July 21, 2014 by NowhereButPop
Nobody owns the world anymore; there are cheap imitators (Beyonce) and wannabes (Kanye West), but no one rules the world like they used to. To own the world you have to be larger than life, and to be larger than life you have to convince enough people that you are transcendent. How you make people believe that you’re transcendent is by assuring people that you are better than them; not in a haughty, Yngwie Malmsteem way, but in a David Lee Roth “I’m cooler than you and that’s why you love me” kinda way.
The world doesn’t want to be ruled anymore; it doesn’t have time for servitude anymore, it just wants instant gratification. The ADHD nature of communication and globalization simply functions too quickly nowadays for someone to lay down a foundation and build upon their own image to put themselves in a position where they can do something transcendent. Lebron James is huge, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Jordan’s popularity, and that’s with the advent and rise of social media to help Lebron in that endeavor. Lebron has his own shoe, like every other star in the league, but he doesn’t have his own brand, like Air Jordan. James has those weird commercials where he’s just hanging out with his family, and not really advertising anything, while Jordan has the “Best on Earth” commercials with Spike Lee. These are the things that stick in our collective memory bank, and it’s these indelible moments that create those larger than life icons.
For a pop icon to culture this larger than life, planetary adoration, they have to do something that seems light years beyond anyone else. It doesn’t have to be something shocking like a meat dress, because at this point we, as a society are smart enough to recognize an attention whore when we see one. It has to be something unpredictable, but functional, cool, but necessary. It has to have both style and substance, and unless it has both it will never transcend pop culture.
Going back to Jordan, who still is larger than life, one of his many transcendent moments was in game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals, when he dropped 35 points in the first half, a record that still stands today. In those 24 minutes, Jordan did something cool and unpredictable (score a shit ton of points), but also something functional and necessary (score a shit ton of points in a crucial situation). The shrug was only the icing on the cake, reminding us that he knew he was being transcendent at that moment. Michael Jordan is important today as an idea, as this living legend of unparalleled proportions, something who literally did the impossible. He did the impossible when it mattered, or maybe he made the impossible matter.
Musicians are more interesting to talk about than athletes are, for the reason that athletes have a shelf life predetermined by biology; once they get old and past their prime they aren’t of much intrigue anymore. At best we just marvel at their ability to not suck as much as they should (Tim Duncan and Kareem), and at worst we lament for what they once were (Robert Parish and Shaq). Unless an athlete gets Steve Sax Syndrome or kills someone, they don’t really intrigue us when they aren’t good.
Musicians are way more interesting to talk about because their careers are way more volatile. An athlete will have a job so long as they can play, but if an artist puts out a really shitty album, their career is jeopardized. It’s way more fun to talk about when, how and why an artist became larger than life, because it’s much harder to attain and retain that status. The two best examples of musicians who have achieved such a state of nirvana are Madonna and Michael Jackson. Both of them once had the world hang on everything they did, both had ill-fated relationships with Pepsi , and both have iconic moments that transcend music and redefined our culture.
Madonna’s defining moment, the moment where she owned the world and could have probably bought all of South America, came in 1990, in the form of The Blonde Ambition tour. It was considered the best tour of the 1990s by Rolling Stone, broke every single record imaginable for a female performer; it’s also where Madonna busted out her cone bra for the very first time. Coming off Like A Prayer the album which turned her from a pop star into a super star, The Blonde Ambition tour was only 57 shows long and lasted five months, but when we think of Madonna, the Madonna that we think of is the cone breasted, vagina grabbing, noir inspired goddess of 1990.
Two of her three iconic VMA performances sandwich The Blonde Ambition tour, her 1989 performance of “Express Yourself” and 1990s “Vogue”, where she is dressed up as (presumably) 18th century French nobility. 1990 is Madonna at her most powerful, where she challenged (and defeated) preexisting notions of what a female artist could and could not do. She would talk about sex and be demonstrative (a trend that continues to this day), but it was to make a point that she could do that and that she shouldn’t shy away from it because some people wouldn’t want to see a woman do that. In 1990 no artist or band, male or female was bigger than Madonna and it’s because no one else was larger than life; no other artist had both the opportunity to do whatever the fuck they wanted, and the stage and fan support to encourage them to be provocative enough to push the boundary.
Madonna was no longer the pixie jumping around in a wedding dress, nor was she the throwback bubblegum pop star from True Blue, by 1990 she had become a mature, sexy and self-assured woman, one who didn’t do what she was supposed to, but one who set the trend. The fact that a kid who was born before all this even happened, the fact that we’re still talking about it proves how big everything she did that year really was. 1990 was the year Madonna ruled the world because she did something cool (The Blonde Ambition tour) that was necessary (breakdown barriers and transcend gender roles within the music business). Without 1990 Madonna, there is no Lady Gaga, or Beyonce.
Madonna’s larger than life scale lasted about a year, but when we talk about Michael Jackson, we talk about someone who was so big, and so thoroughly owned the world that not only could he do no wrong, there was a good 10 year period where he could only do right. The sheer fact that in 10 years he only had to release three albums, and he was still the emperor or music says enough. Truthfully, Jackson’s rulership of the world lasted for the five years between Thriller and Bad (1982-1987). Thriller is Thriller, so I don’t need to expand on that, but it’s the reason why Michael Jackson is on a level above anybody else, because no album before or since has had the magnitude that Thriller did. No one doesn’t like the album.
Michael’s defining moment, the moment where we can point out and say “at that point in time Michael was on top of the world” was on March 25, 1983 when he debuted the Moonwalk on national television. It was and is so big that Motown records has refused to air the recording a second time. That’s right, before YouTube, the only way to see the original Moonwalk was to have been alive before March 25, 1983. My generation has never seen it, and yet we believed. We believed and fully acknowledge that this guy at one point in time ruled the world, even though it happened before we were born. Michael Jackson was never more charismatic than he was on that night. The very next day everyone was talking about it, not a song, not the performance, but the dance move. No one else, not Chris Brown, or Usher have ever had people talking about a dance move. During those early years of his career Michael Jackson was cool (Thriller, the Moonwalk), but he was also necessary (the first black artist heavily featured on MTV). That is transcendence.
Performers like Michael Jordan, Madonna and Michael Jackson aren’t transcendent because we continue to talk about them, we talk about them to this day because they are transcendent. Jackson is the biggest pop star this world has ever seen, and Madonna is arguably its best. They’re the best and most iconic because they gave us easily recognizable moments of that greatness. They made it easy for us to understand them and what they were doing. Other examples include Led Zeppelin releasing an untitled album and then having that album sell 25 million copies, The Beatles performing on a rooftop, and U2 making electronica cool in the U.S. They were all cool, yes, but they justified themselves and made themselves matter. They gave us a reason to care about them, and in return we let them take over the world.