Kanye West, Michael Jackson, and the beginnings of balance

I again turn to the two foundations of modern music: technique, and artistry. Technique is more easily recognisable, and art has a moral dimension that is more subjectively contestable. Technique bears the semblance of objectivity, and therefore is often prised above the more obscure form of art. But art is the end towards which the means of technique are rightly directed. The trick is to find the right balance between the two, to prevent a blind cycle between ends and means, art and technique.

Life after death: Michael Jackson’s Xscape.

Alas, such balance eludes modern music. Jon Bellion playfully views himself as a synthesis of Kanye West and Michael Jackson, but does not take this view all that seriously. There is something missing, and it is not entirely clear what. Perhaps it is the pessimism that Billie Eilish resurrected in 2019’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, before relinquishing the enlightening darkness on the 2021 rock-influenced Happier Than Ever. Hip hop is now reverting to its 1990s default foci on the body and trade, even as pop reels from the effects of the artistic triumph of hip hop in Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Pop struggles with this ricocheting effect of higher culture, since its base commercial incentives remain central to the calculations of music executives and their servile signed artists. The memory of the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, hovers over the deep. Alas, we are lost in a shallow shadow.

After Michael Jackson’s passing, several unreleased tracks were released in compilation albums Michael and Xscape, whose core track ‘Chicago’ echoes the themes of the song that changed pop music forever: ‘Billie Jean’. Both songs involve Michael’s musical character putting blame on an elusive, chameleon-like partner, falling under the critique of such short-sightedness by Kanye West’s ‘Blame Game’, a subtle stand-out track from Dark Twisted Fantasy. But the artistic sun shines only after the technical shadow dawns upon a sleeping world. To bring our eyes to the light, we must first reawaken from the dark. Art may bring us to the light, but technique can shake us from our silent slumber. Michael Jackson, the unsurpassed king of pop, remains one beginning from which a new ending may grow, as anticipated by the unsurpassed king of hip hop, Kanye West. Between these two extremes, let balance flow. May it be so.

As a stand-out track from Michael suggests, however, we may first need to look ‘Behind the Mask’ to find the ‘truth’ of the way forward. Let us, then, let go, and rediscover what was lost, an eternity ago.

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