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.
Rick, Great commentary. I esp. like the notion that MJ was the last great American minstrel, a true song and dance guy – total artifice, ghostly, ghastly, etc.
Thanks! And he was ghostly and ghastly, for sure. It seems like he kept chiseling away at his face, then his very soul.
Not at the time of the Thriller, but later when Bad had just come out and as I was one day watching the clip loop away under my skeptical gaze – I had this pre-conceived idea then that here was just another pop(-up) ‘American Star’, did Michael Jackson suddenly reach out and grab my imagination, revealing himself for what he really was: superbly talented, a true artist. He was The performer par excellence, true, and more, his music, for me, had what high art has, i.e. its own truth become universal. It was magical, I had to admit to myself, how the words, the music, and his rendering of the work matched so well. His may have always been a staged, artificial rendering, and a result of inspired team work. But deep down I believe the nuances were what really mattered and they were the work, solely, of Michael Jackson.
Dear Richard, thank you for this piece! How do you do it?!
I had much the same reaction to Jackson as you did: I’m not exactly his target audience, and Thriller first struck me as late disco, but after repeated listening–the Thriller songs were everywhere–I had to admit that I kind of liked it. I still think “Billie Jean” is his best song.
There’s a really good piece in the Sunday New York Times, by the way, that argues there will never be a dominant pop star like Jackson ever again–too many entertainment options, too many musical genres and sub-genres.
Likes this! Really.