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Full disclosure: I never watched a Michael Jackson video all the way through until today, after reading in The New York Times that “in the Philippines, a dance tribute was planned for a prison in Cebu, where Byron Garcia, a security consultant, had 1,500 inmates join in a synchronized dance to the ‘Thriller” video.” Jackson always seemed to me unspeakably silly when he wasn’t genuinely creepy, but the mass outpouring of grief at his death made me curiously enough to view the cited item on YouTube.

All music in some way is sacramental and all public performance has some religious character, but Jackson cultivated his image as a lay practitioner of pop spirituality more than any performer in his market segment, through the soppy universalism of “We are the World” as well as through his identification with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, according to recent rumor, with Islam. The feel-good guru Deepak Chopra claims that Jackson was writing a song about the environment and wanted Chopra’s help with lyrics.

Just what sort of priest was Jackson, and what was his congregation? In the Judeo-Christian world, music enhances individuality within the congregation. That is clearest in the singing of four-part hymns, something that Protestant congregations learned as a matter of routine (the standard teachers’ manual used in Saxony in Bach’s childhood had sections on reading, arithmetic, and four-part singing). The harmonious combination of different voices recreates the unity-in-individuality of a Judeo-Christian congregation.

There is very little harmony in Jackson’s songs; they depend on a few simple, phrases and a great deal of rhythmic repetition. Rather than find himself in the congregation, the individual loses himself in the crowd. The audience of a rock concert is an anti-congregation, in that the intent of the exercise is to destroy individuality, and its lead singer is an anti-priest. If the music that accompanied the Christian liturgy from the dawn of Western counterpoint emulates creation—out of the fundamental tone comes a multiplicity of tones that act harmoniously in time—the repetitive, static and sterile drone of Jackson’s music is a species of anti-creation.

If creation is life, anti-creation is anti-life. It does not surprise me that the personal lives of our anti-priests consist of flight from life, into drugs (which seem to have killed Jackson), or psychosis (e.g., pedophilia and dysmorphia). The anti-priest of an anti-congregation has encountered anti-life.

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