Michael Jackson in retrospect, from the year 2009
February seems to be turning into pop-music nostalgia month, and, as everybody knows, there is no nostalgia like pop-music nostalgia. Beatle fans are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Beatlemania in America, an event that tolerates few bystanders.Skip to next paragraph
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Those who date back a little further are cutting a rug, as they used to say, to mark the revival of the Artie Shaw band - an occasion taking swing-band time-travelers 45 rosy years into the past.
And purists, who rule that there can be no true nostalgia short of half a century, have been celebrating the 60th anniversary of the premiere of George Gershwin's ''Rhapsody in Blue'' this month. That memorable concert by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra has been re-created in New York with fond historical accuracy.
Besides its notorious effect on the tear ducts, pop-music nostalgia stimulates sociologists to generalize well beyond their means, explaining a whole era like the '60s by, say, the lyrics of ''Eleanor Rigby.''
Does Artie Shaw's solo on ''Begin the Beguine'' encapsulate the surging hopes of the New Deal? Did the clarinet passage opening ''Rhapsody in Blue'' pipe in the Jazz Age?
Pop-music sociologists, weakened by nostalgia, have been known to sum up decades even more recklessly than this.
But why put off nostalgia any more than anything else? Enjoy tomorrow's nostalgia today, we say.
With this intention, we are taking the future pop-music nostalgia case of February 1984 - Michael Jackson, of course - and analyzing him as he may be analyzed by sociologists of 2009. Our commentator, Prof. I. M. Wise, is imaginary; his subject - not quite. An excerpt from Wise's paper follows:
It is now 25 years since the peak of the Michael Jackson phenomenon - what other word will do? Today the young ask: Who is Michael Jackson? Ah, the young! But 25 years ago his name was in the headlines of every daily paper, his picture was on the cover of magazine after magazine after selling 25 million copies of the ''Thriller'' album.
The Michael Jackson phenomenon cannot be explained simply by talent or personal charm. Clearly, in certain mystical ways, Jackson expressed the '80s as few others did. How?
The '80s, we see now, was a decade in search of lost innocence. After the awful disillusion of the '70s - Vietnam, Watergate - Americans of the '80s wanted to believe again. Why else was Ronald Reagan elected president? - that most old-fashioned and truly convinced of believers.
Everywhere you looked myths seemed to be popping up to feed the hungry - ''E.T.,'' ''The Return of the Jedi.'' Michael Jackson, who wept while narrating the record based on ''E.T.,'' was the prime believer in all the myths, thus qualifying himself as our myth-of-myths.
''One of the last living innocents,'' Steven Spielberg called him.
Jackson spoke for the '80s when he told an interviewer from Rolling Stone magazine, ''I totally identify with Peter Pan. . . . I'm happy at what I do. It's escapism.''
The gloomy phrases ''greenhouse effect'' and ''pollution'' had become commonplace by the '80s. ''Soil erosion has now reached epidemic proportions,'' it was reported by Worldwatch in 1984. Films simulating a ''nuclear holocaust'' committed their own kind of overkill.
The adjective 'Orwellian'' droned everywhere.
No wonder a lot of '80s Americans wanted to follow Michael Jackson, singing and dancing in ''The Wiz,'' down the Yellow Brick Road.
Michael Jackson escaped the nightmare of history in his beloved Disneyland, in his private collection of Bugs Bunny cartoons, in his house full of macaws, cockatoos, llamas, and a boa constrictor named ''Muscles.''
He waved a wand, and there he was in his never-never land - ''Off the wall,'' in the saying of the '80s, signifying wacky whimsy, implying no commitment. A 1980 Michael Jackson recording, ''Off the Wall,'' became a pop national anthem.
We jogged, but he danced - and how he danced, like a man twisting out of chains, freeing himself from every connection known to history! And we followed him.
While United States Marines were besieged in Beirut, Michael Jackson's hair caught on fire during the taping of a soft-drink commercial. What a relief it was to transfer our concern to this safe accident in a fantasy world!
There was a sweetness to the young Michael Jackson, but he made a curious choice for a hero, as he would have been the first to admit. Mostly he wanted to remain as much of a child as possible and be left alone. Was this the ideal of the '80s? . . .
I. M. Wise goes on and on, but space does not permit. In all fairness to the future, we must assume that his thesis was shortly, and rather brutally, refuted by a team of sociologists from Columbia University, who argued that nighttime soap opera distilled the '80s and that J. R., not Michael Jackson, embodied those times.
The more things change, the more pop sociologists remain the same.