It will come as a shock to exactly no one that this column is old to enough to remember when Michael Jackson first released thrilling and vital music.
It was 1979. In this column's small corner of the world, at that time, before it had grown to column length and height and was merely a mini-paragraph, things were grim. At the top of the pop charts were the Boomtown Rats. wailing about not liking Mondays. This was dandy because the Rats were Irish and all, but the times were bleak.
Margaret Thatcher had been elected in Britain. Murders and bombings came weekly in Northern Ireland. Pope John Paul II came to Ireland and priests who would later be named and castigated for their many sins helped him sell conservative Catholicism to the locals. This little band called U2 was making their first recording, having won some studio time in a talent contest. The result was the strange, aptly disturbing song Out of Control.
Into this cornucopia of truculence came Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. The exuberance of it, the ecstatic assertion of joyous rhythm. It was astonishingly skilled and euphoric.
Fast-forward some years and this column, all grown up, is dwelling on an E! special called The 25 Creepiest Couples of All Time. This list included Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen, Liza Minnelli and David Gest, and Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Soon, Jackson's image was draped in the macabre and the grotesque. There was Jackson's unnerving, unhealthy and deeply creepy obsession with children. The lawsuits, trials and lurid exposés.
By the time of his death, Jackson was a ghoulish figure, diminished in every way by fame and success. The music, especially the early music, receded ever farther into some distant, perplexing past.
This is all by way of introducing tonight's Glee (Fox, Global, 8 p.m.) which is simply called Michael.
The gist, in the Glee context, is that the McKinley glee-club singers plan to perform Michael Jackson songs for their set at Regionals. This info is accidentally revealed to their rivals, the Warblers, who plan on appropriating the Jackson songs. Also, Kurt and Rachel receive news from admissions at the Performing Arts Academy in New York. But that's not what matters.
About 10 Jackson songs are performed, many of them done in unique arrangements. The episode is, as so often with Glee, baffling and at times brilliant. For brilliance, watch the arrangement and execution of Jackson's Smooth Criminal, here performed only with cellos, and it is breathtaking.
The use of Jackson's songs, in the Glee style of exultation and wide-eyed wonder at the power of music, is discombobulating. (And it's not a philosophical question about telling the dancer from the dance.) Some viewers will want to strenuously deny the music any of its vigour and appeal. It's okay to do that, to be unwilling to release the music from the macabre and disturbing ambience of Jackson's life, attitudes and actions.
Some people can fetishize the grotesque all they want, but Jackson was still a ghoulish figure, profoundly off-putting in his proclivity for intense associations with children.
Others will see this Glee as some kind of eighties pop-fest, a dose of kitsch, all surface and silly copying of the Jackson originals. There will be online discussion of which Jackson covers and interpretations worked and which didn't. Obsessives will delight in it.
The truth, if a truth exists at all about pop music, is buried somewhere in the conundrum that is this Glee celebration of Jackson. This column found it interesting that memories of other times were evoked. Interesting but not necessarily comforting, like this episode of Glee.
ALSO AIRING TONIGHT
This Hour Has 22 Minutes (CBC, 8:30 p.m.) pokes fun at the NDP leadership thing. This is good. Though not much gallivanting for the 22 Minutes crew as the Dippers had their recent "debate" down the road from the 22 Minutes base in Halifax. It's not a leadership race really, because, you know, nobody seems to be doing anything much. Also, Mark Critch plays chef Gordon Ramsay, who sets out to fix RIM's problems. Which is cute. And on Rick Mercer Report (CBC, 8 p.m.), Mercer has larks with Canada's Olympic Trampoline Team. Also by the way, the show's ratings are steadily just over one million viewers, not "just hitting" one million as I wrote yesterday.
Check local listings.