“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.