From the Voice Archives: Robert Christgau on the Mass Culture Spectacle of Michael Jackson in 1984


In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Here’s Robert Christgau’s titanic 1984 piece on arena rock, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson and the complicated place where all three meet.

Working the Crowd

By Robert Christgau
August 21,1984

If you’d told me five years ago that I’d willingly spend the first weekend of August 1984 watching rock and roll in sports arenas, I’d have prayed for the souls of Strummer & Jones and wondered whether Debbie Harry would ever learn to dance. Such miracles seemed unlikely, but pop moves in mysterious ways: maybe “new wave” would breach the beachheads after all. And of course it has: if I’d so chosen, I could have gone to see the Pretenders at the Garden the following Tuesday. But instead I spent Tuesday’s music time with General Public at the Ritz. Sensitive young people may find it tawdry, but Ritz still seems made to order for beachhead-breaching “new wavers.” Arenas are for Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.

Basically, a rock and roll fan enters an arena for the company. Not that performance quality doesn’t sometimes enliven (or deaden) the experience all by itself, and not that the great audience doesn’t sometimes assemble under more modest circumstances–the 30 or so crazies who outlasted Flipper at their first Danceteria gig certainly qualified. But arena acoustics and sightlines can’t enhance music, while arena crowds can, as the abysmal Elvis Recorded Live at Madison Square Garden inadvertently proved to all those fortunate enough to witness his 1972 concerts in person. And as I learned two years later in the same venue from the transcendently competent Grand Funk Railroad and 20,000 other citizens whose names I didn’t catch, you don’t even have to be a full-fledged fan yourself to benefit. If the audience feels good about the artist and itself, it can generate magic. Chrissie Hynde filled the Garden on a tour promoted by MTV, an institution she’s claimed she despises, and while I know I might have been pleasantly surprised, that contradiction boded ill. Michael and Bruce, on the other hand, did it their ways, very differently, though sensitive young people may well disapprove of both their methods, which after all weren’t designed to captivate sensitive young people. We’re talking mainstream America, what’s sometimes called mass culture, with Michael riding Berry Gordy’s showboat over a rainbow the black capitalist never thought big enough to see while Bruce slogged his way up that well-worn rock and roll road to a destination many have imagined but he alone has reached.

Michael has been in the biz since he was five, which isn’t radically unusual, and internationally famous since he was 11, which among black people is just about unique. His déclassé, millenarian religion and strict, close-knit, surprisingly unpretentious family certainly helped shape his relationship to fame’s pressure and privilege, but not as much as his talent, which no matter how industriously he hones it seems fundamentally unworldly. A fascination with pop fantasy from Oz to Disneyland to Star Wars suits an androgynous manchild who dances like a moonwalker and sings like a fairy, and that fascination extends to the fantasy world of stardom itself, a world into which he was thrust suddenly and permanently by “I Want You Back.” By the time he was old enough to conceive his audience he was already one of the rare individuals who had one. No matter how much he learned watching Jackie Wilson and James Brown, his role models were the Hollywood icons who flickered to life in the screening room: Chaplin (“I just love him to death”), Astaire (who should be choreographing routines for Michael right now), and Hepburn (who became his friend in the flesh). Diana Ross, Paul McCartney, Brooke Shields, Ronald Reagan, Mick Jagger: he can’t resist his colleagues in fame. While it seems unlikely that he anticipated Thriller‘s numbers, there’s no doubt the across-the-board stardom the album accomplished for him was more or less what he had in mind. Yet somehow–I’d attribute it to the religion, family, and unworldliness all at once–he does retain an unmistakable if rather spaced-out aura of humility, mission, service. All he wants is the chance to entertain every single human being in the entire world.

Bruce bought his first guitar at 13, joined his first band at 16, cut his first record at 23, and suddenly got really famous around his 26th birthday. An apostate Catholic, he spent as much of his adolescence as possible away from his father, a bus driver etc. who as it turned out wished his son all the best in his struggle to get out of Freehold, and despite his big strong voice and prodigious fluency as a lyricist his talent has always seemed subsidiary to his stick-to-itiveness. He never had time for day jobs, but he worked to escape an anonymous fate surrounded by hundreds of friends and acquaintances who didn’t believe a future free of the grind was possible, and most of them were right. In other words, he conceived his audience right in the middle of it. His role models may have been Elvis and Dylan, Mitch Ryder and Gary U.S. Bonds, but he identified so strongly with the guys he grew up with that he swore he’d never forget them. Many rock and rollers have contracted amnesia behind such vows, but with encouragement from a rock and roller who would seem to have very little else in common with Bruce and his buddies–onetime critic Jon Landau, who’s now produced and managed him for almost a decade–Springsteen still hangs out on the Jersey shore, living a distinctly “normal” life for a star of his magnitude. All he wants is a chance to speak to and for every one of his own.

Michael build his audience in the modern showbiz manner. Sure he practiced, sure he collaborated, sure he reached inside himself–sure he’s a wonderful musician. And for all that, he’s been a creature of marketing and multimedia ever since the Jackson 5 cartoons he had nothing whatsoever to do with. The brothers may have may have fled to Motown to attain the creative control that made 1978’s Destiny and 1979’s Off the Wall possible, but the move also provided the distributive clout that’s a precondition of Thriller‘s pan everything spreak. And let us not forget video, which the movie-mad clan has been exploiting since the dark ages of 1978. Bruce, on the other hand, has chosen the path of the traditionalist craftsman-auteur. Jackson Associates are no slobs in the studio, but Springsteen and Landau are crazed perfectionists, shuffling songs and risking techno-hubris not in pursuit of the hook or the beat but of sound and vision that evolve so slowly they appear to progressives not to change at all. Through seven years of pop ferment Bruce has resisted or ignored every trend, although with Born in the U.S.A. he has acceded to an Arthur Baker remix that still sounds like Spector to me and an overstaged Brian De Palma performance video. For all his bullheaded integrity, however, he’s hardly held himself above the corporate. The record company, Rosie, gave him a big advance, and from the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1975 to the Thriller-financed promo blitz of 1984 he’s backed up his own honest toil with the bosses’ masscult machinery.

Mass culture–snobbish though the term may be, at the level of Time and Newsweek and CBS there’s nothing else to call it. It’s huge, traversing boundaries of gender and generation and class and race, and in theory it’s homogeneous, lopping off inconvenient edges and corners so that one size fits all. Yet what was most striking about the sample masses of 20,000 assembled at Madison Square Garden August 4 and Byrne Arena August 5 was how unlike each other they were. These really were samples; Michael and his brothers played to almost 150,000 lucky customers in four shows at the Meadowlands and the Garden and might conceivably have attracted 10 times that (although at such a scale diminished status might have cut into casual sales), while Bruce reached over 200,000 in an unprecedented and quickly sold out stand of 10 concerts in two weeks in East Rutherford. That is, in this metropolitan area both artists attract audiences larger by a factor of 10 or 20 or even 100 than an arena can hold. Yet if mass culture is really about traversing boundaries of gender and generation and class and race, which is the only way a fundamentally elitist concept has any meaning for this democrat, then it may be that Bruce’s music isn’t mass culture at all.

Don’t take this surmise for a backhanded putdown–it’s meant to imply no musical superiority, and if the size of Michael’s success defeats him, he’s hardly alone among mass culture icons. In fact, although in some ways it’s easier to do good work down on the rock and roll road, many of Bruce’s predecessors there have fucked up badly enough to make Michael look as together as Paul McCartney by comparison. That Bruce seems to create “rock and roll” rather than “mass culture,” however, is a signal of the uniqueness of his achievement. The reason he doesn’t fit neatly into my definition of mass culture is that his audience seems so homogenous: young white working-class men. But in fact I know it isn’t. Perhaps 40 per cent of the crowd at Byrne was female, which is abnormally high for hard rock, with lots of women-together couples, which is almost unheard of. The age spread of 15 years or so was also abnormally high, and it’s my suspicion that there were too many college kids and professionals there for the crowd to be called working class eve in the broadest sense of that nebulous term. That there’s an irresistible temptation to pigeonhole his audience is first of all a tribute to Bruce, who has constructed a myth around the fate of the guys he grew up with that hits lots of different people where they live. But it’s also a tribute to the audience, whose assent endows the myth with collective power. This is not to traffic in left abstractions, though they apply, nor to jive about vibes, though it would be unrealistic to pretend that an enormous charge of subliminal emotion wasn’t what animated Bruce for four hours that night at Byrne. It’s simply to describe, quite concretely, an aggregate of fans who sang not just refrains but whole verses back to the stage whenever their spokesman gave them an opening, which couldn’t have happened if hundreds or even thousands weren’t singing along at almost every moment.

Springsteen has always been an extraordinarily vivid figure live, and though in the late ’70s he fell into shtick–which he must still be subject to sometimes when he’s not making his first appearance in Jersey in three long years–he’s clearly firmed up his faith. His music really has evolved enormously, so that the records which gained him national recognition now seem relatively murky and overblown even to those who didn’t mind those flaws at the time. Formally, the condensed songcraft that dominates 1980’s two-LP set The River didn’t solve the problem that had driven him into both shtick and 1978’s very overblown Darkness on the Edge of Town: the dawning realization that the trap he’d escaped not only continued to grind down the guys he’d grown up with but led him into a bigger trap, symbolized by a Byzantine lawsuit with his ex-manager. Not until he sank publicly into the pits of Nebraska could he find the joyous release and honest laughs the dark-tinged rockers of The River never quite provided. We shouldn’t underestimate the role of studio perfectionism in the ringin live intensity of Born in the U.S.A.‘s sound, but on songwriting and singing alone it’s an amazing feat. Not since London Calling has any album brought rock and roll’s traditional affirm-in-the-negative to such a pitch of consciousness, and Bruce’s outreach exceeds the Clash’s by a factor of 10. It seems a simple thing–articulating the contradictions of freedom and powerlessness in America both for teenagers who still believe they’re born to run and adults who know where they end up. But though many have set out to do it, nobody else has ever succeeded before cynicism or foolishness struck. And without doubt it’s Bruce’s passion for maintaining contact with his fans, his people, that has made the difference, to him and to them.

Such contact would of course be unimaginable for Michael, first of all because he’s never had a “normal” life to maintain, but also because icons literally can’t hang out, except in private with cronies and other stars–whenever they’re in public, they’re on. There’s not much point in criticizing him for this, though I suppose that in theory he might have set himself the goal of becoming “normal” rather than the goal of becoming the biggest star that the world has ever known. And thus there’s not much point in criticizing the direction of his work–given his situation and his talent, fantasy or entertainment or escape will always be its vital center. But it is legitimate to examine the content of the fantasies, which can vary considerably, and also to ask in just what way they’re entertaining.

Much has been made of the personal turn in Michael’s recent writing–of the alienated paranoia of his love songs, of his identification with cinematic unworldlies like Obi-Wan Kenobe, E.T., and Dracula. These oblique revelations no doubt reinforce Michael’s musical commitment to the material, and insofar as they demystify his stardom they’re to the good thematically. But because the terrors of fame now rank among pop’s most bathetic clichés, I still regard the Chinese-box humor of John Landis’s “Thriller” video as Michael’s most effective antistar move, and feel obliged to point out that his lyrics have less than nothing to say about the alienatioin and fear that victimize so many of his anonymous fans. With the single exception of the discreetly valorous “Beat It,” what impresses me most about his music is its intense sexual-cum-spiritual pleasure quotient. Connected to freestyle exhortations like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” which are designed to instigate the dancing that’s always been Michael’s calling and cause but can just as well be transferred to activities like sex and revolution, the soulful esprit of his singing and the depthless nimble wit of his rhythms take on the kind of universal significance he aspires to and anybody can put to use: acute, invigorating, fun.

But such meaning was scarce at the Garden, and not primarily because the night I caught was by all informed accounts a mediocre one. Victory Tour mediocre is pretty engrossing in a mild way–my mind wandered no more than it usually does for Neil Young or P-Funk or the Ramones. But the spectacle is not designed for highs. Comparisons to vaudeville and Vegas miss its rhythmic commitment, soul-circuit roots, and generic arena-rock usages, but Greil Marcus was wrong to dismiss it as “a standard rock and roll show”–as Nelson George suggests, only Earth, Wind & Fire has ever staged and lit and designed and choreographed so elaborately. Marcus was right, however, to characterize the evening as “a church social,” “a Fourth of July picnic.” Predictably, I suppose, opening night in Manhattan was less kiddie-studden nd more celebrity-pocked than I’d been led to hope, but this was mass culture for sure: casually affluent, at most 10 per cent black, and split down the middle sexually, with a concentration of on-the-town late-twenties and a visible sprinkling of interracial couples its only demographic peculiarities. The mood was amazingly unhysterical–proportionately, I heard more high-pitched shrieks for Michael Stipe of R.E.M. at the Beacon two weeks before. And of course this level of congenial curiosity is exactly what anybody who wants to entertain the whole world is asking for. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Michael finds his work less scary in such company.

And me, I’d prefer my entertainment scarier. Ideally, rock and roll enlightens as it excites, with the two halves of the pleasure radiating back and forth in a kind of kiss-you-kill-you Apache dance. But in the absence of dialectical synthesis a good shot of adrenalin will suffice. I wonder whether this master of albums and video, home media both, has any idea anymore of what it’s like to sit in an enormous room and watch somebody try to entertain you. Of course, few acts manipulate the arena even as effectively as the Jacksons, who do earn points for effort with their solid-hue lasers and mechanical space monsters, but the musical translation went nowhere. Bruce’s stolid beat projects (these days even propels) through the vastness he must fill, but the play of plectra and percussion that makes the Jacksons’ records so compelling on the Dance floor was doomed to get lost. Most of the words faded away by mutual agreement. And except in brief snatches, notably a minute or so of heart-stopping solo razzle-dazzle during “Billie Jean,” the dancing that convinced America Michael was a genius didn’t compensate.

And if performance and audience were of a piece, it makes a certain sense to fault Michael for both. Like so many who devote themselves to biggest, he’s put less than his all into best. For comparison sake, reconsider Bruce’s wonderful but of course imperfect crowd. Though Jon Landau will probably be chagrined to read it, these native Americans do recall one rock and roll precedent, the Dead Heads of the early ’70s–not just in the way their unity transcends their heterogeneity, which is the good part, but also in the wawy their intensity delimits their heterogeneity. Bruce can’t continue to improve his outreach unless he somehow extends it beyond the faithful, the full-fledged fans. But in Jersey, at least, tickets fell too fast to leave room for, say, sensitive young new wavers, whose curiosity might benefit from a steadying jolt of mainstream after seven long years of pop ferment, or, crucially, for black people, whom I’m sure are even more turned off by his resistance to trends–particularly rhythmic trends–than are the new wavers. Despite Bruce’s public passion for r&b my naked eye discerned more Afro-Americans in his band than in his audience, which may be why I sometimes got the queasy feeling that the rich Huck-and-Jim routines he’s worked out with Clarence Clemons were slipping ever so slightly toward Jack Benny and Rochester.

These are imperfections Michael’s audience–which piles middle Americans on a black base, mixing passionate star-worship with bemused interest–might conceivably make good on and doesn’t. The Victory Tour’s $30 prices aren’t as out of line as they ought to be (Marvin Gaye charged $25 at Radio City–though Bruce’s top is $16), but they do seem to keep black kids away, and black kids would have made good company at the Garden. After all, they’re the ones who’ve cared about Michael longest and deepest, who feel his success as more than an exotic accident of statistics and modern communication–and they’re also the unnamed potential perpetrators who inspired the tour’s massive-to-paranoid security outlay. As delighted as I m to see white America recognize a black her, I’m not going to think the affection in which he’s help means a whole lot racially until it gets generalized a little. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been easy to engineer, especially for the football promoter who ended up running the tour, but two or three thousand freebies or maybe twofers in black neighborhoods might have done wonders–shored up a few liberal abstractions, added a buzz of unpredictability to the vibes, and greatly increased the concentration of high-pitched shrieks if not spontaneous singalongs. A risk-free move? Not entirely, I suppose. Thrillers aren’t supposed to be entirely risk-free.

If I complain too much, please pardon the critic who came along on my willing weekend in the arenas–he has a big mouth and bigger dreams. Rather than expecting or demanding more from Michael, just say I’d like to see him make his own dreams bigger still so that his star fantasies and his aura of service can come together. I doubt that the possibility would even have occurred to me if Bruce hadn’t worked father up that rock and roll road than I’d come to believe was possible–and if he didn’t obviously think it was too late to stop now.