I had the grim opportunity to watch Leaving Neverland a couple weeks ago, and was fairly gobsmacked at how much it changed my opinion of Michael Jackson. Prior to my viewing, there was always a sort of occlusion in my mind when dealing with MJ, a sort of, well, yes, there’s a whole lot of smoke here, but maybe he’s just weird, or maybe he’s making up for a lost childhood, or maybe we’re seeing only a keyhole-shaped slice of a much larger picture, and on and on.
The doc slammed that window shut and boarded it up.
Weeks later, however, I’m thinking less about MJ’s predatory nature (which seems rather cut and dry, at this point) and more about his musical legacy (which is still being debated.) There have been questions about whether his larger-than-life songs should keep their place on the pop culture pedestal: that is, whether society should be able to just go on enjoying his work without having to wrestle with the vile nature of its creator. (The Polanski Question, for lack of a better label.)
This debate, in turn, has me wondering about (what else?) vaporwave.
I wrote about vaporwave a while ago. If it were up to me, I’d write about it every day (I think about it practically at the same rate.) There are many people who consider the genre either (pick any, actually) dead, pointless, a passing curio, good for a laugh, or just asinine.
Me? I love it—and I mean really love it, unabashedly and unironically. Part of that is because I reject a lot of the essayist-endorsed analysis (must everything be Marxist?) Vaporwave is pure, unapologetic sentimentalism: visit any YouTube playlist, forum, or blog hawking the stuff, and you’ll see how its fans gush about it. This isn’t posturing; it’s pathos. Vaporwave aficionados aren’t pairing the genre’s otherworldly, consumerist-gloming aesthetics with anti-capitalist polemics or critiques on Vox. They’re turning up the volume, closing their eyes, and enjoying an unapologetic celebration of collective memory.
So what does this have to do with MJ? Well, it just so happens that one of vaporwave’s many flagships is “Enjoy Yourself.” Somehow, vapor-colossus Saint Pepsi has vulcanized a chopped-and-screwed version of Jackson’s “Off the Wall” with retired fast food demigod Mac Tonight, and it’s wonderful:
But what happens to “Enjoy Yourself,” in the wake of Neverland stripping MJ’s pop royalty facade down to its true face? It becomes a much more complex question when posed to something like vaporwave, which should be understood not as music that’s remixed or mashed-up, but rather, music as we remember it. That’s the whole point of the genre, in my mind: to celebrate the memory of something, rather than the thing itself. (If someone could take my memories of hearing Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s “1–2–3″ for the first time and digitize them, they’d probably sound something like Phoenix #2772’s “Miami Love.”)
As such, “Enjoy Yourself” preserves Old MJ in its scuzzy, warped DNA: MJ as many would want to keep him, bottled up in the 80s with Thriller and Bad, with Pepsi commercials and moonwalking, dissected from the uncomfortable truth. Of course, we could argue that Old MJ never really existed in the first place; he was just an avatar, something that was used to tarp over the malice. But that, in turn, makes Old MJ the perfect foil for vaporwave, where each song is a time capsule nurturing its chosen set of pop culture phantoms.
In any case, I don’t have an answer to the Polanski Question. Like many people, Michael Jackson was a staple of my childhood, and his music stitches together my life in the same way that graduations, birthday parties, family vacations, and schooldays do. The opening riff of “Beat It” is a vessel for uncounted memories and feelings, not just a great hook; the light-up sidewalk in the “Billie Jean” video is as ingrained in me as much as any profound formative experience. Jettisoning those would be a Herculean effort. Whether it’s the right thing to do seems to be a moral quandary we’ll be pondering for a great, long while.