With the Web-enabled rush to publish on the story of the day, it’s been difficult to find anything beyond boilerplate on the King of Pop (a complicated problem; more on that in a minute). Nonetheless, some of the usual suspects have come through.
Former Reader staffer Bill Wyman’s “Michael Jackson and the ultimate crossover” is a thoughtful and honest take. Wyman has a deep interest in the legal and financial aspects of the music business, so his commentary on the mess that Jackson leaves in his wake will be worth following.
Roger Ebert, naturally, came through with a beautifully observed, tightly written, heartbreaking piece: “The boy who never grew up.” It’s worth quoting:
“He lost happiness somewhere in his childhood, and spent his life trying to go back there and find it. When he played the Scarecrow in ‘The Wiz’ (1978), I think that is how he felt, and Oz was where he wanted to live. It was his most truly autobiographical role. He could understand a character who felt stuffed with straw, but could wonderfully sing and dance, and could cheer up the little girl Dorothy.”
Ebert is really in a class by himself.
In the Reader archives, I found a nice piece by novelist and professor Achy Obejas; in 1987, when Bad came out, she staked out a record store and recorded the scene. It’ll make you nostalgic for the days when record-release dates were an event. Miles Raymer has a moving elegy, and pictures from the
But the best piece – and I don’t think I’m being a homer in saying so – I read yesterday was a 1992 essay by Wyman. Ostensibly a review of two books on the Jackson family, it’s more a long, smart critical biography of the star with regards to his work, his sexuality, his relationship to race, and his financial affairs. For me, this is the key paragraph:
“Michael Jackson is a difficult person to figure out, because he doesn’t play by the rules other ‘superstars’ do. He’s not an ‘artist’ in the sense that he has anything to say, or feels a need to play a certain sort of music in a certain way. He’s not really an ‘interpreter,’ either: you don’t get the sense that he records a tune because he feels an affinity with it, or because he thinks he might add some meaning to it. All of these common motivations are subordinated to what he does best (and better than anyone else), which is sell records. In this sense he is the most perfect of pop stars.”
One caveat: Jackson clearly had something to say with “Billie Jean,” and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, out of a remarkable body of hits, it’s far and away the best thing he ever recorded. It also set a standard in the exceedingly difficult genre of rich, famous people trying to do substantial and personally meaningful music that’s rarely been matched, notably by Kanye West.
Along similar lines, Wyman makes a compelling argument for the greatness of “Black or White.” It’s a fantastic passage, and it’s at the end, so read all the way through.
Nonetheless, I think Wyman’s point is generally sound, which is why I’m sympathetic to writers who are having trouble with Jackson’s legacy. It’s not just that he’s such an outsized, and simultaneously secretive and visible, pop star. It’s also that, when you turn to the man’s work, it’s tough to find a critical toehold. Unlike his only peers, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, it’s almost all just great pop music about universally superficial things. On some level, he’s the evolutionary Frankie Valli.
And that’s a part of why – I’ll be honest here – I never really listened to Michael Jackson, or at least deeply engaged with his work (also, I hate dancing). I may be the only 20something in America who never bought a Michael Jackson album. Age is another part of it – Off the Wall, which Jim Derogatis argues is his true masterpiece – came out before I was born, and Thriller came out when I was three. I have vague memories of the video for “Bad” (I was seven), and I liked the cover of “Dangerous” (12). And of course the Free Willy song was inescapable.
But I did read People. By the time I came of cultural consciousness, Jackson was well into his extended personal, physical, and financial decline. And in all honesty, it was fascinating. As Sarah Weinman puts it, “Jackson represented the ultimate American narrative, reared from an early age to work hard and produce, to support a family rife with internal tensions and jealousies and to appease the hangers-on, trapped by his penchant for excess and flaws tragic and monstrous. Dreiser might have had a field day with a character like him.”
Well, part of an ultimate American narrative, maybe, the same one that Citizen Kane and Elvis’s story are part of. (Weinman expects a good bio in a couple years; I think it’ll take as long as it took Peter Guralnick to do his masterful two-volume Elvis bio, which is to say a couple decades.) That narrative is inseparable from his musical legacy; it’s not even worth trying, much as we’d like to focus on the music, since the narrative is as or more resonant than his work.
Which, of course, means I may have some blood on my hands.
Andrew Sullivan: “I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.”
Amanda Marcotte: “Michael Jackson should have been a well-respected pop/R&B star who made his money but lived a fairly normal life of fading from the pop scene and into the vaults of those cherished by pop music amateur historians. Instead, he became a grotesque figure of how much fame can destroy a person. Like Cintra Wilson said in her book A Massive Swelling: ‘And who has provided us with more evidence that Big Fame will fuck you, fuck you, fuck you in the head until there’s nothing between your ears but a sour, translucent jelly?'”
Robbie Fulks: “That child abuse (perpetrated on and by him), self-mutilation, psychotic narcissism, and God knows what other grotesqueries should have so thoroughly interpenetrated this American success story is a dismal reflection on a number of things. Celebrity-besotted America, naturally.”
But I think it’s possible to take this argument too far. There are plenty of people who grew up without love in abusive and authoritarian families, spent too much money, did too many drugs, and died too young in anonymity. Jackson had the fame and the money to make a spectacle of his demons, to make manifest the fragments shored against his ruins (the rich are different from you and me: they have more money). It heighens the tragedy, insofar as we think that his tremendous resources and personal connections should have saved him, but I don’t know that the difference is one of kind.
Last night, our music editor asked if anyone thought Jackson, who made so many people happy, had ever been happy himself. I don’t know, and I would imagine very few people do. But I am fortunate to know a lot of people who are good at doing things – some driven by demons, some not. And what they get isn’t happiness, per se, at least not the kind of happiness that comes from familial or romantic love, or a lack of personal and professional tragedy. I don’t know if happiness is the right word. It’s an emotional and intellectual engagement in craft that I don’t really have a word for. Kanye West’s “Amazing” describes that feeling better than I ever could – fittingly, as few people will ever experience it on the level that he does, on the level that Michael Jackson surely did.
It is not a happy song – it’s quite grave. That is not a coincidence.
“At home, in his room, he dances until he falls down. Michael says the Sunday dance sessions are also an effective way to quiet his stage addiction when he is not touring.” That devotion, or compulsion, isn’t happiness, and many times it leads away from it. But there’s a richness in it that doesn’t come from any other outlet. In that, I suspect, he was as blessed as anyone in our lifetime.