Low winter sun hangs in the
Wide winter sky, calls:
Open your mouth, child, open up wide
He’s coming inside…
He’s coming to eat you,
Erase you, complete you!
That sounds sinister; how will I know which one?
Oh, you won’t know for certain until he’s done
That seems ghastly, and far
too terrifying, and more like a trap
Any advice to brace, to shield, to prepare me?
So sorry, child: often he ends up all three.
But where can I go, can I run?
What if I’m too far gone now to hide?
Is that shameful, is that awful to admit?
To be so torn apart, yet not quite want to escape it?
Tell me, please! Does that not make me weak?
Oh, no. All that’s left is to part your lips, and speak.
The power of memory to edit can be a strange thing. It’s understandable — our brains are constantly reshuffling what we can recall from where, the older we get, so it’s the essentials that tend to stick. Mine is stronger, particularly visually, than average, but even so, the mundane moments between the highlights are as unlikely to stick with me as they are for anyone else.
I find myself wondering lately: How did I do it? In the beginning, the early parts, how did I manage what seems to have become so challenging now? Did it hurt? Was it confusing? Was it so much quieter? It must have been, and yet…
How did the time pass, and where was my head then? My emotional state then, how maddening could it have been for me? How anxious, how habitual, how manageable? Was it easier because there were fewer expectations, because I had no idea what would happen? Not that I have any better idea what might happen now, but how was it I could accept that so much more easily then? Did I? Or have I just forgotten those struggles in order to make room for what I’m wrestling with now? How did those days, those nights feel? How much have I edited out, for brevity? There must have been more of them then, and yet…
I wish I could call her up — younger me — and ask her: What are you thinking right now? How are you feeling? How are you doing it? (You don’t even know what it is you’re doing, do you? It just seems like that now, because now is not then.) (Younger me, probably, were this possible: “What the fuck are you even talking about?”) Hang in there; watch yourself. You will get careless, difficult, complacent. You will find new ways to create problems you don’t have to. You will end up stuck only because you walled off your best options with fear. Take it easy. Don’t get so ahead of yourself. Don’t confuse hopes with plans, which can be a trap. Be open, which is not the same thing as hovering over the precipice of holes you’ve already dug. The latter only means you’ll end up working so hard to control your future you’ll run headlong into a brick wall of your own making. You don’t like to be wrong, and you don’t like to be afraid, but in order to be prepared for whatever comes next, you have to allow yourself to be both. Whatever feels so insurmountable to you now — and it must be something; probably several somethings, everything is so new and scary and impossible to predict — will pass, to the point you can’t even recall it now. Can you even imagine? You got through it, you learned from it, you made yourself more. You are stronger than you realize, and yet…
Thinking back, so many of the best things, the best moments, the best experiences — you know the ones I mean — were never planned or expected. (Remember how your heart raced, how suddenly everything seemed so open ahead of you? It was because you allowed yourself to give up control, to be afraid, to move past it, to step into the unknown, to not pretend you had any idea what might happen. That’s where the magic was. That was brave. Stop, breathe, wait, look around: you can surprise yourself again.) Often they completely surprised me, snuck up on me, occurred despite things seeming unlikely or hopeless or somehow otherwise dire. The surprise in them was a bigger part of what made them great — made them memorable — than I think I have allowed myself to remember.
The revisionist in my head likes to look back and claim she knew what she was doing, she had a plan, she laid out all the pieces in order that That happened, and This was wonderful, and There was where we ended up. She’s also a liar, of course. I didn’t plan any of it. I couldn’t have; no one can. The illusion of control over one’s life is not confined to the present. I can tell myself that hopes being realized and plans coming to fruition were one and the same, though they were in fact nothing of the kind. My hopes only came true when I let them linger quietly and stayed open, did not impose plans upon them at all. They came true almost in spite of me. They were most fruitful when I got out of their way.
This photo of me, which I took by mistake — I’m clearly not paying attention; I thought the lens was facing the other way — is one of the rare ones of myself that I love. (Candids are almost always my favorite photos, of anyone.) I want to look that lovely all the time, and yet apparently I probably do, or so I’ve been told; I look so hard the rest of the time, pick every little thing apart, until I can’t even see it. But there it is, right there: and it was a mistake. It, and the moment I captured within it, is vivid and worth keeping almost entirely for that reason. It’s okay. Just get out of the way. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Do it anyway.
I want to allow the world to surprise me more. I want to surprise myself again. I will.
Just have the courage to open up to yourself
Then we can be free, yes
I wanna be free…
Try whistling this…
I stepped unnecessarily carefully around a spent chrysalis — I suspect for a monarch butterfly — on a walk the other day, and in retrospect, should likely have recognized it for the sign it was. If not that, the strange dreams that have been visiting me should have been enough. Rebirth, renewal; change. Maybe a whiff of death about the fragile little shell that remained, shed and left behind.
In a little over 24 hours, yet another birthday will come (and go). I’m not particularly thrilled about it, and at this point only hope to get through it as unscathed as possible. I noticed growing wrinkles (albeit laugh lines) around my eyes, without even meaning to look, the other morning; I’ve already encountered at least one gray hair, though I suspect more lurk beneath the fading red dye. I entered my third decade of life last fall with fairly solid optimism, for a good host of reasons, but thread by thread, just about all of it has been stripped away from me, at times in great, cutting strips. Spring is about the last time I can recall feeling as though any of the ground beneath my feet was still solid enough to trust, and here now fall is already upon us. Some years, my birthday even falls squarely on the equinox. It has not been a good year.
I don’t typically assign much meaning to my birthdays, but a friend who celebrated her own just over a week ago suggested that she was “pretty happy to celebrate leaving this last year in the past,” and I could only emphatically agree with her. (My response: “I very much like the concept of leaving this year in the dust on my birthday rather than waiting for NYE. Can that be a thing? Can we just hit reset now? Because seriously, fuck this year.” Hers: “Right there with you. In any case, it can be a thing for us.”) So yes, I choose to leave the past year behind me. There is very little in it, and my memories of it, that I can look at now as worth salvaging. I’ve certainly weathered rougher ones, but it was unquestionably my worst since moving here five years ago. I don’t care to struggle through another like it. I have learned from it (albeit painfully), but all I wish to do now is move past it.
I refuse to give up hope, though I have been greatly tempted to at many points leading to now; just because some things I had come to trust and believe in have failed me of late does not deter me entirely, and I still hold on to my hopes as best I can. But I can see now that many of them are going to have to be wrapped up in a casing of their own, shiny and hard, ideally to reemerge at some date in the future, though likely not any time soon. If, right on the heels of this birthday, I have the loneliest holiday season I’ve ever encountered approaching, too — not guaranteed, but looking more possible by the day — I need to shore up any reserves to prepare as well as I can manage for it now. I know now that any rebuilding of myself, any repairs to the damage I’ve incurred, the losses my fears have cost me, will have to be done in the solitary space of my own mind, as I wrap myself up to protect what I can, and hopefully transform myself into something better, to emerge on the other side. I know fairly well what I want to be, and how strong my desire is to become it. How long the wait between pupa and imago may be, there is obviously no way to know; I just have to continue to be patient, to wait, to continue working my best at acceptance.
I cannot change where I’ve ended up, nor undo what got me here — neither the mistakes that are my own fault, nor those that are not — and there is no moving backward in time. I refuse to believe any losses are permanent; I’m not old enough (yet) to feel quite so jaded. May as well take advantage of the ability to still believe in better things ahead while it still beats away somewhere in there, even if that means secreting it away behind a dark, tough little cocoon for some time, before it’s safe to once again stretch my wings out again.
What a choice for the daily prompt word this turned out to be; yesterday’s was “finite,” but that felt both too on-the-nose and too depressing to touch at the time. Right now, there is certainly a crescendo of noise crashing onto me: the noise of seemingly relentless, unfortunate change. It is slowly but surely growing too loud around me to hear much else.
I could detail more specifically why the past nine months have been such a difficult slog, but it would not be compelling reading, nor would it be particularly helpful; I already know what the reasons are. I tend to use writing as a cathartic and therapeutic exercise, at best, and so rehashing realities I have already faced feels tired and confined. This general excising of feeling, though, I do need; the poison has to come out somehow, usually by bleeding it out of oneself; it is painful, ugly, messy, and has to happen.
Given the latest batch of bad — unsurprising, but still bad — news that arrived today, I finally realized why this year, on the whole, has felt like such a struggle to merely survive: it started on a high note, and has gone almost entirely downward ever since, in spite of my best efforts to counter it wherever I can. My overall mental health has been much better, and I’ve adopted better habits relating to my health and habits, generally. As it continues to take over, with no turnaround in sight, I’ve attempted to make better use of my ever-expanding alone time. At the time, I took the positive beginning in January — which feels so long ago, now — as a sign that I had a good wave on which to start, and would allow it to buoy me forward, keeping myself more open to the good, and the positive. Thus far, however, all this has seemed to do is put me in a less prepared position for the bad that followed on its heels, as though I’ve been stupidly keeping my back to the waves out in the ocean of all that has hit me, and all that will follow; that continues to roll in like a tide with no turning.
My birthday is approaching in a couple of weeks, but I don’t care. I don’t do much to celebrate as a general rule as it is, but by this point I might have at least already tried to plan something for it, as in the past few years, but this year: no. I just do not care. Recognizing more clearly, today, that just about everything I came into this year either believing as somehow solid or secure, that I hoped for or wanted, or was looking forward to — both big and small — has slid away, if not disappeared entirely. The likely impending loss of my last remaining close family from easily reachable proximity is sort of just the icing on the cake. I wasn’t even surprised to read it; I just felt sad, and alone, and lost.
On the plus side, if I even can believe in such a thing for the time being: I have little, if nothing much, left to lose, at this point. So, if nothing else, there aren’t likely to be many more nasty surprises lurking around any more corners as the year drags on; it’s just more moving forward in the dark, toward nothing in particular. If it is a tunnel, which is a rather optimistic concept in itself, it’s become too long of one to see any light on the other side. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no way out on the other side, but even a pinprick of light at the moment would be welcome. Fall is coming, and the late part of the year is generally my favorite, but also brings with it difficulties of its own, mostly tied to memory, and as the days grow darker, I don’t have much faith in that black space opening for something brighter to break through. Maybe all I am able to do for now is continue to survive, and sustain some hope that things will look less bleak sometime in the future. Anything more specific than that only feels foolish from here.
I am young, and life is (generally, perhaps hopefully) long, but from the perspective of now, things look bleak, and I am so tired.
[To be deleted, I’m sure.]
They called it, at the time — or at least one of the three fires that were boxing us in from north, east, and south — the Witch Fire. Looking back through my oldest journal, I realize it was almost exactly 10 years ago. I was still living with my mother, of course. I was still in college, though I wouldn’t be much longer. I already knew I wanted out of my hometown; I’d taken my first solo trip to Los Angeles a month prior, and fallen immediately in love with it. It would take me five more years, but I knew I had to get there. My hometown was burning on all sides but the ocean, and I figured, with the arrogance and cavalier attitude of youth, that it would either burn down with me trapped in it, or I would escape, and be free.
I had just turned 21. I had not fully abandoned my pursuit of a career in forensics yet, but I was on the cusp of it. This was around the time the idea that it was time to walk away began to really germinate in my brain, in fact, even if I hadn’t articulated it just yet. Time to throw it away, abandon my degree, move on, work past it, go somewhere else. I had not yet gotten my first bookstore job, but I would less than six months from then. That, of course, would become my real career, and eventually bring me here.
This post isn’t really about continuation, though; it’s more about its opposite, but I found the prompt to be a bit ironic when I saw it, for that very reason. I associate fire with decimation and rebirth, as most naturally do, and it’s come around again, with all that restlessness in the air it brings for me. There was ash on the hood of my car this morning, miles from where thousands of acres just outside Burbank burn. I took it as a timely sign to scrap some things, at least for now. Some ideas, some wishes, some projects, some mistaken areas of focus; a little bit of everything. One or two I may come back to sometime in the future; one is too late, for the time being, and another it is arguably far too soon to address properly. Some may never have a right time or place, and should just be allowed to burn away. But I often have a hard time letting go of things, so by the time the fires will hopefully be contained, they may not be quite gone. Time will tell, as always.
Ten years ago, I couldn’t sleep, much like this week, though the reasons were different. (Now: financial stress, general anxiety, interpersonal problems, a horrendous heat wave, and two straight days of horribly timed power outages forcing me out of my home, scraping together what I can until it all blows over.) Then: there were three separate, large and growing fires, all moving toward my mother and I; one moving north from near the border, one moving west from the inland hills, and another moving south from not far from where I live now. We were on evacuation notice for three days, our cars already packed up, wondering how we would deal with the cat, and where we could go. All the fire had to do, at the worst point, was catch the right (wrong) wind and hop a single freeway, and we would be toast. We were just waiting on that call, which could come at any time (back when we still had a land line, though even then, calls like these were really one of the only remaining reasons to still have one). The air was so thick with ash that even stepping outside for a moment or two made your eyes water and your throat constrict.
Still, I felt agitated, and weary of a near-constant vigil watching the news for updates. My mother was trying to nap in her room. I snuck outside, a bandana stretched over the lower half of my face, and got all scraped up climbing the ten foot brick wall that surrounded our condo complex to perch on the edge of it to watch the sun rise. I waited, breathing shallowly, in the eerie silence, on my moment. No one was awake who hadn’t already left for a shelter, and the birds and coyotes had all gone. The near-blinding light began to creep over the edges of the hills to the east, painting a momentarily oblivion-white edge along their jagged lines, before rising slowly through the unnaturally heavy sky, and I snapped the above photograph.
Later in the day, the sky was so dark with ash and smoke, the sun was red in a permanently dusky sky, so dark and strangely colored it could have been any hour of the day at all; the illusion of time felt shattered.
I eventually made my way back inside, coughing. I would soon begin to change the course of my life, to burn to ash what had been my focus for some years, and hope to start fresh. In much smaller ways, it feels a bit like I’m doing that again now, if only in my mind this time. The silence around me now is of a very different kind, and has enveloped me for entirely different reasons, but it’s unsettling in much the same way. But change is change is change; rebirth of any kind only rises from ashes, so something has to be sacrificed to the flames. Back then, we sat inside, and we waited. I am waiting on something different now. I’m curious to see what sort of sun rises on me tomorrow.
“It’s too late. You’re my guests!”
Being a dancer since the age of 4, I grew up a Michael Jackson fan, and will always be one. Over the past couple decades or so, I’ve read more about him than just about any other figure or hero of mine, and he fascinates me to this day. Not just for the seemingly untouchable power his voice and what he could do with his body had over millions of people — including myself — across the whole world, but for what a vastly complex human being he was, all while being at the center of what was perhaps contemporary American pop culture’s most relentlessly focused lens. America didn’t just put him under a microscope for nearly 5 decades; it stuck him under a magnifying glass in the sun, hoping to watch closely, with a dark sort of glee, while we burned him into the ground.
It bears repeating, no matter how many times I’ve said it, that the late, endlessly great, James Baldwin, all but predicted what would happen to Michael, as early as 1985, to the point of precision that Joe Vogel — one of the greatest chroniclers on record of Michael’s phenomenal and varied career — has dubbed it “The Baldwin Prophecy”:
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. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…
— “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Playboy Magazine, 1985
This is a remarkably uncanny observation, yet also entirely unsurprising, given how prophetic most of Baldwin’s works have come to be, which is why they have never lost their relevance, and perhaps (shamefully) never will.
Sitting here, listening to his music — thanks to MTV playing a block of his short films all night, in celebration of what would’ve been his 59th birthday — I find myself thinking about him and his complexities at a depth I haven’t in some time. (Even Michael’s relationship to MTV is complex; the network both helped break the visual arm of his career fully into the mainstream, and mocked him relentlessly, while also later playing host to the only appropriately fantastic tribute performed for him just after his death in 2009. And Madonna may be a messy as hell figure herself, but her words on that night carry a weight and appreciation that few others’ could.)
I think one of the greatest issues with the world’s view of him, versus the reality of his life, was that we attempted, at large, to simultaneously magnify and simplify him, which could only strip him of his humanity, ignoring that — like any other human being — he was deeply complex, and host to countless contradictions. This set impossible standards for him, and yet was the largest attempt of (white) America to condense him to something more palatable, more relatable, more laudable… And later, more villainous, more contemptible, more unforgivable. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not ever fit into boxes like these (which never stops us, culturally, from attempting to shove them in, then feeling somehow betrayed when bits spill out and force us to confront them), and artists, perhaps most of all, suffer the worst effects of such pitiful goals. We so easily forget: to simplify is also to diminish.
As obviously inspired as he was by Bob Fosse, I find it surprising how few parallels I’ve ever seen drawn between the similarities of their early lives. (The James Brown connections were both directly personal, and even more obvious, so there is less need to go there.) Fosse — and if you’re looking for a great examination of another legend, you can’t do much better than Sam Wasson’s 2014 opus, Fosse — was confronted as frighteningly prematurely by women, sex and sexuality, and darkness in show business as Michael was: Fosse backstage at burlesque shows before he entered puberty, Michael peering from behind similar curtains both before and during his factory production line-like Motown years, groupies crawling into his rooms shared with his older brothers, his abusive father borderline pimping them out as a family unit. There is so much barely-disguised pain in both of their works; both were relentless workaholics, rarely satisfied with their own art. Yet they inspired countless others in their wake, both in life and long past both their premature deaths.
People often plant stubbornly into one camp or another, when discussing Michael: they either feel he was a child trapped in a man’s body, or they feel he was a predator playing the long con. (There are, of course, many variations on these two camps, but they tend to, overall, fall onto one side or the other.) Neither was true, and the clearest reality to me seems to be, again, horrendous contradictions — horrendous in that I can’t possibly imagine trying to reconcile them within one person. That he did so through his art, and publicly, was extraordinary. To just scrape the surface…
(1) Michael was an unapologetic Black man. (How anyone can hear “They Don’t Care About Us” and somehow miss this is still beyond me. Or watch him literally morph into a black panther in one of his most popular videos! I mean… shit. This is not subtle, by any means, and yet…) Throughout his life he was vocal, political, and adamant about this. His primary and most iconic messaging being centered around love did not stop him from speaking truth to power. The fact that vitiligo — which he publicly acknowledged having (albeit likely too late) as far back as 1993 — is literally listed as a medical fact on his autopsy report has not stopped countless people from clinging to the idea that it was all a lie; that it is even humanly possible to turn white as almost translucent sheet paper through skin bleaching alone (spoiler alert: it is not). There are photographs of the heaps of stage makeup he once tried to hide it under sliding off his skin with his sweat, while performing, as early as the late ’70s, but it never mattered. No excuse would have been good enough, in America, for what appeared to be a black man attempting to somehow “turn himself white;” the ultimate crime in a place so steeped in — and founded on — racism.
(2) People had enough pearl-clutching issues, at the time, with Bowie’s androgyny, but Michael took it further: he did it while Not White. (Michael’s original desired cover for the Bad album can only be described as androgynous — it was directly inspired, after all, by the famous 1928 Edward Steichen portrait of Gloria Swanson behind a swatch of lace for Vanity Fair — and it is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, his record label hated, and ultimately rejected, it.) The fact that fans — a majority of them women, many of them white — would literally faint, by the hundreds*, at just about every show he performed, did not help his case, because if we know one thing about America, it is the level at which white men will panic over what they perceive as threats to their women. And though he always featured non-white objects of love (or lust) in his music videos, he married a white woman; not just any white woman, but the daughter of the King of white music (and theft of black music), Elvis Presley. It was widely mocked as a sham marriage, and yet for over two years after their divorce, Lisa Marie would follow him all over the world, even after marrying her next husband. He was a notorious — among those he employed or spent time in his entourage — flirt and lover of women. (Lord, the video of him in the limo, talking about the “good fish,” or shamelessly hitting on the female fan at that Invincible signing… Y’all.)
[*An aside: That live cut of “Man in the Mirror” has the power to emotionally destroy me, so… I get it.]
(3) He was, absolutely and unmistakably, obsessed by childhood, having missed out almost entirely on his own (and this is why, as previously mentioned, Madonna was an appropriate choice to speak on the matter shortly after his death). This, most problematically, seemed to blind him to the bulk of his own contradictions, and to the potentially dangerous motivations of others. This is how one ends up too close to (a) a man who will drug his own son just hoping to get a screenplay produced by his famous friend, and (b) a literal family of grifters, further down the line, who will eventually take you to court and destroy your life. (The 2005 court case was going on while I was in college for forensic criminology, and happened to be enrolled in law classes myself. I followed and studied it for months. The real details of it are, frankly, incredible. I wish they were more publicly, widely known. But a witch hunt is what the public wanted, and it is assuredly what they got.) He had played with fire, in his own anger quite transparently baiting the DA who was obsessed, for years, with convicting him with anything he could come up with — even going on record suggesting he would falsify evidence in order to do so — and a literal circus of media and law enforcement was the price he paid for it. The public perception of Neverland itself also speaks to this: an unsettling image of a Peter Pan-obsessed creep pied pipering children in from all over to some freakish compound, when in reality, its owner was very often traveling or touring and not even present on the grounds; it was created primarily as a space to welcome sick and underprivileged children to experience things they never could have otherwise (if for different reasons from the lack of them in his own childhood), and thousands came and went without the added privilege of ever meeting or interacting with the man himself.
(4) He was deeply shy, yet most at home performing on stage. This is how you arrive at a man who both plants false news stories in the press in the hopes of stirring mystery (the “Elephant Man’s bones” and “sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber” stories did, in fact, originate from Michael’s own camp), yet cannot take it when the press turns on him, and runs with the vengeful fun of printing far more hurtful and damaging lies about a large and easy target. A man who loved to greet adoring crowds of his fans by the thousands, but still longed to walk the streets alone and unbothered, to the point that closing down grocery stores just so he could experience walking the aisles without harassment was considered a privilege. Was this willful blindness often incredibly misguided on his part? Absolutely. Plenty of other things were, too, to put it mildly. If the world was determined to make a spectacle of him, he wanted so badly to have control over just what sort of spectacle he would become, though this was, of course, impossible. This is what happens when one just can’t understand why you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. This did not stop him from trying, and seemed to be one lesson he stubbornly refused to learn. It does not help that he was taught very early on that lying in the pursuit of crafting a public image is part of the job: at Berry Gordy’s behest, Motown falsely claimed, when they debuted The Jackson 5, that Michael was 9 years old (he was in fact 11; as if a child completely snatching a blues song from an adult man so unequivocally was somehow less extraordinary at any age), the better to package him as a precocious child star. The image vs. the reality, as an inescapable conflict, pervades Michael’s entire career, and consequently, his life. All of this is part of what makes the Jackson family the true realization of the American dream; that so much ugliness came with it is only appropriate. It is — it must be — a nightmare, too.
Performing ultimately would, however, kill him. Frighteningly rigid professionalism had been hammered into him so hard by his father, from such a young age, that by the time a part of his own stage fell over 30 feet into an orchestra pit (with him on it), despite suffering an awful injury to his back, he still crawled back on stage and would not leave until the song was over, because he had been so deeply conditioned to never disappoint an audience. It was around this time that the drugs that would eventually take his life were introduced to him by rapacious doctors backstage, and though this may have taken over 10 years to destroy him… of course it did.
He was, yes, a genius. He could not read or write music, so when full songs would pop into his head — which he was characteristically averse to taking credit for — he would sing and beatbox each and every part to his musicians and engineers. He had a vocal range that made opera singers envious; its remarkable breadth was both lower and higher — and more powerful — than many realize. This alone should have been enough to cement the fact of his artistry, but his body was a singular instrument, too. In the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” during the instrumental bridge/dance break down, Michael and his backup dancers are shot in silhouette, but there is never, at any point, a shred of doubt as to which shadow is his. He employed many of the greatest performing professional dancers beside him, in videos and on his tours, and yet no matter how great they were, he still outpaced and outdanced them all. At 50, hovering at death’s door, and certainly not well, he still brings a bunch of 20-somethings to their knees in shrieking awe, merely by half-assing (if only by his own standards) his way through a new interpretation of “Billie Jean,” then waves it off shyly while everyone loses their minds: “At least we got a feel of it.” Oh, Mike. The voice and the body were both superhuman, and both existed, somehow, within the same man, to a degree that seemed impossible.
(5) His two longest works on film are also his most obviously personal, in that they vocally and visually attest to all these contradictions, which is what makes them such a unique combination of so incredibly entertaining, and so profoundly weird: Moonwalker (1988) and Ghosts (1997). (I also love them both fiercely; know this.) The former features an unbelievable hodgepodge of adult themes and performance (drug trafficking, kidnapping, the mob, the performance of “Dirty Diana” that closes the thing out) flowing in and out of chunks of genuine childlike wonder and simplicity (playing soccer at Neverland, the three kids who carry the bulk of what you can generously call the plot, morphing into a fucking car — and later a robot! — through seemingly straight-up magic, etc.)… it’s basically impossible to describe. It’s a chaotic collage, but one straight out of its megastar’s all-over-the-map psyche.
The latter work — originally penned by Stephen King — I could write an entire essay on alone, it carries so much of all I’ve touched on here within it in a mere 40 minutes. Though the overall storyline is much more straightforward than Moonwalker‘s, it is also far more revealing: Michael plays both the Maestro — a reclusive spirit playing magic tricks alone in a seemingly haunted mansion — and the Mayor — a stodgy (white! hiding under an incredible Stan Winston makeup job) man attempting to have the Maestro thrown out of town. (Again, the Mayor is a pretty obvious visual poke at DA Tom Sneddon; the town, hilariously, is called “Normal Valley.”) The Mayor is unhappy that apparently kids in the town have been hanging out in the mansion; the parents who follow him are concerned that the magic tricks are too scary for the children. The Maestro insists it’s all for fun, and he has no intention of harming anyone. Echoing the insights of Baldwin, unconsciously or otherwise, the Mayor continuously calls the Maestro “weird,” “strange,” and “a freak.” (Don’t forget: it is Michael voicing these words, to himself. If you’ve ever seen a more direct visualization of grappling so fiercely with self-hatred, let me know; I have not.) At first, the Maestro just plays more harmless tricks for silly scares, to the delight of the kids (and the consternation of the parents and Mayor). When he still isn’t getting the message across, and the Mayor continues to insist he leave town, he grows angry, and moves into a different territory: genuinely trying to scare them. (In the process, quite fittingly, we are treated to some of the fiercest, and best, dance choreography Michael ever put on film.) At one point, he literally jumps into the Mayor’s body, taking over his motions, transforming him into a good dancer, to the delight of the kids and the parents. He separates from him again, and takes a bow. But when the Mayor continues to berate him and insist he leave, the Maestro appears broken by the pain of this. He responds by literally smashing himself to dust on the floor, destroyed. The children and the parents are saddened by it. Ultimately, it’s yet another trick, and the Maestro finally scares the Mayor enough to send him running for the hills, and it ends on a happy note. The core message of this work is undeniable, and so pointedly Michael himself, I’m still in awe of it 20 years later. The contradictions in the man himself are all over the short film, too, and it invites a far greater understanding of his perspective on himself than, I think, any other piece he ever crafted. Michael himself loved practical jokes, childlike things, holding onto innocence all through adulthood, and pleasing his audience; the world turned on him for it, called him a freak, and the weight of all of it ultimately destroyed him. Unfortunately, in the real life version, the Maestro never returned from crumbling to dust; he stayed gone. Unlike Annie in Moonwalker, none of us could wish him back again.
“I had to tell ’em I ain’t second to none.” Somehow, this still has to be told. The point of this whole post? Respect and credit where it’s due. Don’t toss lazy criticism out there that’s so laughably simple of such a hugely complex artist. Engage with those complications when you want to talk about Michael and his legacy; otherwise you’re merely critiquing a tiny percentage of a very large picture, and you can go ahead and miss me with that weak shit.
I chose the image for this post for those reasons, too; it’s possibly the only piece of art, after his death, that I’ve ever seen capture the true dichotomy of the man himself (who happened to be, appropriately, a great fan of Rockwell, whose style it clearly emulates). He saw himself as both who he had always been, and who he believed himself to be — with all the inherent contradictions therein, as all human beings constantly struggle to do. The public saw otherwise, in large part because they insisted on it, but that didn’t make him wrong — it made him an artist.