Blog Post

Michael Jackson: Never Can Say Good-Bye

One of those little lies you tell undergraduates is that Romanticism-its obsession with unique inner feeling, its obsession with nature-emerged as a result of the Industrial Revolution.  When you have black soot all over you whenever you go for a walk, you suddenly start making up ideas about "nature"; and when you get the creepy feeling that you really are just like the thousands of people you see every day in a city, you start becoming obsessed with your own individuality.   

Yes, yes, I know things are more complicated than that (actually, I have always suspected that Wordsworth is not more complicated than that).  But it's a lie that is ok to tell undergraduates because it's not entirely untrue, because it disrupts the "poetry is about feelings and individuality" thing that they all learn somewhere (from Romanticism?), and because, well, it's not entirely untrue, which is to say, it is a little true.  

It leads me to a new, similarly technological-determinist sentiment: when the internet came around, academics started feeling really nostalgic for stuff, particularly for books.  That is to say, when it was very, very obvious that the "material form" of a text does not necessarily matter very much-you can read the NY Times online or in print; you will soon be able to read something approaching all texts (books, manuscripts, cave drawings) online-people just started to get a warm, fuzzy feeling for physical objects.  In the hands of a great, slow writer, this fuzziness is amazing: I could read Nicholson Baker describe how interesting old oak library card catalogs are all day and never get sick of it.  And my friends Erik and Stephanie (source of much slog material) sent me this unnervingly moving book  that is a diary of a couple's dissolution as seen through their household junk.  

The world of academia, though, is seriously lacking in Nicholson Bakers.  I don't know what your field looks like, but mine (Renaissance literature) looks like a dead relative's front yard.  Everything has come out of the attic: there are old clothes, tattered books, the thing your cousin wrote in crayon when she was five, a broken smelly perfume bottle (I hope that was perfume), twelve versions of an essay someone started writing in 10th grade, the costume for Halloween in 1977 (R2D2), a formica table that maybe only someone in Williamsburg would like.  And as at any moment of going through the dead persons things, it is important to keep in mind: you don't really want that waffle iron, even if it does just need one knob to make it work again.  As part of the on-going effort to kill off all vestiges of literary idealism ("Shakespeare/Donne/Milton was a genius") and idealism more generally, Renaissance studies keeps turning to "material"; to scribbles in old books and Renaissance waffle irons, as well as bits of the mammals that once wielded them-humors, blood, animals.  Shakespeare Quarterly is often country fair meets yard sale.  There have been blips of dissatisfaction with this material turn, but only recently has something like a coherent discussion started to take place.  And the tentative consensus that is starting to emerge from semi-sober conversations at conferences is that what was evoked in the battle against idealism has, perhaps inevitably, become idealism.  Inevitably, I say, because the term material now tends to mean, with a sort of uncanny exactness, the hitherto existing materialism whose chief defect Marx pointed out in the Theses on Feuerbach a hundred and sixty years ago (arguments that locate truth in the material are always idealisms, and consequently subject to all the critiques of idealism).  In its effort to combat idealism, materialism turns into idealism.

I am not absolutely opposed to this latest academic fad.  It can be fun to learn about smelly things.  And god knows the world needs dedicated followers of fashion so that I can buy the cheaper Banana Republic version, and the humanities really needs dedicated followers, if for no other reason than to keep the money flowing in.  Fads are inevitable, sometimes tiresome, but also something worth thinking about.  What I think is worth thinking about is this: 1) how did this happen?  why did materialism suddenly seemed like a solution to all the world's problems?  I'm not entirely going to talk about that question here (but I bet the answer has something to do with the internet).  Instead I'm going to talk about 2) if materialism (the study of stuff) does not get rid of idealism, if it actually turns into idealism, what do you do with idealism?  The trouble with idealism (it naturalizes social inequality) hasn't gone away: it many respects, it has gotten worse, especially if you believe Walter Benn Michaels.  There seems to be a need for another way of talking about idealism, of dislodging its pretensions to truth, because materialism is not working.

The best discussion of this problem that I know of (aside from Adorno, of course) is Derrida's "Specters of Marx," which in my reading insists that you can't kill idealism off because it always comes back like the ghostly odor of old breakfasts off that waffle iron.  This argument seems a little funny at first coming from Derrida, our deconstructing Dad: even Habermas (in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity) thought that Derrida was arguing for an endless, continual postponement of signification (which led Habermas to think that Derrida was unhelpfully blurring the line between philosophy and literature).  But Zizek, at least, has insisted that the lesson of deconstruction is exactly the opposite: that you can't postpone idealism (aka "the question of ontology").  It sort of makes sense: for deconstruction to work, there has to be something to deconstruct, and there always is: an idealism, an ontology, some logocentrism to deal with.  Like ghosts, they are always coming back, these idealisms (even when they are called "materialism"), and what you can do is chat with them ("Thou art a scholar, speak to it Horatio!").    

It seems clear, for instance, that the ghost of Michael Jackson isn't going anywhere.  But which ghost, exactly?  The ghost of the one glove and the moon walk, the material Michael Jackson?  In some respects, MJ would seem to be the poster child of new materialism because his life was in part an effort, conscious or not, to live the material critique-blurring the line between black and white with chemicals on his skin (a creepy realization of George Schuyler's creepy novel Black No More), blurring the line between male and female by making his face and nose look like Diana Ross while he grabbed his crotch (there was a reason the NY Post called him Jacko), blurring the line between child and adult by watching Home Alone at Neverland, blurring the line between labor (the second hardest working man in show business) and the invisible hand of the market with his metonymic single glove.  

But to me, despite all these things, Michael Jackson was never really just the King of Material Pop.  He was also, probably primarily, a soul singer-and I know he was a soul singer, because Genius on my iTunes puts him in a playlist with Al Greene and Curtis Mayfield.  He was one of the great inheritors of Motown and the 313, even if he was from Indiana and recorded mostly in Los Angeles.  And when you talk about soul singers, you have to talk about soul, about idealism, not stuff, or really you're not talking about anything at all.  The entire point of a soul singer is that the singing hits you hard, not just in the heart (a muscle, in the end) but in the soul.  To overstress the materialism of soul singing is really to miss the entire point.

That is not to say that material stuff doesn't have a crucial role in thinking about MJ.  When you see his live performance on youtube of Billie Jean at the motown 25th reunion, no doubt you could talk at interesting length about the about the clothes, about lip-syncing, about technical aspects of how the sound was recorded and the show was filmed-all of these things matter, as do MJ's Pepsi ads and the money spent on videos.  But all these things are only interesting  and compelling when you tie them to the question of soul, when you tie them to the little rhythmic prance-thing that Jackson does with his feet  (accented, but not driven, by his high water pants and white socks).  Something else is driving Michael Jackson, something else that makes it worth paying attention to all the material things associated with Motown.  Without that thing, MJ would be as tedious and uninteresting as Madonna, who is from the part of Detroit that thinks that the Cadillac STS is sexy and provocative.  But MJ was always interesting, and he was interesting because he could actually sing.

Which brings me to one of my favorite Michael Jackson moments.  Here are the lyrics to "Never Can Say Goodbye," which was written by Clifton Davis [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifton_Davis ].  I got them from sing356.com, though I fixed a few things that I thought were mistakes: 

Never can say goodbye
No no no no, I
Never can say goodbye

Even though the pain and heartache
Seems to follow me wherever I go
Though I try and try to hide my feelings
They always seem to show
Then you try to say you're leaving me
And I always have to say no...

Tell me why
Is it so

That I
Never can say goodbye
No no no no, I
Never can say goodbye

Everytime I think I've had enough
I start heading for the door 
There's a very strange vibration
That pierces me right to the core
It says turn around you fool
You know you love her more and more

Tell me why
Is it so
Don't wanna let you go

Never can say goodbye
No no no no, I
Never can say goodbye

I keep thinkin' that our problems
Soon are all gonna work out
But there's that same unhappy feeling and there's that anguish, there's that doubt
It's that same old did ya hang up
Can't do with you or without
Tell me why
Is it so
Don't wanna let you go

Never can say goodbye
No no no no, I
Never can say goodbye
No no no

In the Jackson Five recording, you suspect something odd is going on right from the start.  The song begins with a little A-B-D figure repeated three times, then settles into an Em9 chord that, as every barroom piano player knows, is basically the same thing as a Gmaj7 chord.  The result is that the song manages to sound both assertive and major and sad and minor all at the same time, and the repetition of the opening figure makes the song sound less mechanical than haunting, not a repetition but a repetition compulsion.  And this movement back and forth stays in the verse as the song moves back and forth between a Dmaj7 and a Dmin7, literally setting in motion the indecision, or the decision, of "never can say goodbye": major or minor?  stay or go?  Is staying or going a good thing or a bad thing?  

That repeated indecision reveals what Richard Poirier once called (in "The Renewal of Literature") a density.  That density is apparent in part in the bass line, which moves a round a lot but almost always evokes a D (after a lot of web searching I still can't figure out who plays bass on the recording); indeed, the zipping around the bass does tends to reinforce the looming presence of the D that it is usually implicitly vamping on, rather than making the D go away.  Density is likewise apparent in the lyrics, where it gets a bunch of different names: the pain and heartache that follows wherever he goes, "our problems" that he hopes will soon work out, "that anguish" and "that doubt."  But in the middle verse of the song, in the soul of the song, so to speak, it is called a "very strange vibration that pierces me right to the core."  Something keeps coming back that both prevents the speaker from leaving and makes him, compels him, to always say no when she tries to say she is leaving, even when they both want, or sometimes think they want, to leave.  

Like the couple, the song stays together even when you can't entirely make out the words:  sing365.com says "It's the same old did you hang up," while lyricsmode.com suggests "It's the same old dizzy hangup."  Whether a disconnected telephone conversation or a dizzying obsession, in both cases "it's the same," because both of them express the uncertain certainty (never can say goodbye) that the song is about at its core.  They stay together, unhappily or happily, and so does the song, never spiraling out into bits of cliche nor turning into reified repetition.  There is both a happiness and an unhappiness, a major 7 chord and a minor 7 chord, that they can never quite say good bye to.  And it is this density, what Adorno would call "form," the song's immanent logic, that holds the song together and makes it amazing.  Musicians call it "sitting in the pocket," the rhythmic moment inside the folds of the song that you are supposed to plunk yourself down in.

That strange vibration comes through-literally as sound, a literal vibration-when a more or less twelve year old Michael Jackson sings the song.  He is in the pocket.  In other words, the soul of the song doesn't come from him-as the song says, it is hard to say, exactly, where the soul of it comes from.  But MJ is fully locked in.  Though much of the music that was given to the Jackson 5 to record was what Berry Gordy called bubblegum soul (ABC, Sugar Daddy), there is nothing bubblegum about "Never Can Say Goodbye" (or about "The Love You Save," which may be an even better song).  And the singing matters, not because it supplies the soul but because it participates in the soul that lurks throughout the song and glues it together like the (un)happy couple it depicts.   

The soul, the density, not only holds together the song, but it holds together all the things that go into the song-MJ's voice, but also the backing musicians (probably The Wrecking Crew, but I'm not sure), the recording technology, the marketing, the continual replay, the Jackson 5 cartoon, the afros: in short, all the material things that are associated with the song.  These things matter (literally "matter"), but they only matter in relation to the soul of the song.  In other words, rather than using all those material things to explain the song-historicize it, contextualize it, ground it-it seems to me that things work exactly the other way around: the soul historicizes all the other stuff, giving historical significance to recording technology by explaining the origin of the technology, explaining why it came into existence at all.  To spell out all those connections-that would the work of an article or a book, not a slog, but the dynamic would be the same.  Likewise, the little lie you tell undergraduates about Romanticism's relation to the Industrial Revolution can be turned around: the densities found in Romantic poetry help explain how industrialization happened at all.  

Soul or density, consequently, does not count as an idealism, exactly: it keeps calling into question its motives, its position (never can say goodbye) in a way that idealisms don't.  Idealisms say "we are true."  Souls and densities say "well..."  But it's the soul that you can't say good bye to: something else, a very strange vibration, the ghost in the Motown machine.  That's Michael Jackson.

More to come on Richard Poirier.

Christopher Warley's picture
Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.