My earliest memories of Michael Jackson’s music, like so many of us, are hard to separate from my earliest memories of music, period. Like every other kid who grew up in the 80s (really, from 1969 onward), I was steeped in it. Michael Jackson WAS pop culture. I moonwalked in front of the mirror. I measured the worth of a jacket by the number of non-functional zippers. Thriller was impossible to escape, and why would you want to?
That album was already a cultural phenomenon by the time I developed some musical awareness, but I remember all the Bad singles coming out one by one, and how captivating the videos were (Smooth Criminal!). My favorite memories of MJ, however, are the hours I spent driving around Montana for a summer job in college. I had a Jeep with a worn-out Jackson 5 tape on repeat, and the songs just kept getting better and better.
One week after his death, there has been an incredible outpouring of Michael Jackson memories and stories. Soul Sides and Allmusic have culled some of the most rewarding writing on MJ so far in a couple of link-heavy posts, and Pitchfork has an immense collection of MJ videos to get lost in.
I’ve been surprised at how much his death affected me. I guess I see him as a tragic figure, a uniquely American story of success and excess, and one of the last links to the now-fading Motown era. An unbelievable package of talent and ambition, driven by himself and others, isolated from normalcy, spiraling into the dark and bizarre. Yet somehow (despite this? because of this?) still able to connect with all of us. Literally, all of us — I’m sure he was the most famous person on the face of the earth. What a strange and rare creature.
Sinner or saint? More apt is artist and sinner. People want to simplify a truly complex life. We have to be sophisticated enough to acknowledge that greatness and a touch of evil dwelled in the man. I’ve always believed that transcendent art emanates from the purest, most evolved parts of our soul. But that highly spiritual achievement doesn’t absolve us of our daily misdeeds. To simply brand him a smooth criminal, as some have, or to overlook his tragic nature, as have others, is to deny his humanity. The meaning of Michael Jackson’s life — as a black man, a sexual being, a abused and abusing adult — will be interpreted to fit the prejudices of the speaker. His music — it speaks volumes.
Congrats to Kristin Hersh, one of my long-time favorite musicians, for pioneering a new independent artist coalition, CASH Music. Who knew that in addition to being an incredibly talented singer and songwriter, she is full of smart things to say on copyright, “read-write” culture, and new business models for musicians.
CASH is an acronym — it stands for the Coalition of Artists & Stake Holders. The name indicates just what we’re all hoping to build here — a coalition through which we blur the line that’s traditionally stood between creators of content and the consumers of that content.
We’re all stake holders here. We all stand to gain from a productive relationship. Maybe it will help to think of this relationship as a conversation. For instance, I start the conversation by writing and recording a song every month, like the one I’m posting here this month, “Slippershell”. You respond by listening & sharing “Slippershell” with others.
Sharing is encouraged, I license my work through Creative Commons. If you’re unfamiliar with Creative Commons, do yourself a favor and check out the licenses I use. They’re in plain English and provide better, more realistic and rational copyright protection.
I’ve been on a digital music buying spree this week — purchasing and downloading three new albums online. Despite being a voracious consumer of new music, mostly from mp3 blogs that highlight and share new tracks, I have never purchased music from the iTunes store. And I still haven’t — I purchased two albums from Amazon’s mp3 store, and one directly from the band (Radiohead).
What pushed me over the edge? Music files with no restrictions on use: no codes to key in, no limits on how many people I can share it with, or how many computers I can play them from. I have had too many bad experiences trying to play a track in iTunes that a friend gave me, only to find that I need their username and password to play it — even if they are happy to give it to me, it’s an extra step, and it reminds me that by my listening to “their” music I may be restricting them from listening to it on other computers or iPods, or sharing with other friends.
iTunes is on the right track now, offering DRM-free mp3s, but their selection is still fairly low, and I don’t enjoy the process of sifting through a lot of great (but DRM-limited and thus undesirable) music to find the unrestricted mp3s. Amazon offers a much more pleasant user experience — I know what I’m going to get: everything is unrestricted.
I didn’t realize how much of a hindrance DRM and a poor user experience had been for me — the unpleasantness of emailing friends for a password to re-activate the music they shared with you a couple months ago, the heartbreak (ok, annoyance) of finding a great album on iTunes but realizing it’s only available in DRM-protected format and so having to continue the search elsewhere — these factors just added friction to the whole music-buying process. Once those issues were resolved, I was surprised to see how quickly my wallet flew open: $30 on DRM-free digital music in one week; that’s literally more than I’ve spent in the past year.