fighting for your life inside a killer

Late Thoughts on the Late Michael Jackson

Philip Brophy has put up an article on Jackson’s Ghosts, written in 1997, the same year the short-film/long-clip was released and it’s sufficiently brilliant (as with much of Brophy’s writing) to spur me into some belated musings on Jackson, none of which are too brilliantly constructed.

The first is a point of contention with Brophy’s claim that “Michael Jackson’s sense of his own being” is “something which most of us will only ever ridicule rather than understand its fundamental otherness”. I think this is only true for the more cynical types, myself included, who usually declare little or no sorrow at the news of Jackson’s death in what seems like an almost desperate attempt to flash their non-fan-of-Jacko credentials and thereby separate themselves from the gullible grieving masses. Such people almost certainly tend to ridicule any and all aspects of Jackson’s ‘being’, a suitably wide term that might reference his style, body, dress, deportment, voice, manners, morals, behaviours, quirks and, of course, music (though the latter, strangely, is almost universally sacrosanct).

They contrast with the majority of people I’ve spoken to about the death, fans of widely varying levels of intensity (from barely to fanatically), who want always to cut Jackson some slack. This tendency isn’t solely a function of his passing, though of course it’s now more pronounced than ever. As this describes the great majority, I’ll switch to the inclusive pronoun: We seem to have internalised Jackson’s 'otherness', in many ways. It may be by rendering it a didactic mirror for the excesses of our era, domesticating it into a kind of harmless Peter Pan fantasy, ‘looking past appearances’ to find the black artist or King of Pop of our dreams at his core, or more simply just accepting it. Such acceptance, of course, plays off against the widespread cultural fascination for Jackson as a symbol of decay, and media outlets were so happy to indulge this desire as to continue into gruesome descriptions of his autopsied body – missing hair, bruised, undernourished, etc. ‘Look,’ chorus the media, ‘before you lies the corpse of the fallen king! Recoil!’

But – was he not already a corpse? At what point did Jackson actually exist as a flesh-and-blood being? The kneejerk (and inversely racist) answer is to say sometime around when he was still black and his nose hadn’t fallen off, but in terms of the Jackson we know, that’s just as questionable. Jackson was, from early childhood, a sign – nay, spectacle – more than he ever was a human, a great cultural cipher, sending to do our bidding across sexual, racial and other trajectories and whose actual body, which lay underneath, would eventually manifest the remainders of such toil. Mark Fisher calls him an accelerant angel of capitalist production, “plugged in from the start into the media landscape”. And indeed, if anything, Jackson’s corporeality lived in our flesh, not his, in the kinaesthetic, somatechnic, liquid way we absorbed his image and the various sounds that pinged off his recordings – for his words were only the beginning, so much more of Jackson’s hits are taken up sonically by corporeal tics and subvocal gestures, they come to us strangely alive, but, like the Jackson character of ‘Thriller’ and, indeed, ‘Ghosts’, and, again, ‘Billie Jean’ (should I go on?), it is forever the product of an apparition, an absent presence - it is the rotting flesh of the living dead that we feast upon.

I guess that’s partly why we were prepared for his death, in a sense, to be a fan of Jackson is to worship the very process of (corporeal) erasure that commodity production and consumption demands (feel free to insert Marx’s definition of capital). It is a way of aestheticising the kind of zombie stomp (Jackson leading the way) we all make throughout the littered landscape of popular culture, the way in which we degenerate along with our idol. For we have only ever known Jackson through the signs of his degeneration, which are ours. It's all very circuitous.

That’s why, in a sense, I struggle to see Jackson’s aesthetic as a transgressive one, which is what Brophy seems to be agitating for in his 1997 piece: “He has left our world where plastic surgery is frowned upon, race must be black or white, music is required to be pure, and video clips are excluded from the cinema”. Giving kudos to this is basically kissing the feet of a mutant, shape-shifting late capitalism and the fundamentally unanchored, ambiguous qualities of signs – be they textual or corporeal – it relies upon to extract profit.

Nevertheless, that last quote from Brophy does return us to the point, and I’ll try to bring it together here – that is, at what point did Jackson leave us? 25th June 2009? Or sometime in 1997? Or any other relevant date? Or, just as pertinently, did he ever leave? You’ve probably heard from at least one grieving pop singer or family member or corporate executive attached to Jackson some variation on the theme of ‘he lives on in his music’. Perhaps the most shameless was from Randy Phillips, president of AEG Live, the conglomerate that were putting on Jackson’s upcoming tour. Phillips said that the company had "more than 100 hours of footage that could be turned into live albums, a movie and a pay-per-view special. He was our partner in life and now he’s our partner in death". It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but Phillips’ post-mortem synergising contains a statement more profound than he realised – Jackson has always had one foot in the grave so to speak, and as such, nothing much really changes in terms of commodity production. Perhaps no icon other than Jackson can more fully express the ambiguity of the mourning of a celebrity; we live our relationship to the media figure through the para-social interaction enacted by media consumption, and to the extent that the filmclip, memorial TV special, signed poster, CD, news report, and so on remains (is explosively reanimated, even), then Jackson is still alive, we become his flesh more than ever.

He was dead for so long; he will never die, but even this is not comforting enough – what, then, do we mourn?


if i asked you to make funny faces with me

For reasons I'd rather not go into, I recently found myself without a driving licence, and with that, I have temporarily lost perhaps my most loved of all musical experiences: singing alone in cars.

The distinct pleasure is hard to describe, but there's nothing like having the windows down, sound peaking above the barely adequate dashboard speakers, screaming your lungs out (Animal Collective's 'Grass' was always a favourite pick, probably because it was already unhinged). What it all comes down to actually, is experiencing the ecstasy of hearing your own voice seemingly becoming that of the songs, as you feel your mouth move to the words but hear (mostly) those of the recording. The overtones of your own voice are sonically present just enough for you to convince yourself that it is indeed you that is co-producing that beautiful, skilful sound.

I guess you're reading this and just think, 'wow, what a sad guy' - and yes, I guess it does seem delusional, idealistic and even solipsistic. But I don't quite feel like I'm consecrating my own farcical vocal talents or the genuine ones of whoever I'm singing along to, rather worshipping the way in which music comes to life in the bodies of all those involved, be those of the car, myself or the artist.

Though I might claim otherwise elsewhere, music really doesn't exist (or is only a fertile possibility) until it is heard, and music isn't heard until it is played in the heart of both giver and receiver. So driving along highways karaoking to the latest chart topper (or indie jam) of course is a telling symptom of modern times and all that produces us, but there's a spirit inside it that speaks to nothing other than the promise of music as something we all share, even if we're alone.

When I used to drive, every now and then I would pull up next to a fellow convert, blissfully (dangerously?) unaware of their surroundings as they mouthed whatever it was they were listening to. It's always an odd feeling, this - you can perceive them singing, you know they are listening to music, but no sound escapes from their auto-bubble and makes it into yours, save sometimes for a bass hum. Often you also have no idea what it is that they're singing along to, unless its you're a particularly good lip-reader. But you still know they're feeling it (anyone that spontaneously externalises song is), which is all to say that 'music' isn't content, let alone even sound, but event.

Do you know what I'm saying here? You have 'heard' music when you see fellow commuters singing along, but no sound, you don't even know which song. Like me, you probably feel good whenever you catch someone doing this - it's a strangely innocent activity, and completely uninhibited. What you are feeling is music.

I always do my best to smile knowingly/approvingly when, inevitably, the singer glances over to your car and finds themselves caught in the act. I probably look like a raving loony giving them a big toothy grin, but upon receipt of the smile the fellow convert's look often turns from embarrassment to camaraderie. It's important to keep the faith.


he loved me

Though we admit it or not, all of us have unexamined assumptions when it comes to listening to popular music, and many of these often meet at that effervescent point of the singing voice which, since the advent of mechanical sound media, has been the treasured 'sign of life' of a recording, that which we listen for to remind us that what we hear has human origins, indeed, that it comes from the recesses of a specific, individual human body - of which, again, the voice is the mark of. Save for this voice, recordings - and people - are liable to dematerialise into ghostly apparitions, gravestones of an absent presence, for though it devils us to confront the fact, every recorded voice is really an inhuman event, the trace of trauma, of giving oneself over to the apparatus which, in turn, tears the lifeforce from the performer to be magnetised or digitised, edited, mixed, pressed or burnt, then finally distributed into that great ocean of ears. It's a fundamentally inhuman process, but comfort always comes from that thin though crucial membrane stretching through it all, the sonorous human voice.

The singing voice of Azeda Booth is lush with life. It's always the easiest cliché, but this voice is angelic, it is a golden shaft of light piercing the stained glass windows and coming to rest upon the altar. It's impassioned yet ethereal, on the brink of evanescence, and it breathes through the wings of a thousand butterflies. And, above all, on lines like this:

How can you bring yourself to love me
when a hope can die like a body can?
Does it make you weak
when you hear me speak?

From the opener, 'Ran', the voice is ultimately elegaic, mournful, pierced by an unidentifiable sadness. It is this admixture of insistence, purity and melancholy that makes her voice a wholly beautiful one, one that absorbed me from the first line.


Though the details are incidental, a note on how I came to Azeda Booth. It was through the meeting of two things: first, I absolutely loved Women's eponymous debut from 2008 and was hungry for more. Second, a friend had recommended anti-folk trio Little Teeth to me, so I hopped on the Absolutely Kosher site to order their album. Whilst there I noticed In Flesh Tones, the debut from Azeda Booth, a band, the little blurb informed me, that featured two members of Women! With that nugget I was sold. I didn't even head to the band's Myspace or download the sample track, I just chucked it straight into my order. Weeks later, the albums arrived, and whilst Little Teeth was good, it was grating and patchy in parts; I found it was In Flesh Tones that I would return to almost daily as time went on, seduced by the strangely sensual nature of its science, the hazy and distant atmospherics juxtaposed with Feels-esque percussion and experiential glitches, but most of all, that voice. Oh (last line, 'Ran').

The hypnotic quality of the album, its gauzy emotional landscapes, were only heightened for me not knowing anything at all about this band, save for the fact two of Women played in it - but the sounds here were so divergent that I could barely draw a line between the two acts. I was without anchor, and I confess, all the more blissful in my ignorance. The songs had weird titles like 'John Cleese' and 'Numberguts', that seemed to suit a punk band more than this detailed, intimate electronica. It was all a happy anamoly, but I knew one thing, and that was enough: I was in love with her voice.


Nearly a year had passed with In Flesh Tones, and I hit up webzine cokemachineglow, as I often do, to find about the latest leftfield releases and read the kind of brilliant, insightful commentary the writers offer on the music. I see that Azeda Booth has released a new EP, Tubtrek. Since I had long formed my own special relationship with the band and was safe in the knowledge that whatever the reviewer said about them would do little to dent or divert this affair, I decided to read the review before listening to the EP (which is freely available, it turns out) - something I almost always never do. The reviewer was a little worried that the cluttered quality of this recording was a sign of faltering from the band, whom he also admires. I continue on, and get to this:

"the band’s two primary strengths, which were on ample display throughout Tones, were its use of traditional rhythm instrumentation in non-traditional arrangements and Jordon Hossack’s voice twinged androgynous."

Jordon Hassack? Jordon? 'Androgynous'? I 'twinge' myself - it couldn't be? Hang on, there are women with that name; one particularly plastic specimen, but I suppose many others beautiful and waifish and everything like the 'flesh tones' of the body whose voice I had found so pretty listening to Azeda Booth. A slightly panicked trawl through blog posts and other reviews ensued, but the seed had already been planted.


Of course, it would emerge in the course of my research that indeed, the luscious voice I had been hearing on In Flesh Tones was that of a man, Jordon Hassock, who has an uncanny ability to hit those kind of high, 'head voice' notes in soft and fragile tones that we so often associate with female singers.

Certainly, I could have just made all of this some kind of knowing account of how Azeda Booth cleverly subvert expectations we have when it comes to the gendering of vocal style in pop music whilst still managing to articulate an authentic and attractive voice - placing the band in the history of popular androgynous stylings the likes of Antony Hegarty, David Bowie, etc. And this is certainly true.

Or I could get really aesthetic on the whole thing and just return to my initial musings on the ghost of the recorded voice, and conclude with something like, 'Azeda Booth shows that the voice still has an emotional after-life even beyond the recording, even beyond the particular identity markers (in particular, here, gender) of a voice'. And this, in the end, I think is probably true.

But to end here, on either of these points, would amount to little more than a slight, a pitiful sidestepping of what's really the matter, because the revelation, and its consequences, is far more personal than this philosophical posturing. Because the nub of it is about what I have to come to terms with as a listener, as a man who had fallen in love with another man, or his voice, and as someone who most often wanders through his life, infinitely tolerant and compassionate in words, but securely heteronormative inside. For all my professed enlightenment about sexuality as performance, the funngibility of sexual codes, the queering of the voice, I still clung (still do?) to the principle that what hits me first is what it is, that what sounds like a woman is a woman, and moreover that her being a woman grants me a more romantic relationship to the music. It's easy to be anti-essentialist in theory, much less in reality.

I don't write this as some kind of clawing confessional or as evidence of my now enlightened state ('If my outlook is heteronormative, at least I know it is' - I find this possibly even more offensive). I certainly have not resolved whatever issues the Azeda Booth revelation dredged up for me, and I am left wondering if my attitudes have at all been changed by this, or only momentarily shaken.

It's still an intense moment in my listening life, and I guess what I was most afraid of upon learning about Jordon was that the specialness of Azeda Booth - well, to be honest, the idea of Azeda Booth, whatever Azeda Booth means to me - might be tainted, that I would constantly be left psychoanalysing my reactions to the music or trying to pick out the masculinity or just being generally disoriented whenever I played In Flesh Tones. I think it's a credit to the band, and to Hassock's vocal ability in particular, that I have since had none of these issues, because when I hear those emerging strains of 'Ran' I find myself flung back into the otherworld that is their music, where, really, everything is nebulous but at the same time beautiful.

Wet strands of hair drift into pink hills and dales, the soft skin of a lover burbles about in electric tones, the feather doona is a pillow of synth washes, the burst of a marble's bounce coming closer to the wooden desk - pick it up, it's an iris. When I'm embedded in the flesh of this world, I tend not to think about the hands or mouths that crafted and breathed life into it, let alone whether they are man or woman. If, at times, I do wonder who is behind this, it is truly an angel I see, Gabriel, that eternal androgyne, whose sex might only be revealed as in a dream.

And I'm still in love with his voice.


in the aeroplane over the sea

For some strange reason, after a CD has finished playing on my old rotary changer 3-disc Philips 'Mini HiFi System', there lingers a subaudible dust, barely emitting from the stereo speakers. Often, like many albums tend to do, if the last song is a fade out or has its own few seconds of recorded silence, the moment between the music and this sound is imperceptible. Some time later, the unit automatically goes into standby, and the sound stops then, but by this time I cannot usually tell, for it has merged with the ambience of my room, or the seashells in my ears. Such times, an ocean of sound opens itself up to me as this leaking dust settles around the room, and what I hear is that vast expanse of 'noise', continuous, anonymous and everpresent, that makes up the greater majority of vibrations in our world. Music and speech are only ever temporary dilations of this greater sound-in-the-world, and it's the latter that so often we find hard to hear. Certain stimuli, however, like this soft hiss, sit at the interstices, forming a tissue, a ridge, between what we call sound (laughter, rain hitting the tin roof, wind, Lift yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!) and noise - but not noise as we usually think of it, as a disruptive and redundant phenomenon, the crackling as a phone signal drops out, the murmur of a crowd before the band strikes up. I'm thinking of someting closer to what we might call white noise - the odd sound of the snow fuzz that clawed at the sides of properly tuned television sets (digital televisual noise is more frustrating, just blocky chunks of missing sound), even the piercing internal acoustic of a migraine, both sounds that seem like they're always there but only reveal themselves to us every now and then. Because contrary to popular belief, it is not noise that disrupts meaningful sound, but sound that must be ripped from the ground that is noise, that vast entity; it is sound that must be forged in the crucible of noise. Sometimes we hear things like this semiaural dust - I can think of no better word, for dust is everywhere - that is both sound and noise, or the afterlives of sound as it returns to noise, or the prenatal moment of sound as it is emerges from noise's cradle. My CD player has a timbre like the tide, but its horizon is ever vaster.