by David Gates
He was a music legend and a legendary oddball. Now that he's gone, perhaps we can finally answer the question: who was Michael Jackson?
True, for a while he was the king of pop--a term apparently originated by his friend Elizabeth Taylor--and he's the last we're ever likely to have. Before Michael Jackson came Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles; after him has come absolutely no one, however brilliant or however popular, who couldn't be ignored by vast segments of an ever-more -fragmented audience. Not Kurt Cobain, not Puffy, not Mariah Carey, not Céline Dion, not Beyoncé, not Radiohead--not even Madonna, his closest competitor. When the news of his death broke, the traffic on Twitter caused the site to crash, even though he hadn't had a hit song for years. But starting long before and continuing long after he lorded over the world of entertainment in the 1980s--his 1982 Thriller remains the bestselling album of all time--Jackson was the Prince of Artifice. As the prepubescent frontboy of the Jackson 5, he sang in a cherubic mezzo-soprano of sexual longing he could not yet have fully felt. As a young man, however accomplished and even impassioned his singing was, he never had the sexual credibility of a James Brown or a Wilson Pickett, in part because of his still-high-pitched voice, in part because he seemed never to fully inhabit himself--whoever that self was. In middle age, he consciously took on the role of Peter Pan, with his Neverland Ranch and its amusement-park rides, with his lost-boy "friends" and with what he seemed to believe was an ageless, androgynous physical appearance--let's hope he believed it--thanks to straightened hair and plastic surgery. (No one--least of all Jackson himself--would have wanted to see the Dorian Gray portrait in his attic.) He did his best to construct an alternate reality on top of what must have been an initially miserable life: imagine Gypsy with--as Jackson claimed in interviews--a physically abusive father in place of Mama Rose, set among Jehovah's Witnesses. Which was the more imaginative creation: his music or his persona?
In retrospect, so much of what Jackson achieved seems baldly symbolic. This was the black kid from Gary, Ind., who ended up marrying Elvis's daughter, setting up Neverland in place of Graceland, and buying the Beatles' song catalog--bold acts of appropriation and mastery, if not outright aggression. (Of course, Elvis and the Beatles had come out of obscurity, too, but that was a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away.) He made trademarks of the very emblems of his remoteness: his moonwalk and robot dances and his jeweled glove--noli me tangere, and vice versa. He morphed relentlessly from the most adorable of kiddie performers (his 1972 movie-soundtrack hit, "Ben," was a love song to a pet rat) to the most sinister of superstars: not by adopting a campy persona, like those of his older contemporaries Alice Cooper or Ozzy Osbourne, but in real life, dodging accusations of child molestation, one of which led to a trial and acquittal in 2005. (One shrink concluded at the time that he was not a pedophile, but merely a case of arrested development.) The 2002 episode in which he briefly dangled his son Prince Michael II (a.k.a. Blanket) over a balcony in Berlin, above horrified, fascinated fans, seemed like a ritualized attempt to dispose of his own younger self. And eventually his several facial surgeries, a skin ailment, serious weight loss, and God knows what else made him look like both a vampire and a mummy--Peter Pan's undead evil twins. That is, like the skeletal, pale-faced zombies he danced with in Jon Landis's 14-minute "Thriller" video. When you watch it today, it appears to be a whole stage full of Michael Jacksons, the real one now the least familiar-looking, the most unreal of all.
But whatever strictly personal traumas Jackson may have reenacted and transcended--and then re-reenacted--he performed his dance of death as a central figure in America's long racial horror show. He was, quintessentially, one of those "pure products of America," who, as William Carlos Williams wrote in 1923, "go crazy." To take the uplifting view, enunciated after his death by the likes of the Rev. Al Sharpton, he was a transracial icon, a black person whom white Americans took to their hearts and whose blackness came to seem incidental--along with Nat (King) Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Ashe, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and, inevitably, Barack Obama. As a singer-dancer, he clearly belongs not just in the tradition of Jackie Wilson, James Brown, and the Temptations--who seem to have been among his immediate inspirations--but also in the tradition of such dancing entertainers as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who, in turn, drew from such black performers as Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. In the 1978 film version of The Wiz, Jackson even appropriated and reinvented Ray Bolger's old role as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. And as a messianic global superstar, he resembles no one so much as his father-in-law, Elvis Presley (who died long before Jackson married his daughter), a transracial figure from the other side of the color line. When Presley's first records were played on the radio in Memphis, DJs made a point of noting that he graduated from the city's all-white Humes High School, lest listeners mistake him for black. Given the ubiquity of television, nobody mistook the wispy-voiced young Michael Jackson for white, but it seemed, superficially, not to matter.
Yet Jackson, always the artificer, surely knew that part of his own appeal to white audiences--who contributed substantially to the $50 million to $75 million a year he earned in his prime--lay initially in his precocious cuteness, and when he was a grown man, in his apparent lack of adult sexuality. He was energetic, charismatic, and supremely gifted, but sexually unassertive--unlike swaggeringly heterosexual black male performers from Big Joe Turner ("Shake, Rattle, and Roll") to Jay-Z ("Big Pimpin'?"). He neutered himself racially, too: his hair went from kinky to straight, his lips from full to thin, his nose from broad to pinched, his skin from dark to a ghastly pallor. You can't miss the connection between these forms of neutering if you know the history of white America's atavistic dread of black male sexuality; the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, for supposedly flirting with a white woman, is just one locus classicus. That happened only three years before Jackson was born; when he was 13, he was singing "Ben." No wonder Jackson chose--with whatever degree of calculation--to remake himself as an American Dream of innocence and belovedness.
No wonder, either, that the artifice eventually turned scary, and the face of the icon came to look more and more corpselike. Readers of Toni Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy, might recall the passage in which an African woman tells about her first sight of white slavers: "There we see men we believe are ill or dead. We soon learn they are neither. Their skin is confusing." That's the middle-aged Michael Jackson to a T. Jackson arguably looked his "blackest" on the original cover of 1979's Off the Wall; by Thriller, the transformation had begun. Off the Wall was his declaration of manhood: it came out the year he turned 21, and it was his greatest purely musical moment. Why did he feel so deeply uncomfortable with himself? The hopeless task of sculpting and bleaching yourself into a simulacrum of a white man suggests a profound loathing of blackness. If Michael Jackson couldn't be denounced as a race traitor, who could? Somehow, though, black America overlooked it, and continued to buy his records, perhaps because some African-Americans, with their hair relaxers and skin-lightening creams, understood why Jackson was remaking him-self, even if they couldn't condone it.
As with Ernest Hemingway--another case of deeply confused identity and (who knew?) androgynous sexuality--we need to look past the deliberate creation of an image and a persona to appreciate the artistry. A more masterly entertainer never took the stage. In 1988, the New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff called him "a virtuoso . . . who uses movement for its own sake. Yes, Michael Jackson is an avant-garde dancer, and his dances could be called abstract. Like Merce Cunningham, he shows us that movement has a value of its own." Better yet, Astaire himself once called Jackson to offer his compliments. As a singer, Jackson was too much of a chameleon--from the tenderness of "I'll Be There" to the rawness of "The Way You Make Me Feel" to the silken sorrow of "She's Out of My Life"--to stamp every song with his distinct personality, as Sinatra did, or Ray Charles, or Hank Williams. But these are demigods--Jackson was merely a giant. (And how'd you like their dancing?) As a musical conceptualizer, probably only James Brown has had a comparable influence: Jackson and his visionary producer, Quincy Jones, fused disco, soul, and pop in a manner that can still be heard every hour of every day on every top-40 radio station--only not as well. Tommy Mottola, former head of Sony Music, called Jackson "the cornerstone to the entire music business." The best recordings by Jackson and Jones--"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Billie Jean"--belong identifiably to their time, as do Sinatra's 1950s recordings with the arranger Nelson Riddle. Yet like Sinatra's "I've Got the World on a String" or "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," they're so perfect of their kind that they'll never sound dated.
The night before he died, Jackson was rehearsing at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for an epic comeback--a series of 50 concerts, beginning in July, at London's O2 Arena. If that sounds impossibly grandiose, consider that all 50 shows had already sold out. People around him had been wondering if he was really up to it, and the opening had already been put off by a week. He was 50 years old, after all: long in the tooth for a puer aeternus--eight years older than Elvis when he left the building, and a quarter century past his peak. Jackson had had health problems for years. Drug problems, too, apparently: in 2007, according to the Associated Press, an L.A. pharmacy sued him, claiming he owed $100,000 for two years' worth of prescription meds. And money problems: in 2008, the ranch nearly went into foreclosure--he defaulted on a $24.5 million debt--and even the $50 million he stood to realize from his potentially grueling London concerts might have seemed like chump change after the glory years. And of course, just problems: his very existence--as a son, as a black man--was problematic. In his last days, did the prospect of a comeback, of remythologizing himself one more time, excite him as much as it excited his fans? Did his magical moments in performance have an incandescent density that outweighed what must often have been burdensome hours and days? Ask him sometime, if you see him. Whatever his life felt like from inside, from outside it was manifestly a work of genius, whether you want to call it a triumph or a freak show--those are just words. We'd never seen anyone like this before, either in his artistic inventiveness or his equally artistic self-invention, and we won't forget him--until the big Neverland swallows us all.