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>Mother of the King of Pop

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>From Ernest Hardy’s obit of Michael, a bit about Diana Ross’s massive influence on Michael:

” Curiously absent from the praise and aesthetic roll-call being put forth for Mike is one name: Diana Ross. His obsession with and emulation of her are well documented but she’s not being cited in the obits. It’s a glaring and telling omission that has much to do with the low critical regard in which Ross is held, and the reluctance of critics to own up to not just the deep influence that diva Ross had on boy wonder Jackson, but on the ways in which her persona and performing style play out in his style. Here’s what I wrote about Diana and her artistic spawn, Michael, in my 2006 essay, “Diana Ross: OG Diva Sings the Blues”:

“It’s well known that Mike studied James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of other captivating male singers in order to perfect his showmanship. His idol-worship of Diana Ross has been reduced to snickering speculation on his sexuality and sanity. In truth, Jackson simply spotted in Ross a kindred spirit — someone born to the stage, someone who is without peer when inspiration strikes. He recognized a fellow artist.””

Anyone that knows me knows that I think Diana Ross is probably the single most influential female pop star of the second half of the 20th century because, in my eyes, she set the standards of female, and as Hardy points out, male POP-ness. Her use of self reinvention, in fact her use of HERSELF as part of her musical appeal, set the standard for Madonna and everyone that has followed since. Her pre-Warholian understanding of celebrity’s importance to 20th century art, and her shrewd choices, alternating between making the right choices AND choosing the right people around you to make choices for you, adds up, for me, to making her singularly important and equally unappreciated. And that malarkey about Florence Ballard having a “better” voice than her is rightly ripped to shreds in Ernest Hardy’s great piece about Diana for LA Weekly.

But to get back to Hardy’s obit about Michael, the fact that he places Michael in a female-headed lineage with Ross is absolutely right on. For one, Diana’s apt use of slightly campy melodrama in her music (“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”) is the influence behind that strange seriousness and earnestness that invades many of Michael’s songs, like “Beat It” and “Bad”. That is just one of many detailed, specific stylistic similarities between the two.

But in general, Michael’s almost mechanical pursuit of number one records is right out of the Ross handbook. Ever notice how Michael liked formulas in his music? If something was a hit, his attempt to follow that lead into the next number one, to put his finger into the well of popular music and produce a stylized, and often better, copy of what he hears was Ross’s strategy from almost the very beginning. Its how she was trained. And its how she trained him. You could say many try to do that, but there’s something similar in the ways in which Michael and Diana blend black and white sounds, black and white theatricalities to produce “hits”. And that’s the point: both Michael and Diana were unafraid to learn from a bevy of traditions, from Broadway to Blues to Funk to Pop to Country. They understood that entertainers can be most effective, most successful, tapping into as many veins of our collective cultural memory as possible. They are palatable versions of the brash personalities that came before them.

And that they were both show(wo)men true and true, Judy Garland meets pop and R&B, is their legacy. Their attention to each hand wave, each rhinestone, their ability to treat the pop stage like it was a Broadway theatre puts them in a category all their own, and in my estimation, has been unmatched. Try to pin a genre on either of them and all you’ll come up with is Pop. Not Pop in sound (though they are often Pop in sound), but Pop in ideology, Pop in the sense that they are uniquely blended entertainers, the result of the great mash-up experiment of the 20th century, a production of what is “American” in sound, look, and movement. This is the music of celebrity. They incorporate all the fixed identities of stars before them and turn them into a morphing, malleable, transparent, vacant product that is general enough to mean something to everyone and specific enough to become personal for the very same people.

Then there is their incessant restructuring of gender and race in their time periods. At the time criticized for it, Diana Ross brought black and white together, the first in a long string of black women that would become as famous as Coca-Cola. And she did it by showing the utter glamour and seriouness of her femininity. Never sexy enough to be a sex symbol, nor staid enough to be matronly, Diana Ross has as much to do with the idea black female professionalism as anyone else. I could go on and on about this, and I have much less to say about Michael. Whether or not he accomplished similar feats of gender and race fucking is not a question for me to answer. That he pursued it, I think, so fervently, is what’s important to my argument. Diana Ross was a black, female role model to him, an emblem of what a proud entertainer could do to the world. A symbol of ambition and black, gendered exceptionalism, the power that marginalized figures have when they utilize what is most marginal about them. That wearing a certain type of dress, wearing a certain type of hairstyle, dancing a certain dance, and singing a certain song could quite forcefully change the world is Diana Ross’s lesson to Michael, and he paid attention.

And lets not even talk about the voice. That flinty, high, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O glamour pout isn’t as obvious in Michael ONLY because he’s a man, but its there if you listen for it. The only question that I guess I’ll ask: will the media make such a deal of the black community reclaiming Diana Ross when she dies as they have when Michael does? I guess it’s different.

Written by alexgfrank

July 2, 2009 at 1:32 am