The Semiosis of Soul: Michael Jackson's Use of Popular Music Conventions

Article excerpt

The focus of my research for this paper is the conventions Michael Jackson engaged with to create his music. Specifically, this paper will be looking at the conventions at work in "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" and "Beat It." I'm curious how these songs are similar and different, why Jackson chose the conventions he engages with for these two songs, and what social values the songs express. I want to show how Jackson's choices and the way he engaged with the conventions expressed his social values and the social values that were growing in prominence in American society at the beginning of his post-Motown solo career in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I will look at his use of these conventions and how they express his ideal society, encompassing the plurality of American society, creating, in effect, a new community amongst his fans. Jackson, by drawing from myriad sources to create his original music, placed himself squarely within Postmodernism.

Postmodernism in Popular Music

Fredric Jameson (1991) claims it is the spatialization created by MTV (p. 300). I don't know if that's correct. I believe there has always been spatialiation in music; for example, in concerts, in opera, in musical theatre, in religious music, in musical performance in general, and even when we perform music casually among friends around a camp-fire or in karaoke. In African American music spatialization is the community that is created in a performance, especially in less formal performance scenarios. Think of a jazz club or blues club where the audience interacts with the performers. In such cases, both performer and audience are participants in the performance, and, therefore, participants in the production of meaning. Susan McClary (2000), describing a performance by gospel group, The Swan Silvertones, asserts:

   For the duration of the performance, we inhabit a world in which
   everyone participates, in which tradition balances with individual
   invention, in which self conjoins harmoniously with community, in
   which body, mind, and spirit collaborate, in which the possibility
   of a sustained present replaces tonality's tendency to strain for
   and against closure. (p. 28)

I believe this quality is expressed in popular music as well; specifically, it can be see in Michael Jackson's music. He brings together disparate parts to create something fresh. By doing so, he brings together people of disparate backgrounds. (1)

Michael Jackson certainly had a great influence on MTV videos. Before Thriller, videos were for promotion of an album or single, or were video tapings of live performances; Thriller turned videos into an entertainment medium like movies with the soundtrack provided by the song. However, the music became an accompaniment to the images, not unlike in opera and film. MTV provides a postmodern function in the way it reinforces or imposes narrative on the music. Although, the lyrics may suggest a narrative structure, the images in the video provide concrete images thereby interpreting the lyrics for the viewer; for example, the video for "Beat It" reinforces images of conflict and resolution even though the lyrics are about defeat and courage. In this case the images impose an interpretation on the song.

I think a useful description of Postmodernism in music is McClary's (2000) description of how 18th-Century composers composed their music: the "process of grabbing established conventions and arranging them according to the needs of the moment" (p. 61). Although she wasn't referring to Postmodernism or popular music, this description is at the heart of Postmodernism. Certainly, "grabbing established conventions" has existed for many hundreds of years; however, in our time, music is defined by its "stylistic pluralism" (p. 32). Therefore, artists are now engaging increasingly with conventions from a variety of genres to express social values in a fresh way rather than only using the conventions that have become hackneyed from overuse in a single genre. …