old Sunday comics sections that newspapers used to have back in the golden age of comic strips, before they started shrinking the comics down to microscopic size. Scheduled to run 13 weeks, “Wednesday Comics” is almost the size of a standard comic book until you unfold it…twice. You wind up with a giant 16-page comic tabloid featuring one-page comic strips starring some of DC’s iconic characters, created by some of the top talent working in comics today. And each page measures a whopping fourteen by twenty inches.

Of course we get the big-name characters. Batman appears as the lead strip, written by Brian Azzerello and drawn by Ed Risso. Superman is here in a strip by John Arcudi and Lee Bermejo. Wonder Woman’s page is written and beautifully-illustrated by Ben Caldwell. Though these are the “big three” of DC’s line-up, the creative teams on display are definitely cutting-edge.

There are also some of the more obscure, but wonderful, DC Comics characters in play here. Dave Gibbons (artist of “Watchmen,” writer of “Green Lantern Corps”) and Ryan Sook revisit the classic Jack Kirby character Kamandi. Another Kirby creation, The Demon, is teamed with Catwoman for a strip by Walt Simonson and Brian Steelfreeze. Superstar writer Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Coraline) writes the campy 1960s character Metamorpho, with art by Mike Allred (Madman, Red Rocket Seven).

Intergalactic traveller Adam Strange returns in “Strange Adventures” by writer/artist Paul Pope. The Metal Men appear with absolutely gorgeous art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, inked by Kevin Nowlan. Award-winning writer/artist Kyle Baker (“Why I Hate Saturn”) takes on Hawkman, while Adam Kubert writes, and his father, the legendary Joe Kubert, draws the adventures of Sgt. Rock.

There are also strips starring Green Lantern, The Flash, Deadman, Supergirl and The Teen Titans. This is manna from Heaven for comic-book geeks like me. Some of these characters hearken back to my childhood. I learned to read with The Flash, Green Lantern, Metamorpho and The Metal Men. The presentation is spectacular. The pages are gigantic when unfolded, and the artwork is beautifully detailed, with vivid colors and incredible printing.

In this age of “decompressed” stories in comic books, where it can take months or even years to tell a story that would be wrapped up in 22 pages in the 1960s, it’s refreshing to see such wonderful comic stories told with such economy. These are creators at the top of their game, telling stories in as efficient a manner as possible. And the creators are clearly having fun with the form. Kamandi is told entirely in captions, like the comic strip Prince Valiant. Green Lantern sports a situational logo, like Will Eisner’s classic, The Spirit. The Flash is split into two strips, one of them “Iris West,” is handled like a traditional “soap opera” comic strip.

DC Comics has been relying on weekly comic books for the last three years as a way to keep their fans coming into comic shops each week. The results have been mixed. “52” and “Countdown” were major crossover titles that spanned the entire DC Universe and told epic stories that wove throughout the entire line. Each lasted a year. “52” was compelling and focused on little-used or redefined minor characters and worked really well. “Countdown” was solid, but less successful, since it had to set up a major storyline event by a different creative team. The recently-concluded “Trinity” explored DC’s big three–Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman–and suffered from confusing timing and perhaps from having way too much room to tell its story. It might have been more coherent with the story spread over twenty fewer issues.

But “Wednesday Comics” is a blast of fresh air. I hope that DC continues this concept beyond the 13-issue run of this title. The huge pages allow for more spacious storytelling, while limiting the strips to one page each requires precision writing. “Wednesday Comics” is the sort of book that can remind people why they love comics in the first place.

Check The Previous Post

In case you missed it, Radio Free Charleston hit two milestones this week. We celebrated three years and 75 episodes of laboring in obscurity here at Check the previous post for the full production notes, but while we’re talking about the show, how about we give you a few tidbits that didn’t make the production notes:

On the Pistol Whippers shoot, I ran the camera that we used for this episode of the show, but camera duties for the night were shared with Dave Russell, James Vernon Brown and our director, Eamon Hardiman, himself. It was truly an honor to be there that night to witness the reunion of the Whippers, and it was an honor to pay tribute to The Empty Glass. Thanks again to Eamon for letting me be part of it.

The night we recorded Unknown Hinson was also very memorable. From the nervousness of trying to grab a quick bite to eat before the show at Sam’s Uptown Cafe (great food, but the service on a weekend night is painfully slow) to the sheer force of Unknown Hinison’s mighty awesomeness, Melanie and I were in a daze. It was a blast. You just can’t beat the thrill of hearing great live music surrounded by people you like.

We appreciate the kind words from you folks who have been able to find RFC tucked away in our little corner of the internet. Rest assured that we will continue to bring you the best music, film and animation from the Charleston area. Radio Free Charleston 76 will feature music from Option 22, and a very cool performance by Suburban Graffiti that we just recorded a couple of days ago. Look for it in ten days.

That’s it for now

That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Come back Sunday for the return of our Sunday Evening Videos. We’ll also have our usual Monday Morning Art and scads of other cool things right here in PopCult next week.

1 Comment

  1. Elvis Capone

    I never Metamorpho

    I didn’t like.

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