So the King of Pop is dead. Actually, in a way he’s come roaring back to life. He’s been such a disgraced, spectral presence lately that it’s something of a revelation to see images of him in his peak to remind us of what an amazing talent he was.
The first time I ever saw Michael Jackson was as a cartoon. There was an old Saturday morning series starring the Jackson 5. Michael was conspicuously younger than his brothers even in animated form, and while he was the star of the show, he was portrayed as an oddity of nature even then, like a dog that could talk.
As I recall, each episode included a performance by the Jackson 5. It was astonishing to hear Michael’s voice in the context of animated performance. When I actually saw a live Jackson 5 performance on television, the impression was the same: that amazing voice leaped out of his slender body. Even his much-mocked speaking voice was mesmerizing. Only the four members of the Beatles and Elvis Presley had such a fascinating speaking voice. The gaps between their singing and speaking voices made their personas all the more intriguing. By contrast, Kurt Cobain’s speaking voice was completely ordinary. It made him sound just another tense egomaniac.
On the other hand, unlike Cobain, or the Beatles for that matter, Michael Jackson remained a pure artifice. It’s hard to imagine Jackson unplugged, or performing solo, or even just singing. He was a creature of the stage; even his MTV videos were filmed in explicitly artificial environments. He was the last great song and dance man, the link between the music hall and MTV.
Now that we can see his life story as a unified narrative, the appearance of his single sequined glove marks the beginning of his Baroque period, with its mildly alarming military imagery and flashes of arrogance. In his last years he performed in costumes that combined armor with bondage, as if he were growing an exoskeleton to support the vaporous being inside.
I have a Facebook friend who had tickets for third-row seats for one of his London performances. She’s pretty upset, but maybe it’s just as well. Fifty performances in one place seems excessive and ill-advised. Jackson was always an elusive performer, best when he appeared on stage for a few songs, then leaving before he needed to catch his breath or to wipe sweat from his brow. Even his trademark dance move, the Moonwalk, imitated the act of leaving the stage. He seems to have understood the ephemerality of the spell he cast, but being an adult meant stepping outside the magic box, which he refused to do. Few performers in American history were so gifted, and few betrayed his gift so completely as Michael Jackson.