Music

Neverland Penitentiary

Adam Williams

As the King of Pop faces his day in court, all that's missing in this three-ring circus are clowns and parading elephants. But whether or not he's found guilty, Michael Jackson will remain jailed in the surreal prison he's made for himself.

Only days into the jury selection process for Michael Jackson's upcoming trial, the carnival atmosphere continues to follow the Gloved One like his shadow. From agitated bands of courthouse protesters to Jackson's televised proclamations of innocence, the latest chapter in this tragic tale has the potential to outdo all of his previous legal encounters as the trial shapes up to be the ultimate theater of the absurd.

California is host to mudslides, floods, earthquakes, and forest fires, but these pale before the natural disasters that most fixate the media, celebrity criminal proceedings. California has treated the nation to these perversely fascinating spectacles on a regular basis, and Jackson's is sure to be more lurid than O.J., more exciting than Baretta and more entertaining than Scott Peterson. Order some cotton candy and grab a seat, the circus has come to town.

It's ironic that Jackson finds himself defending his person in the hallowed halls of justice, since he has spent the bulk of his adult life being tried in the court of public opinion. Before our collective eyes, he's evolved from his prepubescent days as the focal point of the Jackson 5 into an asexual MTV monopoly and embarrassingly wealthy pop icon, and then into a surgically altered oddity and compulsive water-cooler topic. His albums sold in the tens of millions, yet since Thriller his artistic talents have been continually overshadowed by his personal eccentricities. Curious onlookers have been baffled by the paradox he poses: Is he a little boy in an adult's body, or is there a serious psychosis brewing? Jackson continued to confound matters with his peculiar behavior and well-publicized affinity for adolescent companionship, thus changing the prevailing question to: Is he a delusional sexual predator who exploits the young visitors to his Neverland ranch, or merely an inscrutable man-child interested in sharing his fame and fortune with juveniles?

Regardless of the correct answer, Jackson polarizes societal sentiment, as admirers hold him in fanatically high regard while detractors ridicule him as a pedophilic freak. Contrary to race-card spin, ethnicity plays virtually no role in whether Michael Jackson is loved or loathed; his transformation over the years has left his image as colorless as his de-pigmented skin has become. Jackson is being prosecuted because of the grotesque nature of the charges levied against him coupled with his celebrity status. To suggest anything else sinks the case deeper into the muck and accomplishes the unthinkable; it makes Jackson a gratuitous victim of white society whose primary motivation is the figurative lynching of a powerful black man. Let the Johnny Cochrans of the world perpetuate this type of racist rhetoric; Jackson's fate should be decided strictly upon the merits of the presented evidence.

That said, believing that a pool of jurors completely devoid of biases can be impaneled is a fallacy. Violations to gag orders have repeatedly occurred, as leaks make their way to the media from parts unknown. Everyone has formed opinions based upon past news stories and gossip column fodder, with Jackson's legal dilemmas and antics making headlines for over a decade. Reports of questionable conduct behind closed doors, hush-money payoffs and additional alleged victims coming forward only muddy the water further.

Jackson hasn't done himself many favors either, staying true to form by releasing carefully orchestrated pleas for understanding and holding fast to his proclaimed devotion to children. Public-relations minions from both sides stand at the ready, prepared to affect damage control on a moment's notice, as reporters circle the spectacle like hungry buzzards. So how will Jackson get a fair trial amidst the chaos? He won't, despite what the judge assures him, as he and his past are simply too well known by even the most casual passersby. So it seems unlikely, in this climate, that justice will be served. Rather than come to terms with Jackson's guilt or innocence, the Jackson case is more likely to exemplify all that's wrong with the judicial system.

Should Jackson be found guilty, the empire he's painstakingly constructed around himself will assuredly crumble. He will be a convicted child molester, one whom the recording industry will cast aside. Defectors from his once-lavish payroll roster of assorted handlers and sycophants will seek ways to capitalize with book deals offering firsthand accounts of life in Wacko Jacko Land. Conversely, if Jackson is exonerated, he will never completely escape suspicion, or the hordes of litigious opportunists looking for a quick buck. He'll remain as alone in his world of surreality as he would be in a six-by-eight foot cell.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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