Michael Jackson Tribute: Kanye West’s “Good Life” by Jeff Weiss

Hi, I’m Jeff Weiss, you might remember me from such blogs as What Wombats Want and Generation Alf.  Everyone’s talking twenty years, so let’s talk two seconds. Specifically, those fleeting...
By    July 2, 2009

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Hi, I’m Jeff Weiss, you might remember me from such blogs as What Wombats Want and Generation Alf. 

Everyone’s talking twenty years, so let’s talk two seconds. Specifically, those fleeting few plundered from “P.Y.T.,” and sampled on Kanye West’s “Good Life,”  Disembodied chipmunk soul before the term was invented. Michael doing Kanye while Kanye was copping cheap white leather gloves and towing a Thriller lunchbox to grade school. That’s art really, synthesizing inspiration and re-configuring it into something entirely new, standing on the shoulders of titans, copping style pointers from Captain Eo. On another note, fuck you, Supreme Leader.

Two seconds. Here’s a list of the things that you can do in two seconds: catch and shoot, snort a bump, knock Charles Hamilton out the box. That’s not much—but somehow that was all Kanye needed from the King of Pop to create the most popular song of 2007. Do you remember how much you heard “Good Life,” that fall and winter? Shit was playing from every booming system, in every club, that catastrophic MTV Music Awards fail at the Palms. The shifty monoculture wasn’t dead after all—because Kanye had surmounted it, achieving that rare ubiquity that corny commentators eulogized years ago. And we’d taken MJ for granted so much that bloggers (myself included) were quick to offer encomiums to the pop sensibilities of Kanye and T-Pain, forgetting to thank the originator. We blew it. How can you credit the orchestra but ignore the composer?

Music is the only one of the arts uniquely equipped to process joy. Books shot with pure bliss either seem trite, silly, or the province of children. The best art can create feelings of sorrow, empathy and sheer aesthetic pleasure. Raw emotions sure, but rarely jubilation. We laugh and cry at the movies, but at their core, they’re a respite, all recumbence and sugar-rush—a passive activity to tickle the central nervous system before the slow fade out. But music is utilitarian. We sing along to it, we drive to it, we dance to it, we fuck to it. It’s everywhere, digging underneath our fingernails, knocking up against our neutrinos, a surviving atavistic remnant of some forgotten tribal past, sun and sand, songs of celebration and sadness. We sing at funerals, we dance at weddings. We don’t scrutinize “Guernica” or dissect Bergman.

Out of the hundreds of Michael manques signed and discarded within the last twenty-plus years, not one could ever match the sheer joy that naturally manifested from him. Just watch that clip of him performing “Maybe Tomorrow.” Some people are born vessels—Michael Jackson was a vessel of joy. Which is why Kanye only needed two seconds—because he understood that the only two seconds potentially more exuberant than that snippet of “P.Y.T.” probably came from “A.B.C.” or “Rock With You,” or “Beat It.”

“Good Life” was our biggest pop star paying tribute to our greatest pop star—offering a paean to the virtues of the gilded age. Kanye rapped about the cars, the jewels, the cash, the pretty young things. The difference was when Michael sang it, there was an innocence implied, before the lyrics were turned into the butt of a billion jokes, before the freakish allegations. America wasn’t innocent then—it probably never was. But it was younger, and so were we, and like any death, this is a remainder of our own frailty. A man who brought more joy to more people than nearly anyone else on earth has departed. Two seconds…but he knew how to make them last.

Download:
MP3: Michael Jackson-“P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”
MP3: Kanye West-“Good Life”

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