PRINT September 1984


IN 1982, ELIZABETH TAYLOR FILED suit to stop the airing of an unauthorized telefilm about her life. “I am my own industry,” she said. “I am my own commodity.” A hundred and fifteen years before, Karl Marx had anticipated this bizarre invocation in “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret,” the most bizarrely titled section of Das Kapital. He wrote:

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. . . . It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

Pure poetry—and the mystical echoes were no accident. Marx’s allusion was to the Spiritualists, who in his time clasped hands around tables in Boston, Paris, Prague, and St. Petersburg, waiting for the spirits of departed loved ones to set their hands knocking on the wood, to make the tables dance. The Spiritualists had nothing to do with commodities, but the commodity had everything to do with magic—a magic in which the modern notion of transformation yielded to the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of transubstantiation. But if it is possible that in 1867 Marx could have anticipated a postindustrial Taylorism, it is hard to believe he would have been ready for Jacksonism.

On July 6, 1984—30 years to the day after Elvis Presley made his first record—Michael Jackson and four of his brothers played the first concert of their “Victory” tour in Kansas City, Missouri.

The success of Jackson’s LP Thriller—35 million copies sold; the reorganization of pop music and pop culture around the iconographic mystery of Who-He-Was—had by that time produced a system of commodification so complete that whatever and whoever was admitted to it instantly became a new commodity. By July 6 the members of Jackson’s public were less consuming commodities as such things are conventionally understood (records, posters, books, magazines, key rings, earrings necklaces pins buttons wigs voice-alteration devices T-shirts underwear hats scarves white gloves jackets—and why were there no jeans called Billie Jeans?) than they were consuming their own gestures of consumption. That is, they were consuming not a Tayloristic Michael Jackson, nor any licensed or counterfeit appurtenance, but themselves.

The triumph of Thriller produced the image of a pop explosion, an event in which pop music crosses political, economic, geographic, and racial barriers; in which such barriers are made to seem unreal, the product of artifice or corruption; in which a new world is suggested, where new works of art can supersede the enforced divisions of social life. Along with such an event comes enormous mass media publicity; unprecedented record sales; an epidemic of grass-roots rumor-mongering; and a sense of everyday novelty so strong that the past seems irrelevant and the future full of possibility. In all these ways, Thriller counted. Michael Jackson occupied the center of American cultural life; no other black artist had ever come close.

But a pop explosion not only links those otherwise separated by boundaries of class, place, color, and money, it also divides. Confronted with someone or something as appealing and disturbing as Elvis or the Beatles, some respond and some don’t—and this, if only for a moment, becomes a primary social fact. Full of the sound of yes, a pop explosion also produces a no: within a context of celebration, it contains a version of negation. As Thriller became an almost monolithic pop fact, as reports on Michael Jackson began to appear daily, as the weird stipulations of the “Victory” tour appeared daily as well (a $40-million guarantee for the Jacksons, $30 tickets in required $120 lots of four, other terms too byzantine to mention), it became clear that Michael Jackson’s pop explosion was of a new kind.

It was the first pop explosion to be primarily measured not by the subjective quality of the response it provoked but by the number of objective commercial exchanges it elicited. Jackson himself was absolutely correct in announcing that his greatest achievement was a Guinness Book of World Records award certifying that Thriller had generated more Top Ten singles (seven) than any other LP—and not, as might have been expected, “to have given people a new way of walking and a new way of talking,” or “to have proven that music is infinite,” or even “to have demonstrated that with God’s help your dreams can come true.” To say such things would have been to suggest that in a pop explosion what is at stake is the question of value; that such an event offers as its most powerful esthetic and social creation the inescapable feeling that the fate of your soul rests on how a given song, or a given performance, might turn out. And this was not what was happening.

In Kansas City, Jacksonism did not divide and it did not unify. The pop explosions of Elvis and the Beatles had assaulted or subverted social barriers; Thriller had crossed over them, like kudzu. Since Thriller had never broken those barriers, but only made them momentarily invisible, it once again made them undeniable. The transubstantiation of the commodity held: where in previous years the Jacksons had played to audiences that were overwhelmingly black,now they played to an audience that was almost all white. Michael Jackson’s pop explosion did not divide his audience from those who would not be part of it. It divided his audience from itself.

Let me be clear and vulgar. Michael Jackson’s most committed and desperate fans are young black children, boys and girls under 15. To them he represents liberation, self-creation: freedom. Kansas City is 30% black, and as a place it looks integrated; in any given ordinary spot, clientele and service personnel are both black and white. What a shock, then, to eat at Kansas City restaurants, to shop in Kansas City stores, to drive Kansas City streets, and then to enter Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium for a concert by the best-known black group in the world (a black family, honored only hours before by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as the embodiment of the public good), and to find a crowd that was very likely 95% white.

The crowd was not just white, it seemed moneyed—and so did the small black contingent. But blacks had not been excluded simply because of economics, though that had to be a central factor. Reports from across the country indicated a sense of resentment, of betrayal; the commodity had turned on its head once again. Michael Jackson, who had begun his career in public life as a singer and a dancer, had, to many who had followed his path, turned into a piece of wood. This pop explosion had indeed produced a negation: its own. The tour would continue, and it would be, on its own terms, successful, or perhaps it would not be, but either way the game would be caught: pop music is a game of subjectivity in the objective marketplace, and when subjectivity is killed off, when the transubstantiation of fan into performer is halted, nothing happens. In pop culture the commodity rules but does not govern.

Greil Marcus