Sunday, July 03, 2005

Showing how funky strong is your fighter. Yesterday I came across a blog documenting a "performance art" event in New York. Basically, over eight days this woman has decided to teach herself and two dancers the choreography to Michael Jackson's "Beat It" in some kind of public marquee, then they'll teach it to anyone else who rocks up. On the 4th of July, there'll be a massed performance with everyone who's learned the choreography.

For me, the "Beat It" video represents a time that most people have forgotten about - a time when Michael Jackson was hip, at the top of his game musically and in the field of music video, and icily sexy. I still find the video quite exciting to watch in the same way I get excited listening to a great new song (Melly Meldrum says "do yourself a favour" and check out "Trapped in the Closet" parts 1-5 by R Kelly) or flipping through a hot fashion magazine. He should never have had any more plastic surgery. I would also like to draw your attention to possibly the coolest t-shirt ever:

So I can totally understand why someone would want to recapture this halcyon period. But for me, the project falls down when it's treated as a serious cultural endeavour. Gawker was predictably - and rightly - scathing about its pretensions. I think instead that the most interesting aspect of this project is its use of the body in motion.

Some of you may know that my cultural research, such as that is, has been interested in the idea of "body talking", and in my spastic way I've been trying to theorise fashion and dance as languages. I have been finding conversation analysis - the things that are revealed and elided by the process of conversational turn-taking - very useful. Rather than trying to analyse fashion and dance semiotically, you have to consider them linguistically. You consider the ways the body occupies space and interacts with other bodies as turns in a conversation.

So I'm interested in the way that this project actually spreads a kind of body knowledge. This really caught my imagination last year in the film Suddenly 30 (which was inexplicably known as 13 Going On 30 everywhere except Australia). Jenna (Jennifer Garner) has spent hours teaching herself the choreography to "Thriller" from MTV. She puts on the song to liven up a boring corporate event and begins the dance to encourage people onto the dance floor. Improbably, everyone else also knows the choreography, and they simultaneously do the entire ludicrous routine.

At the last Nerdy Blog Night, two bloggers performed a wonderful re-enactment of the knife-fight-dance from the "Beat It" video. This was another example of conversation through shared body knowledge.

The synchronised bodies have a satisfying affective relationship. When I was in prep, every student in the school was lined up in ranks in the playground and made to do the Nutbush, which was piped through the PA system. This now seems more than a little weird and fascist to me, like Nazis doing calisthenics filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, but I remember how satisfying it felt at the time to be part of a corporeal machine: my body sharing knowledge with those around me.

So, what knowledge is shared in the synchronised Michael Jackson routine? Well, first of all, it's nostalgia - a way of remembering the once-coolness of Michael Jackson, and of recapturing one's own childhood. Second, it's a generalised knowledge of the corporeal vocabulary of music videos - the postures, the gestures, the facial expressions, the uses of body to higlight specific musical moments. Third, it's a stylised knowledge of danced conflict. The video is meant to be about gangsters, but really draws on traditions of danced conflict - from capoeira to breakdancing contests to the campy West Side Story-style narrativisation of conflict.

But you know, all this analysis is just sugar-coating my raw desire to do this myself. If I were in New York I would totally get down to this tent and get down. And it makes me want to re-challenge Bo to the "Thriller" dance-off of last year. I was so competitive that I actually bought a Michael Jackson DVD so I could secretly learn the routine and blow his ballerina arse off the dance floor. But I'm not sure how we would organise this renewed dance-off, given that Bo no longer has Bourgie as a stage for our ridiculous contest.

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