By Jason King
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Anyone who has reason to doubt Michael Jackson’s cultural importance in the wake of his untimely death from cardiac arrest on June 25th, take note: entertainment website TMZ.com reported that so many people around the world logged online Friday afternoon to get updates about the pop superstar’s status that the Internet itself nearly buckled.
Indiana-born Jackson had his first #1 hit in 1969 at eleven years old. No young singer ever sang, or has ever sung to this day, the way Michael Jackson sang on record. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was the most advanced popular singer of his age in the history of recorded music. His untrained tenor was uncanny. By all rights, he shouldn’t have had as much vocal authority as he did at such a young age. Had Jackson sounded mature by simply being gruff or husky, he would have remained a precocious novelty. But his tones were full-bodied clarion calls; his pitch was immaculate, and his phrasing impeccable. He had a fluid lyricism and plenty of range, and he could find emotional nuance in challenging pop-soul material. Listen, for instance, to the way he skillfully maneuvers those tricky, Bacharach-esque harmonics on 1971’s “Got to Be There.”
Though he was capable of gritty soul, Jackson was more Diana than Gladys, more Dionne than Aretha. His muted, contained fervor, honed on the amateur night circuit rather than in the Pentecostal church, allowed him to handle precious ballads like 1970’s “I’ll Be There” with equal parts aplomb and sensitivity. It’s challenging for any singer to deliver authentic emotion without resorting to melisma or other vocal crutches. Singing the original melody as written while also conveying the emotional subtext behind a lyric requires great interpretive skill. Moving between tenor and falsetto, Jackson was a fantastic song essayist. Saccharine “Ben” and “Maybe Tomorrow” became sentimental opuses under Jackson’s feathery touch. Achingly slow jams like 1979’s “I Can’t Help It” and 1982’s “The Lady in My Life” were templates for 1990s neo-soul. It’s easy to forget how minimalist a balladeer Jackson was until you hear other singers – even skilled ones - attempt to cover his songs and fall flat: Cassandra Wilson’s live cover of 1993 weeper “Gone Too Soon” comes to mind.
Jackson preserved his lithe tenor into adulthood. Critics claim he was trying to sound younger as he got older. But Jackson’s voice became more feminine as he got older. He and Patti Austin were often mistaken for each other on the crediting of Quincy Jones tracks. And it took me months before I realized that Jackson had a female duet partner, Siedah Garrett, on 1987’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” given their indistinguishable vocal registers and timbres. If Jackson deliberately cultivated vocal femininity, he could also sound aggressive, and even carnal, as on the opening of 1982’s explosive “P.Y.T.”
Jackson often draws comparison to Sammy Davis Jr.: both were preternaturally gifted pre-teens hawking song-and-dance routines. Other influences included Jackie Wilson and James Brown, dynamos for whom singing and dancing emerge from the same bodily impulse. Jackson’s trademark theatrical dancing bore traces of Jack Cole’s modernist angularity, The Nicholas Brothers’ sinewy virtuosity, Gene Kelly’s balletic grace and Fred Astaire’s rhythmic flow. By the early 70s Jackson had incorporated into his repertoire West Coast popping and locking; I wonder if he witnessed those moves firsthand when the family migrated to Los Angeles after signing with Motown.
But Jackson didn’t simply model his dancing after others. He somehow emulsified all his his influences and created his own idiosyncratic movement vocabulary. Latter-day song and dance stars like Justin Timberlake, Usher, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo have skillfully followed in Jackson’s footsteps. But they often do so too literally. While I always felt Jackson had to dance out of the necessity of sheer ecstatic release, his younger counterparts, happy to imitate their idol, have yet to find their own original moves. Nor have any of them found a real sense of personal abandon in dance. It’s been said that Jackson did not pick up choreography easily (nor did Gene Kelly for that matter). But when he danced, he did so with fierceness, with creative risk. It was as if his life depended on it.
By the end of 1969, The Supremes had unraveled. Diana Ross’s solo career was set to launch. Motown CEO Berry Gordy identified his next entrepreneurial fixation in Jackson and his four talented brothers. To begin the artist development process, Gordy ratcheted up the funk missing from the brothers’ 1967 efforts on local Gary record label Steeltown. He concocted a production & songwriting dream team he cheekily called The Corporation (Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, Deke Richards and Gordy himself). Their job, drawing heavily on Frankie Lymon and probably The Cowsills, was to handcraft for The Jackson Five G-rated pop tunes like “I Want You Back”. Diana Ross Presents the Jackson Five, their 1969 debut, was released a week before Christmas and only 12 days after the Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert put a bottlecap on ‘60s optimism. The Jackson Five’s day-glo ditties were miles away from the darker, socially conscious soul of producers like Norman Whitfield and Curtis Mayfield. But they were still more sophisticated than they’re given credit for under the misleading banner “bubblegum soul”. I can’t recall the Osmonds ever attempting anything half as transcendent or effervescent as “The Love You Save”.
Matriarch Katherine sewed gaudy costumes for her sons, drawing liberally from the look of Sly’s pre-Riot Bay Area boho hippie couture. Stage Dad Joe, projecting his failed musical ambitions on his boys, forced them to rehearse using methods that probably contravened child labor and human rights laws. And over at the label, Gordy had set in motion an unstoppable juggernaut of early branding, licensing the J5 image to anyone who would shell out green bucks. These collective efforts resulted in mass female hysteria not seen since Beatlemania. In 1970, unassuming “A.B.C” was so immensely popular that it knocked the Beatles’ epochal “Let it Be” off the top chart spot. The Jackson Five scored three number one singles before they ever even made a live appearance. And in 1971, when Cynthia Horner jumpstarted her black teen magazine Right On!, it’s been reported that every single cover for the first two years was devoted to a Jackson.
The Jacksons marketed themselves as pop culture’s ultimate functional nuclear family. Their seemingly unimpeachable vision of black kinship as upwardly mobility flew in the face of The Moynihan Report and inner city turmoil that defined the 1970s. The Jacksons helped spawn TV’s insufferable white Partridge Family and, years later, TV’s black middle-class Huxtables. Around 1987, a new cynicism crept in, and dysfunctional families became the representational norm. Satires like The Simpsons and Married with Children ruled. By the time 1989 album 2300 Jackson Street flopped, The Jacksons had already begun rebranding themselves as the ultimate dysfunctional family. In 1991, brother Jermaine enlisted L.A. and Babyface to produce “Word to the Badd!,” a vitriolic criticism of Michael that he refused to retract; eighteen years later, it would be Jermaine who would give the first live press conference to confirm his brother’s death.
Michael Jackson’s talents as a songwriter and producer wouldn’t come to light until he left Motown in 1975. He found a degree of artistic freedom several records into his tenure with CBS Records: “This Place Hotel” from The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph remains a personal favorite. But Jackson truly reached creative nirvana on 1979’s Off the Wall, his fifth studio album, by collaborating with musical journeyman Quincy Jones. Jones’s production contributions to Jackson’s albums were sometimes exaggerated. But he did help Jackson develop the musical DNA that would define each of his successive albums. Deep-pocket grooves with polyrhythmic percussion (“Workin’ Day and Night”.) Wistful ballads (“She’s Out of My Life.”) Pop hooks that sear into your cerebellum (“Off the Wall)”). Jazzy chord progressions (“I Can’t Help It”). Swirling strings (Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”). State-of-the-art synthesizers (“Get on the Floor”). Michael’s vocal ticks, squeals, and yelps (inserted wherever possible). Savvy songwriters like Heatwave’s Rod Temperton (“Rock with You”) brought their A-game, and genius sidemen from George Duke to Greg Phillingaines delivered brilliant rhythm tracks. With Off the Wall, Jackson finally found a way to capture the visceral thrill of his live concerts on record.
Then, the game seriously changed.
Drawing on the monumental success of the 1979 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, 1982’s Thriller redefined the pop album as a blockbuster mega-spectacle. It did for music what Jaws and Star Wars did for film, turning an art form into an event. Throughout his career Michael Jackson had an aesthetic affinity for all things spectacular. I’d call him a spectacularist, if that were a legitimate word. He was the thriller he sang about; he wanted to leave you constantly enthralled by every aspect of the artistic experience. The music was no exception. Each song on Thriller was a self-contained, high concept deliberately directed toward to a desired demographic. Rockers like Paul McCartney and Eddie Van Halen made cameos; Jackson embraced Quiet Storm on “The Lady in My Life;” and the Toto-esque “Human Nature” delivered MOR soft rock. Record label Epic, under Walter Yetnikoff’s maniacal direction (or lack thereof), poured money into getting the word out about the album, leaving no marketing or promotional tool untried, including the then emerging music video format.
Jackson always harbored film star ambitions but they would never materialize (save for his featured performance in Sidney Lumet’s 1978 The Wiz and years later, a passing cameo in Men in Black II.) But Jackson transferred his celluloid ambitions into the music video arena, grabbing the baton from UK innovators Godley and Crème and completely revolutionizing the artform. With Thriller he turned video into mega-spectacle. At first, MTV refused to play Jackson’s videos, but as his popularity became undeniable the network ultimately had to swallow crow, as it were. Video directors Jon Landis and Bob Giraldi and others deserve a good deal of the credit for the artistic successes of these works, but one of the unsung heroes in Jackson’s meteoric rise was Michael Peters, the late Dreamgirls choreographer, whose iconic moves in videos like “Beat It” and “Thriller” became a definitive part of Jackson’s iconography. In 2007, when the surreal YouTube clip of orange-cloaked inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Phillipines restaging Peters’ moves from the "Thriller" video became one of the top pass-around Internet videos, it served as a reminder of how deep Jackson’s presence had permeated global culture in the last 30 years.
In the mid 80s, as Thriller’s sales skyrocketed and Grammys piled up, Jackson emerged as the most famous person on earth, instantly recognizable through his eccentric iconography: aviator sunglasses, royal jackets with epaulets, bleached white socks, and a single jewel-encrusted glove. Thriller exploded the concept of pop stardom, what was possible in the construction and maintenance of global celebrity. It also exploded the concept of racial crossover. In the edited collection Freakery, David Yuan mentions how Jackson surpassing Elvis’ sales records was as seminal a moment in black American history as previous breakthroughs by Joe Louis in boxing and Jackie Robinson in baseball. Long before Obama, Jackson raised the bar for black exceptionalism. He transformed how people around the world perceived blacks, and just as importantly, how black people began to perceive themselves.
I can vividly recall seeing Jackson perform the moonwalk on Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV Special when it first aired in 1983. Though Jackson did not invent the move, that breathtaking moment, in the context of his larger performance, started to change my entire sense of self. Back in the day, we did not just want to be like Michael, we wanted to be Michael. We practiced moonwalking and kick-pushing our legs in our bedrooms. We tried to jheri-curl our hair or at least make it look as slick and wet as his had become. We cut the fingers off our gloves in the effort to look cool. Moving and singing with total energy, total freedom, absolute strength, and aesthetic openness, Michael Jackson seemed to be a divine revelation made manifest here on Earth. Though it now seems impossible to believe, Jackson seemed, in that cultural moment, to become the instantiation of total artistic and human perfection. It was an impossible standard to uphold.
Off the Wall and Thriller remain the greatest pop soul albums ever released. Some find Thriller too calculated and too shlocky, and it is. But I’ve always looked at it as a lovingly crafted, detail-obsessed, musically-rich work of authentic rhythm and blues. Not to mention, there are few albums more wildly fun and eminently danceable (“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” still electrifies.)
In pop music, nobody has ever duplicated the commercial or artistic success of those two successive albums. For this reason, Jackson’s death might be a symbol of the end of the recorded music era as we know it. At a time in which the Internet and peer-to-peer sharing programs have made it difficult for music aspirants to sustain careers selling records, it is unlikely that anyone will ever again top Thriller’s enormous fifty million plus sales feat.
As the 1980s wore on, Jackson could not compete with hip-hop’s street cred demands. But he found ways to match its machismo by amplifying his own sexual aggression. He began incessant crotch-grabbing and Tourette’s-like yelps, directed, it seems, at no one but himself. Bad, the 1988 follow-up to Thriller, introduced persecution and paranoia themes, like on guitar-heavy “Dirty Diana” and CD-only track “Leave Me Alone”. Critics like to say that Jackson’s career precipitously declined after Thriller, but I wonder if they remember Bad was some serious mega-spectacle itself. Plus, it had five number one singles and sold more than thirty million copies – hardly a paltry sum by any standard. Except, perhaps, Jackson’s own.
I get the sense when some critics bemoan Michael’s post-Thriller work, they really haven’t listened to much of it very closely. I always considered Bad, as well as 1991 Dangerous and even 1995 greatest-hits-plus-more double album HIStory to be superb albums, characterized by the same care and attention to musical detail as Michael Jackson’s earlier solo efforts. Maybe you couldn’t stomach Bad’s silly title track, but you could certainly acknowledge the synth jazz-funk of “Another Part of Me” (Anita Baker even covered it in her live shows). Maybe you couldn’t stomach Dangerous’ sentimental “Will You Be There,” but you could certainly acknowledge sinuous groove masterpieces like “Remember the Time,” “Jam,” and “Keep it in the Closet.” Jackson’s last studio release, 2001’s Invincible could summon neither the mega-spectacle, nor the artistic brilliance, of earlier releases. But it still has its share of prizes, like sleek lead single “You Rock My World and tremblingly romantic “Butterflies.”
At the time of his death, Jackson had spent nearly 42 years making records; that’s a staggering sum considering he was only 50 years old. Jackson made plenty of artistic missteps on the way (especially 1997’s “Blood on the Dancefloor;” the remixes are off the hook, though) and he was clearly unable to reinvent his brand in ways that would keep him fresh in the commercial marketplace. But Jackson at his worst is still in better shape than much of what is currently on the radio. Propulsive “Sunset Driver,” an unreleased track originally recorded for 1979’s Off the Wall and available on 2004 box set Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection, stands superior to much of the musicianship in pop today. And gorgeous Babyface-penned ballad, “On the Line,” little known as the opening credit track from Spike Lee’s 1996 Get on the Bus, stands among Jackson’s best work.
If Michael Jackson redefined pop music as mega-spectacle, he also redefined the surreal weirdness of celebrity culture. What started off as simple eccentricity in the early 80s – plastic surgery touch-ups, carrying Bubbles the chimp on his arm to events, carrying Emmanuel Lewis on his arm as if he were Bubbles! – soon devolved into full-blown horror. Jackson began to transform in ways that you could neither turn away from nor condone. He drastically lightened his complexion and surgically altered his facial features in ways that looked grotesque, not to mention racially problematic. He seemed to become the kind of monster he had once pretended to be in videos.
The reasons he effected this transmogrification are complex, psychological, and psychosocial. Jackson spent his life in abject fear of being perceived as normal and ordinary. He was, according to reports, by turns humble and megalomaniacal. He surrounded himself with aging legendary celebrity friends like Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck and claimed in interviews that the only artist he wanted to collaborate with was Debussy, who died in 1918. Jackson wanted to be among the greatest of all legends, and he wanted you to know of his elite status. Like a black Willy Loman, he also lived in fear of becoming irrelevant. He had never known a life in which he wasn’t universally relevant. By publicizing his abnormality, whether real or manufactured, Jackson could kill two birds with one stone: he could remain both talked about, and aloof, different than the everyman.
During his tenure at Motown, Jackson witnessed how to manufacture buzz through falsehood. To launch the Jackson Five in 1969, Berry Gordy had cooked up the white lie that label superstar Diana Ross (rather than Gladys Knight or Bobby Taylor or Suzanne dePasse) had discovered the Jackson Five. Even though the public largely knew it was not true, Jackson was forced to repeat this blatant lie over and over in interviews, until he himself probably believed it, or at least saw its effectiveness, particularly when the group’s success did materialize. The lies and manufactured shams continued in the 80s and beyond as his solo career exploded. Jackson soon realized he could become a tabloid fixture by leaking manufactured stories to the press. We learned that he liked to sleep in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber - but who exactly took that picture? We learned that he wanted to buy The Elephant Man’s bones – for what purpose, exactly? Jackson managed to turn himself into the tabloid junkie fodder he purported to despise on songs like “Leave Me Alone” and “Tabloid Junkie”. Eventually the public could no longer tell what was real and false. Even Jackson’s short-lived marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, which possibly might have had a genuine impulse in it, appeared to be nothing more than a desperate publicity stunt to prove his heterosexuality in the face of child molestation allegations.
Jackson also feared, to his core, being abjectly lonely. His self-esteem had long evaporated, likely the result of years of verbal and physical abuse from his father and rumored sexual abuse from older men. Jackson desperately wanted to be liked and understood. But being understood meant being accessible. Being accessible in turn meant being seen as normal, so that was not an option. Jackson had entrepreneurial talent: he bought the lucrative Beatles catalog in the 1980s and launched MJJ Records in the 1990s, a Sony imprint in which he made some bold creative choices. But Jackson wanted people to perceive him as an eccentric, tragic billionaire like Howard Hughes (with whom he was fascinated), so he lived beyond his means and ended up in a mountain of bad business decisions and staggering debt.
Over time, physical ailment, prescription drug use, endless court cases and a revolving cast of shady characters compounded Jackson’s neuroses and self-destructive behavior. He found friends, and possibly lovers, in children, since he claimed they came to him with no agenda - but he was a fool to think their parents wouldn’t. To stave off depression, Jackson surrounded himself with the most expensive of spiritual advisors, like Deepak Chopra. He desperately searched for the spiritual life that he had once known as Jehovah’s Witness, even reportedly joining Islam in his last years. But Jackson never again found his center.
Jon Pareles notes in his New York Times obit that Jackson had internalized Motown’s crossover aesthetic and upward mobility imperatives. It was clear that Jackson feared the idea of being pigeonholed - not just in music, but in life. He wanted to appeal to everyone but to also remain elusive. So, throughout his career, he wedged himself in spaces of ambivalence. He did not want to look black or white. He did not want to look male or female. Though he was twice married, it was hard to tell if he was straight or queer or something else altogether. Jackson had become freakishly androgynous, and yet, he continued to crave mainstream success and public acceptance.
In 1985, in a prophetic essay in Playboy, James Baldwin discussed the ‘problem’ of androgynous singers like Boy George and Michael Jackson. Baldwin predicted that Jackson’s bold pursuit of mainstream androgyny would be his undoing. He said: “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.”
Because of the way Jackson destabilized our understanding of race, gender, and sexuality as fixed categories, he became the figure that many of us academics cut our teeth on as cultural critics. I published academic articles about him, I taught his albums in my classes at NYU, and I spoke about him on panels, including a Yale conference on Jackson’s life and work in 2004. Jackson emerged as a major figure in cultural studies because at the end of the day he was a frustrating, fascinating contradiction of a human being. Like the famous 1988 Jeff Koons sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, in which the star and his chimp are rendered in cold white ceramic, the superstar became a frozen vessel onto which you could project your hopes, fears, desires, your anger and your delight.
Jackson’s racial and sexual androgyny project might have succeeded had he aimed at becoming either/or. Operating in a trans third space, Jackson might have strategically challenged our ideas about stereotypes as he did on 1991’s trite but heartfelt “Black or White” from Dangerous. Jackson could have ridiculed the notion of false opposites, without becoming ripped apart by them. But Jackson didn’t want to be either/or. He wanted to be neither/nor, which is a very different thing. Jackson didn’t want to be black or white; he wanted to be some other thing that nobody could recognize, some other category that kept him unique and totally different from everyone else – and he had the money and the wherewithal to effect those changes on his body to make it a reality.
In the end, wanting to be neither/nor means you can end up being nothing to anybody, and that is the recipe for an alienated, lonely life. No pop star in history, with the exception of Madonna, has ever been so open or willing to completely reinvent themselves over the course of their career in the public eye. But Madonna managed to commit to her identity reinventions without ever fully inhabiting any one for any length of time. She also seemed to understand that at the end of the day, some semblance of normalcy is desirable. Jackson did not. That Jackson used his body, not always his art, as a canvas to effect his transformation is what is ultimately so disturbing and fascinating about his career.
Still, it’s comforting that someone as lonely as Michael Jackson brought together so many people through his work. One aspect that is often overlooked in American television coverage of his death but frequently mentioned in other countries where Jackson’s stardom never dropped off the radar is his long legacy of humanitarian and charitable work. Perhaps only Bono has bested Michael Jackson’s charitable contributions in pop. I can recall in 1991 being revolted by Jackson’s “Heal the World,” an inspirational treaclefest that seemed wildly out of step with gangsta, grunge and bleak chic aesthetics that dominated the airwaves. Jackson’s earnesty borded on serious naiveté.
But in retrospect, it’s clear that throughout his career Michael Jackson held steadfast to a vision of one love-planetary humanism on par with the most heartfelt sentimentalists our time. Like Princess Diana (she was also a controversial figure,) Jackson really did inspire people to believe that they could change the world, and that is not something to scoff at nor take lightly. Michael Jackson used art to teach many of us how to care very deeply for other people. As a child, I can recall crying in my room as a child listening to 1987’s “Man in the Mirror,” so powerful was his performance of Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett’s vision for personal transformation and global communion. I can recall how moved I was by the music video in which Jackson takes a backseat to scenes of world conflict, not even appearing until a brief glimpse at the end. I was struck by his ability to take himself out of the equation in the service of a greater social cause. I suspect there are people all over the world who could share their stories of how that particular song moved them.
One Michael Jackson song stands out for me. 1993’s “Gone Too Soon,” produced by Jackson and written by Larry Grossman and Buzz Kohan, was dedicated to late Indiana AIDS patient Ryan White, a young student who had been kicked of his school because he carried the virus. One can never choose to forget how much vitriolic hate was spewed against AIDS patients at the height of the virus’ transmission. Jackson released his tribute at a time in the 1990s when I can’t recall many if any hip-hop artists willing to talk about or discuss AIDS publicly. “Gone Too Soon” may have been schmaltzy, but it was authentic, it was tender and terribly moving, a genuine expression of Jackson’s passion and care for a young person who had been victimized. As Carl Wilson discusses in his superb book on Celine Dion: Let’s Talk About Love, we need to rethink the politics of schmaltz, particularly in the way it generates community through emotional expression.
If the punditry on CNN in the wake of his death is any indication, controversy is how many will remember Michael Jackson. He left this earth with numerous legal and financial entanglements that will keep his name in the press for some time. He may have also left us with more questions than answers.
I often wonder if the three children he raised, none of whom seem to look anything like him, are his real biological children. And yet, by all accounts to date, he was an excellent father.
I have always wondered about his skin lightening, which he chalked up on his 1993 Oprah appearance to the disease vitiligo, which can leave the skin with patches of depleted melanin. Many did not and do not believe that he had the disease, given this country’s racist history in which black people have used bleaching creams to change their complexions. It is possible that Jackson did have vitiligo and used bleaching creams on his skin to create a more uniform complexion. But, I have always wondered why he did he not darken his skin to create a uniform complexion, rather than lighten it. In the end, I’m more likely to believe that Jackson really did have vitiligo and he also decided to bleach his skin out of self-hatred. He was just that complicated. Unless a tell-all diary emerges, the contradictions with which Jackson lived may keep us guessing about him for years.
In the past few days, I have been questioning if the passing of any other public figure alive could elicit the seismic global response that we have seen in the aftermath Jackson’s death. A president, a worldwide spiritual leader, perhaps? Wherever he is, Jackson must be smiling to think that he ended up in such rarified company.