Michael Jackson died yesterday, although he’d been a walking corpse of a man for many years. To say that he’d turned himself into something beyond human, beyond any sense of normalcy was sometimes an understatement. He pushed the publicity bandwagons to their breaking point with tales of giant castles, Elephant Man bones, and dating Madonna and Brooke Shields in a completely celibate manner.
Madonna. Celibacy. That’s a weird guy.
I read my first Michael Jackson death joke about 10 minutes after finding out he was dead via cable reports. The joke was part of a comments thread on The Onion’s AV Club page, an amazing collection of brilliance and snark that often has insights about popular culture that are brilliant and offensive in the same sentence. So, here’s the sentence that actually caused me to laugh:
“Well, he’s having sleepovers with Baby Jesus now.”
Sorry for the pause, I was listening to “Rock With You” again. It’s pretty much impossible not to sing along with that one. It has a much softer melody than most of the other dance songs on Off The Wall, and a series of call and responses on the chorus that define “smooth”. It builds well towards it, too, the way the massed vocals sing “Feel that heat”, and the song pulls back, dropping everything but the percussion and Michael singing “And we can ride the boogie” with the hihat cymbal emphasizing the off-beats. The chorus uses the beats between the phrases in a way that makes the responses even more powerful. When Michael sings “I wanna rock with you”, there’s a mild snap of massed fingers and percussion that creates a single beat pause before the choir sings “Allllll niiiiight”. “Rock With You” is great in that it never boils over – never is anything but remarkably smooth. The tension created by the propulsion of the beat and the lack of caterwauling works fantastically to create a mood of anticipation. The song sets up the idea of rocking with you, but does not yet rock with you. That’s the next few songs. He’s the seducer here, and, back then, we all knew what that meant: get McKinley laid! It did not mean sleepovers with children in the same bed as a 40-year-old man.
I have a child who’s 7 years old. I never thought I’d be a parent, partially for biological reasons (way to go prostrate treatment!), partially for personal (ain’t nobody gonna break MY stride), but I have one, and she’s awesome. All parents say their kids are awesome – well, decent parents do – but E-beth is truly cool and awesome. She’s polite, nice, genuinely appreciative of everything and everyone, and doesn’t judge. While I’d love to take credit for all this, most of that has to go to my wife Lori, who, after I quit OU, has had to spend a lot more time around Elizabeth than me, which means she’s getting to be the child’s teacher of taste and manners. Smart move, fate.
We try to support her as much as we can, but also want her to be a kid – a paste-eating, crap-leaving, mess-making kid. She deserves the right to be a child.
And so did Michael Jackson.
I can’t begin to imagine the abuse in the Jackson household. We’ve all heard tales of Joe Jackson driving his kids into tearful fits, picking Michael up by his feet and slamming his head against the ground, and generally treating him in a manner we now call Child Abuse without even thinking about the definition. And that, unfortunately, is what will be lost in the whole shuffle to “understand” Michael Jackson: that his story mirrors the way child abuse has been dealt with by our society.
When I was a kid, children’s entertainment took on a particularly educational, left-wing stance. Sesame Street and other children’s educational television suddenly popped up with messages of equality and empathy, echoing the left-wing themes of the late 60’s. These messages were ingrained into a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, and much of it is mocked for its over-the-top stance and insistence on a moral, no matter how goofy the show’s premise might be. The last episode of Land of the Lost? A cavalry soldier and a Native American learn to help each other. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids – a criminally underwatched show nowadays – dealt with the harshness of inner city life as realistically as possible for a kid’s show. Drug use, stealing, poverty, ice cream after a tonsillectomy – all these subjects were discussed on the show, and things didn’t always turn out well for those involved. The Super Friends routinely took on various racial and political ideologies and showed how they were flat-out wrong, and then Superman saved us from the Liquid Light – a liquid so corrosive that it can eat through everything but the ground it slides down on towards a city.
Michael Jackson had a cartoon, too, as part of the Jackson 5ive. Ever seen it? It’s a piece of shit – one of those Rankin-Bass/Filmation cartoons that featured so much repetitive animation that, even as a small child, I recognized its lameness. The Jacksons were so busy, they didn’t even do the voices of themselves. Think about that: Michael Jackson, a person obsessed with childhood and everything tethered to it, wasn’t even allowed to do the voice of his own cartoon character. For the record, Diana Ross – the “discoverer of the Jackson Five” – did her own voice when she appeared. It may have been the episode where Michael and the boys did some farming. How craptastically disappointed would you be if you found out there was going to be a cartoon of your (fictionalized) life, but your dad wouldn’t let you be in it?
While a lot of the shows from that period haven’t aged well for that very seriousness of approach, I still admire what they were trying to do. Women’s rights, open-mindedness, charity: these were the traits pushed in a lot of these cartoons and children’s shows, before the 80’s when the rules regarding children’s television – and all of television itself – were trashed so stations could sell more airtime for commercials. Who to blame? Those people who saw capitalism as the way to improve everything and broke down as many barriers as possible that stood in the way of people making money. Nope, not everything was improved. Love those 24-hour infomercial stations and the constant selling of subsidiary products on TV shows? Great. Please leave. For those of us who see constant advertising as a soul-crushing experience, I’ll buy yez a beer at the Reunion tonight.
So, along with other social wrongs, child abuse was one of the subjects these shows dealt with, and sometimes with a clarity that put news reports to shame. So I grew up, and society began to understand what a horrible thing it is to beat the shit out of your own kids. Way to go, humanity. What the hell took you so long? Moral Relativity?
(In a horrible piece of irony, Janet Jackson, sister of Michael played an abused child on Good Times, and I’m assuming she brought a lot of real-life experience to the role.A bit more on her later. Just a bit.)
Ooh, here comes “Billie Jean”. In the same way that “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” show how you can take pop music and make art out of it, “Billie Jean” is a momentous event. It’s an amazing thing – a song about stalking, lying, the dark side of celebrity, and parental responsibility that you can dance to. Set up as one of Jackson’s paranoid fever dreams about how celebrity can bring out the freaks, the song is about an accusation of parenthood. Jackson is terrified that the child might be his, because it will destroy everything, and he fights and fights to find ways to ensure, factually, that the kid is not his son. He denies, denies, denies, and then “the lie becomes the truth” and he cracks.
Whether or not he is actually the father is not important. What’s important here is the denial. He refuses to accept the idea that he is the father of a child. He rails against it and blames everyone but himself: the media, the machine, the woman. It’s the second song on Thriller to discuss the probability of having an unwanted child. The first is “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, which reminds us that if you can’t feed the baby, don’t have the baby. In “Billie Jean”, if you don’t want the baby, you rail against everyone and everything but never accept the possibility that you are responsible for the child.
The music of “Billie Jean” is what most people want to talk about: that bass-line, the spare use of guitar, the scary-movie string cues. The bass line gets us into the song, although a drum beat that sounds more like someone walking down a dark street introduces us to it. The bass line is almost an inversion of the Peter Gunn theme, and shouldn’t work as a funk bass line because it’s too busy. But it hits the One hard enough to work. Then, the “ooh…ooh……ooh…ooh” vocals come in. The effect is staggering, creating a dark psychic landscape right out of a film noir, and that’s before the strings come in to counterpoint the melody and make the song even darker sounding. There’s no escape from the depth of the song. It sucks you in to a world of stealing and shadows, where you can be a pop star and have no happiness because of your constant paranoia, and where a child can be used as a bargaining chip to gain money from innocent people. Well, that’s if you believe the kid is not his son. I certainly think he is.
The song slowly builds and builds, adding layer and layer of instrumentation until you get the controlled chaos of the end, where everything’s playing at once, and the singer’s wailing over the backing vocals, and the guitar line keeps coming in, and the chaos keeps generating, and…is never released. We just fade out. Quincy Jones obviously deserves a lot of credit as producer of the song, but Michael was in charge by this time. If it sounds like this, it’s because he wanted it to. “Billie Jean” is as complex and heartbreaking as pop music gets. More than Dylan, who peered into the abyss and decided he wanted out of that shit, Jackson comes from a world of shit, and still lives in it during this song. He returns to this theme in other songs – “Dirty Diana” is the most obvious – but never wallows around in it the way “Billie Jean” does. God, I love that song. It disappeared right after “Beat It” hit and Thriller slammed its way into the subconscious of every American, but, by then, Michael had moved onto the more fun, flippant sounds of “PYT” and “Thriller”. “Billie Jean” sort of disappeared as the funner songs on the album took over the narrative.
By now, you’ve probably realized that I’m pretty affected by Michael Jackson’s death. Like a lot of people my age, I grew up with him as a constant presence – radio, Saturday morning cartoon, The Wiz. When Off The Wall hit large on the charts, it was cool to see him make the transition to being an adult singer, and I liked that someone who was still very much a kid could do so well. Thriller underwhelmed me when it appeared. While “Billie Jean” was obviously brilliant, I didn’t like “Beat It” or “Thriller”. They were too conventional for me, the guy who kept trying to get people to listen to Zappa, Oingo Boingo, and Elvis Costello in middle school and beyond. So while I became less interested in Michael Jackson, everyone else got too interested.
Has there ever been a person as popular as Michael Jackson was during the 1980’s? I mean, besides a dead religious figure, has there ever been anyone that popular worldwide? The man ate with presidents, helped Eastern Europeans learn to dance, and tried to feed the goddamned world. That’s how big Michael Jackson used to be. For a while, you could not escape coverage of him on TV. MTV – after Jackson finally broke the color barrier there – played his videos non-stop, including that over-hyped mini-movie of “Thriller” that brought a crashing end to the world of cheap, do-what-you-want music videos that used to play all over the channel because they needed stuff to fill up space. Myself, I could watch Costello drunkenly flailing around motel corridors all day – a lot more than I want to watch the video for “Thriller”. But the world had changed. It wasn’t enough to have a decent video; it had to be an event: cue the flowing curtains, white horses, and glowing children’s eyes. Jackson also brought entertainment news to the forefront like no on else before him – especially as he started his move from eccentric to crazy during the years following the release of Bad.
Jackson never did anything close to even the filler on Thriller after that.
Stories of Jackson’s weird shopping sprees, glitzy outfits, and the constant presence of children painted the man as batshit crazy years before Lisa Marie, skin-bleaching, and nose problems.
“She’s Out of My Life”. Awesome song. Beautifully undersung until the passion is needed, with as minimal of accompaniment as the song can take without bursting like a soap bubble. If someone sang this these days, there’d be glissandos and other fancy vocal shit all over it, not to mention the auto-tuning, which would eliminate Jackson’s very real breakdown during the last few lines of the song. This isn’t a song he wrote, so it’s a bit more personal about these feelings than Jackson’s own attempts to talk about heartbreak. This song gets it right on almost every level, from the adult understanding communicated in the lyrics, to the way the melody goes up and down the scales like a child’s sing-along. At one point, Michael pushes the volume up and sings “Damned indecision and cur-sed pride”, but doesn’t quite release the pent-up emotion until the end of the phrase, which is “’Kept my love for her/locked deep inside”, and he lets it all loose in a controlled burst, taking the word “deep” and extending it as long as he can without breaking it and holding the “eee” sound until he sings it through clenched teeth. His own pride killed his one true chance at love, and he knows it. Nothing he can do but stand in place, rigid, without revealing any emotion until he has to. The power of the song is that his tentative delivery is the same tentativeness that kept him from admitting his love, and, obviously, the guy has learned nothing but how to feel bad. He can’t even break out of his depression to express genuine rage and sadness. It’s a crushing song and was the first song I listened to after hearing he’d died, and I felt sympathy for him. Lori tried to make an Arrested Development joke, and I quietly shut her down. Jackson had earned some seriousness from me, and, aside from the jokes at his expense that were all over the place within 10 minutes, I tried to keep it serious, which is hard to do when you’re talking about a man whose best friend was Elizabeth Taylor, another person whose abused childhood and early traumas turned her into a basket case.
“They fuck you up, your mom and dad”, goes the poem. As hard as they (now we) try, a parent can’t help but bring some of their own baggage into their own relationships with their children. Who knows how Joe Jackson was treated as a child? Parallels between Jackson’s childhood and Brian Wilson’s childhood are so close, is it even necessary to say that great pain can create great art, but great art isn’t enough of an achievement to justify it? Wilson spent years in therapy to deal with his problems, and seems to have come out the other side intact and better. But he had one thing Jackson never had – a pause. Wilson’s life slowed down considerably once The Beach Boys became nothing more than a nostalgia act, so he had time to step away from the limelight and get some of his shit together; Jackson never did. As he got older, he got more exposure, and as his popularity grew, so did his eccentricities. From around 1983 to 1990-something the man was everywhere – somehow. He never got a break, and never gave himself one, possibly because he never got one as a child – not even to do his own voice over for a cartoon based at least partially on his own life. Now, why would someone like that become a control freak?
I don’t think Jackson had sex with the many kids he was around. I think that at some point, he lost his ability to tell whether or not right and wrong mattered in his world. He was an abused child, so he wound up trying to be the best friend he could to every child in the world, going so far as to try to end hunger in Africa with a song I find nauseating, at best: “We Are the World”. But in his obsession to help kids, he simply regressed and became one, with the same sort of solipsistic sense of self and lack of social niceties. I this, he began to practice a form of self-abuse that defines self-hate caused by abuse. Did Jackson ever understand that what he was doing was wrong? You can’t be a man in your 30’s and 40’s and have sleepovers with children; it’s simply not appropriate in the same way that a teacher/student or boss/intern relationship is wrong. It’s a use of power that is wrong – turning a relationship that should be about nurturing and educating into sleep-over buddies and damn the consequences. At most, I think Jackson played “Doctor” with the kids in the same way young kids would do so, with a level of innocence and curiosity that a child would have. Jackson wasn’t a child; he was a full grown man, and that sort of behavior is inappropriate on every level.
So who told him not to do it? By the time Jackson was doing all of this stuff, his family of hangers-on had used his celebrity to become celebrities themselves, including dear-old abusive dad, Joe. They sure didn’t stop him. What about his – face it, no one told Jackson to stop doing it, or at least no one told him with any authority. His parents could have tried, but they lost that opportunity – the opportunity to teach right and wrong – the moment Joe Jackson realized he could get rich by exploiting his kids, especially poor Michael.
It’s hard to jump back and forth discussing Jackson’s abuse and the abuse he himself performed without sounding like a schizophrenic. But that’s what the cycle of abuse does – replays itself into rote routine until someone stops it. Want a literal metaphor? Take the ending of Kubrick’s The Shining, a movie that is about the cycle of abuse in society, even more than it is a supernatural horror film. The ending – different from the book for both technical necessity and support of theme – has Danny fleeing from his axe-wielding father, who now has a chance to kill off the main person who ruined his life – his kid, who obviously forced him into an unhappy marriage with a flake of a wife, and ruined his chances to be a best-selling, world-famous author. Jack Torrance is living out his dream – a dream of revenge against all those who screwed his life up but his damned alcoholic, barely talented, selfish self. But Danny’s smarter than that. He starts walking backwards in his own footprints left in the snow, and eventually jumps into a hiding place and covers up the footprints that show him heading to it. His father follows the footprints and is caught up, forever, in the redundancy of the hedge maze. Danny has literally walked backwards through his own steps to break the cycle of abuse. He and his mom will go on to better lives, with the aid of huge amounts of therapy and a frozen-dead psychopathic father.
Too bad it wasn’t Michael Jackson who had the opportunity to break the cycle. Instead, he’s raised his kids outside of the real world that hurt him so much, and so they will internalize his own faults and fuck-ups unless they get help. But considering the people surrounding them, I can’t see that happening. Kids, don’t watch TV for about a month. You’re not going to like what they have to say about your father.
While Jackson got nuttier and nuttier, the idea that his actions stem from abuse began to drift away until he stopped being a person to most people, and became a thing to point at, like that crazy woman who talks to her hand and walks the streets of Norman. She must have been somebody, at some time. For almost 20 years, Jackson’s existed as Michael Jackson the fucked-up nut, and not Michael Jackson, the Artist. It’s weird to have taught students who thought Jackson “turned” himself white, and was no longer “black”, as though identity is nothing but your skin color. Instead of a cautionary tale of what abuse can do to children, he’s a freak child molester – no evidence of it whatsoever and vindication in a courtroom haven’t dispelled that notion at all – whose body is so plastic and fake he no longer counts as a person, but as an object of ridicule and Boo Radley-esque horror stories (“Why, once, I seen him walking on the moon!”).
“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is on now. As the lead-off track for Thriller, it’s a bit of a wild card, a shuffling skitter of an electronic percussion beat with lyrics that seem to be about all of these things: Jackson railing against someone trying to cement a bad relationship by having a child; the way someone else is treating this person, much like a “buffet”, where you take all you want , but don’t necessarily eat (need) all you take; and a “dammmit, you’re amazing, regardless” song. Towards the end, everything but the background singers and handclaps drop out, and a chant starts up: “Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa”. It’s stolen from an old Manu Dibango song and pretty much is there for dressing, as it’s actually translates as a call to dance and have sex, in the original (Makossa is a slang word for “dance” in Cameroon). It’s supposed to be a chant to get women to have sex, but Jackson just has it there because it sounds cool -- hopefully. Otherwise, it’s hypocrisy in action.
Now that Jackson’s finally dead – and I say “finally” because he’s been dying in front of us for years, and few people tried to help him stop and instead pushed him onwards as long as they got money and the opportunity to be a “hanger-on” (Jackson family, I mean you) – maybe we can concentrate on his accomplishments more than his history. The man took popular music and – like Elvis and The Beatles before him – stretched its possibilities and creativity to the end. Unlike The Beatles, whose back catalog gave him the cash cow he needed to buy most of central Walachia for a picnic ground, Jackson kept trying long after he should have stopped. Unlike Jackson, Elvis was still beloved by everyone after he died, since the really freaky stuff he did hadn’t leaked out. Elvis’ weirdness was tempered by the fact that he kept it at home and didn’t display everything for the whole world to see, like dangling Lisa-Marie out a hotel balcony because he was so happy he wanted to show off his kid to some fans below for their approval.
And that’s ultimately the tragedy of all of this. Michael wanted everyone’s approval, since he didn’t get it from his father and family. He wanted to be the biggest star in the world because he thought that would mean everyone would love him. Instead, he got approval when he was making us happy, general disapproval when his music got less and less interesting to listen to, and then complete disavowal once the really fucked up shit came out.
He died on the verge of a comeback, so they say. What that word means in this context is a bit weird, since in this case, “comeback” meant “doing some big concerts to dig himself out of debt”. He wasn’t trying to revive himself musically, he just needed tons of money to pay things off. So his search for approval became a life and death matter for him, and he ultimately lost it, although, if he could see the way the world is reacting to his death (and Mark Sanford should be on his knees thanking God that the media isn’t at all interested in him anymore), he’d be happier than Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn at their own funerals. Lester Bangs, the late, great rock critic, wrote a piece about Elvis’ death that works as one of the greatest elegies ever, but also as an understanding of how Elvis’ death meant society was changing, becoming more and more individualistic, and, therefore, less empathetic to other people’s views and beliefs. Here’s a long quote from it, included because it’s one of my favorite bits of writing, and because it takes up space:
"If love is truly going out of fashion, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other's objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you."
Bangs was wrong. There was something else we could all agree on: that Michael Jackson was a very talented man who was completely fucked up. That mutual recognition of his insanity also tied us together, since, no matter what, we could all agree that Jackson was fucked up beyond belief. There will never be another person like him, in that regard, and no one who deserves our sympathy more right now. The man’s story is a walking tale of the horrors of child abuse and the effects it has on those involved. However, at some point, he lost our sympathies and became a thing to be mocked and ridiculed. He never stopped being an abuse victim, though. Most people just stopped caring about what caused his weirdness and just concentrated on the weirdness.
Which is why we probably won’t learn anything as a society because of Jackson’s death, except that there’ll be a chance to re-evaluate him as an artist rather than a freak in many people’s eye, since he‘s no longer there to distract us from him. Michael Jackson’s story is a cautionary tale of how families can hurt each other for personal gain, and abuse can turn a happy child into a freak. We don’t want to face him that way because, as a freak, it’s so much easier. His surprise death probably won’t do anything but remind people that, for 20 years, Jackson’s been considered less an artist and more of a reclusive, pedophiliac, self-hating "thing". Everything before that is unnecessary, because it disrupts our ability to make Jackson a scapegoat for our own fallacies. Who’s to say we wouldn’t act the same once we were famous – so famous everyone on the fucking planet had an opinion about us? And once he had enough clout to get away from his family, why wouldn’t he retreat into a world of a fantastic childhood, to counter the one he actually had? He turned them all into hangers-on, their own talents and ambitions crushed by the weight of being one of Michael Jackson’s siblings. Only Janet, who ran away earlier and to other talented people, seems to have escaped.
So, for the death of Michael Jackson, I’d like to reprint, without permission, the full text of “This Be the Verse”, the Phillip Larkin poem I started to quote earlier:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”
It’s a dark one, and ends with the idea of the cycle of abuse as a permanent thing, unless you take the easy way out or simply don’t have any kids to pass on your own neuroses to. Some of Jackson’s work is this dark, and reflects a part of the man he would try to stifle or make overly maudlin instead of dealing with it head first in songs like “Billie Jean”.
As that one starts over again, I wonder how the song would be received now, with all the knowledge of Jackson’s past and his weirdness on display for everyone to see. Nowadays, it would be understood that Jackson was talking about one of his deepest fears and confronting it, not necessarily in a successful manner. Back then, he was this cute guy who had finally grown up and was finally talking about sex. How far we’ve come. We understand now that abuse exists on many levels in our society, and many people are still abusing the guy, by telling jokes about wine, sleepovers, and plastic surgery without a damned care for the way he was brought up, and his inability to escape his demons. Make no mistake, there are a lot of very sad people out there who cared for Jackson, and many of his fans are going to be in hysterics, and they should be cared for, not mocked. They have their lives and loves, and we have ours. And even if there’s a disagreement on how the guy should be perceived, those in mourning should be respected. We’ve had enough fun at the guy’s expense, now let’s listen to his music and let the freakish recluse disappear into time. We’ve had our fun, and he didn’t, no matter how hard he tried. Goodbye Michael Jackson. Sorry I wasn’t there for you.