I just called to say I hate you

If you're going to wring your hands, whine, winge and cast aspersions, then you may as well do it prettily
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The Independent Culture
Michael Jackson's 'Scream' is just the latest in a long, lachrymose line of records by musicians turning personal pain to professional gain. Nick Coleman charts the tracks of their tears

Let's face it, pop stars have seldom been backward in coming forward with creative testaments to the grievousness of their lives. Phil Collins has made whole albums out of his torture at the hands of real, live women. Guns N' Roses rock themselves silly on behalf of traumatised Hollywood kids by drawing on their betrayal at the hands of their own mums and dads. Meanwhile, it continues to rain cats and dogs on Michael Jackson's parade, as it has done conspicuously for the duration of his life. You could be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of pop was to explicate the personal difficulties of pop stars so that the rest of us might learn to live better lives.

Jackson's "Scream" is not the first pop record to make public issue out of private grief, but it is certainly the first one to abandon all restraint in the pursuit of its audience's sympathy. It is less a pop record than a press release you can dance to.

Michael, being the man with the child in every fibre of his surgically altered being, experiences quite a lot of difficulty in distinguishing between his own emotional world and the emotional worlds of the rest of creation. And he compounds his own social problem by being as culturally autistic as he is emotionally so. "Scream" was created and distributed on the intriguing premise that pop fans are not consumers of a product but are family: people with whom he enjoys a real relationship. Even Sting wasn't thinking quite as vaingloriously as that when he wrote "Every Breath You Take" on the back of his divorce from the actress Frances Tomelty. And "Every Breath" stands up as a song in its own right, whether or not it comes accompanied by the whiffy details of its seminal context.

What Sting was doing is standard practice in the pop world: he was using his own life as raw material for a writing project and having a spiteful go at someone else while he was at it.

This is always good practise in pop. Not only does the authenticity of the original experience lend palpable authenticity and depth to the emotion of the song but the real-life story attached to it does splendid service in stoking the fires of publicity. This much could not be said of "Scream", which is all context and no substance, all story and no song. However, it may or may not be instructive to compare and contrast the vengeful intent of "Every Breath You Take" with the deprecating modesty of Elvis Presley's "You Were Always on My Mind", which appeared like hot exhaust vapour from the denouement of the singer's divorce from Lisa-Marie. One of them is a guileless explication of a nasty turn of mind; the other is a press release you can actually feel - a song in which the only issue at stake is whether or not the listener continues to nurture a belief that the King of Rock 'n' Roll is a soppy old fool.

Indeed, D-I-V-O-R-C-E has always been fertile soil in popland. Think of Tammy Wynette and George Jones giving it some scruple on behalf of the moral majority. Think of Richard and Linda Thompson skewering each other exquisitely over the span of several years on behalf of a rather smaller and more ideologically complex constituency. Think of Abba. You could argue that Bjorn, Bennie et al did not attain their full authorial pomp until they hit us with "Winner Takes It All" and "Name of the Game", the two songs which fell out of the group's pockets like emotional affidavits as the group itself fell apart.

We're now moving into much murkier territory. That of creative divorce and its most commonly cited correspondent, "musical differences". More than a few loving relationships have taken that primrose path, although when John Lennon fired off "How Do You Sleep?" at Paul McCartney, ostensibly over the latter's taste for schmaltz, it was possible to sense in his contempt the simmer of a much more complex agenda than that of simple artistic distaste. By this stage Lennon was not in the mood for taking prisoners, anyway. He'd already demonstrated a taste for direct public engagement with his "Ballad of John and Yoko", which sneered back sarcastically at the press for their sarcastic reporting of the couple's haut-hippie trifling with the tripartite concept of peace, love and bedtime.

Perhaps the most entertaining public tiff-in-song also took place in the early Seventies, at the tail of that short period during which it slowly dawned that the Sixties were over; that peace, love and universal bedtime were no longer just a kiss away; and that, shucks, all long-hairs were not the same. Neil Young composed his epic regionalist dirge against redneck "Southern Man", to which southern boogie band Lynyrd Skynyrd retorted bouncily with "Sweet Home Alabama": "I hope Neil Young will remember/ Southern man don't need him around anyhow."

Touche. However, it should be noted that the fun element in that particular exchange arose from Lynyrd Skynyrd's ability to reply in kind. This facility was not granted to Berry "Motown" Gordy's sister Anna following the release of Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye's astonishing double-album account in 1979 of their marriage and divorce - a defining moment in pop's creative display of private skidmarks.

Gaye made Here, My Dear on the cheap, refusing for economy's sake to credit the few musicians he used, doing most of the work on his tod in the studio while knocking back massive cocktails of drugs and trawling the lower depths of his psyche for nasty things to say in a beautiful way.

The album began with sweet meditations on the innocence of the couple's nascent relationship, cruised through a variety of narrative diatribes against Anna's luxurious tastes, and then climaxed on side four with a tumultuous whinge entitled "You Can Leave (But It's Going to Cost You)", a song lent added resonance by the fact of the settlement decision that alimony should be paid out of royalties accruing from the album's sales.

Textually, Here, My Dear is an entirely poisonous enterprise from beginning to end, and it gives considerable insight into the peculiarities of its composer's own baffling pathology. Having said that, however, it is also musically exquisite: arguably one of the great authorial triumphs of black American pop, if you can measure value in terms of originality, musicianship and an artist's willingness to make himself vulnerable in the pursuit of artistic realisation. These virtues did not, incidentally, hinder Motown from deleting Here, My Dear once it had achieved the required level of sales. Michael Jackson should be so lucky.

Michael might also live to learn something from Marvin's bleak defeat at his own hands: that if you are going to beat your breast, wring your hands, whinge, whine, cast aspersions and generally lay all about yourself in a publicly self-pitying way, then you may as well do it prettily. Because, either way, it's going to cost you.