Man, Myth and Music
Michael Jackson (29 Augus 1958-25 June 2009)
Michael Jackson, who died at age 50, had announced "This is it" - 50 consecutive sold-out concerts in London (July/August) at the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena- in what he promised was to be a "final curtain call." The never-to-be swan song would have been Jackson's first major live performance in 12 years, and testament that his on-stage magic continues to captivate the world as much as the offstage drama. Upon the stunning announcement of his premature death, millions across the globe spontaneously mourned the passing of a childhood icon and great source of Joy. I revisit my own memories of growing up with Michael Jackson.
It was the summer of 1984 and I was 11, ripe for the ravages of fandom - not very sure who I was and prepared to project onto a pop idol all sorts of unsorted energies, investing him with a love that I could not direct at myself. We would camp out, my younger brother and I, in front of a posh hotel in Mayfair, London where Michael was staying, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the beloved. And we were not alone. There were other near-hysterical, breathless adolescents huddled there. There was also a look-alike, who simulated the act for us (twirling, pouting, and executing those peculiarly abrupt signature movements) helping while the hours away, as well as a couple of cooler, older girls that tried to get me to join them on the roof. But, I lacked the courage for that.
My mother, however, did manage to brave the hotel reception one day after pleading with one of the bodyguards, something along the lines of 'my boys have come all the way from Egypt'. When she emerged, brandishing an autographed publicity photograph of Michael, my brother and I greeted her with incredulous bliss and awe-through- association. Upon returning to Cairo, this sacred article was promptly laminated and placed in a shared drawer (along with youth's other flotsam) where we could frequently consult it, which we did. The other laminated memory from this experience was the mayhem that occurred when Our Savior - embedded in a throng of bodyguards, sequined glove and surgical mask in place- darted from hotel door to limousine door whispering "I love you." All Heaven broke loose.
Time passed and the indiscriminant adulation shifted to a more nuanced, enduring fascination. He was still a thriller to behold, as a stage presence. He could truly be electrifying at times, this impossible creature, moon-walking across the laws of nature, deftly defying them in dance. One sensed, without knowing how or why, that they were witnessing some terrific exorcism, a gripping expenditure of tremendous energy. And, there was the joy and tenderness he could communicate in song. But the music was soon eclipsed by psychological curiosity, directed towards his other performance É offstage.
It is nearly a decade later, I'm in college, and Michael Jackson (recluse and eccentric) has consented to an interview with Oprah. I skipped class that day, they may have even cancelled it. There was still something strangely captivating about this creature. The live telecast from Neverland Valley proved a carnival of an affair, with Liz Taylor just out of the frame, holding his hand, and Michael providing his own lighting. There was Oprah, representing the raw curiosity of the people, ('the fans wanna know,' she offered bluntly, every time she asked a difficult question). And there he was: an unthreatening, bizarre specimen, a slip of a man, more of a geisha girl really, simpering, whimpering and tittering as he fielded questions about his face, etc. And, you couldn't really take your eyes off his face, not only because it looked like nothing you'd seen --sexless, ambiguous, uncanny, alluring- but because you were desperately trying to read it, scanning it's otherworldly surface, rummaging beneath its mysterious skin, trying to determine if he was telling the truth. He wasn't, about the plastic surgery. But somehow that was to be expected.
Two difficult questions, and their diffident responses, struck. 'Are you a virgin,' the People's Curiosity blurted out. After much nervous giggling, and fey protestations (I'm shy) he finally cooed, 'I'm a gentleman.' What does that mean I wondered, along with other tens of millions of viewers, no doubt. Is that a yes, or a no? Does that mean gentlemen don't have sex, or they don't talk about it? He was, after all, in his mid-thirties. The other tricky question was why he grabbed his crotch so much when he danced. More giggling, and fidgeting then, this: 'I'm a slave to the rhythm, Oprah.' (And he demonstrated how his hand found it's way there, crying watcha ooo, hee hee). Hmm. What rhythm, I mused, is this gentle man a slave to? And with his largely young fanbase, what could he possibly think it meant to them. And then again, there was the way he grabbed his crotch: delicately, but decisively. More like he was setting it, or presenting it (as evidence) - something he couldn't get himself to really touch let alone grab. It was a stylized gesture, a calculated impulse, invariably punctuated by a falsetto animal yelp, a shrill hiccup or two and a contorted, almost orgasmic facial expression.
But there's always been something incongruous about the innocuous Peter Pan persona, and his other fantasy of Bad Guy. It's there as early as Thriller ('I'm not really like other guys,' he tells his girlfriend at a drive-in movie. 'That's why I love you Michael,' she says, as he proceeds to transform into a werewolf). In another video, he is an old style gangster who morphs into a panther. The name of the video is Smooth Criminal, and the gangster imagery is typical, from Beat It through You Rock My World. In between there was the awkward Black or White video which outraged thousands with its violence and sexual innuendo --Jackson simulated masturbation and smashed a car with a crowbar. He later issued a formal apology and announced he would delete the offensive footage.
Another video, this time a 40 minute musical film called Ghost, showcased spectacular special effects, including a disconcerting scene where Jackson smashes his face to bits. Other suggestive song titles include: Bad, 2Bad, Dangerous, Scream and Blood on the Dance Floor. The image presented is not all that harmless, but of someone unstable, threatening, even lethal. Was this merely fantasy, or was Jackson confessing in code, perhaps in spite of himself, over his own head?
That same year as the Oprah interview, 1993, Michael Jackson was accused of child molestation. But the case prematurely fell apart when the victim accepted a multimillion dollar settlement and refused to testify. A hasty marriage to Lisa Marie Presley ensued. (Presley would later describe Jackson as 'somebody whose mind was constantly at work, calculating, manipulating. And he scared me like that.') The tabloid feeding frenzy was not, however, mirrored by a unanimous public savaging. People still wished to believe in the incorruptibility of their child star --sure, he's weird, but he's not bad- and he insisted on his innocence. Yet, one question lingered. What was this grown man doing having regular sleep-overs with pre- teens?
In the following years, a sour note crept into Jackson's discography as autobiography. Jackson's self myths and idealizations now manifested in a full blown persecution complex, striking Christ poses, literally (in his concerts) and figuratively (in his lyrics). His songs were now littered with instances of his insatiable appetite for self-pity, and his indignant self-righteousness could sound alternately megalomaniacal or menacing.
Nine years after the Oprah spectacle came the Martin Bashir debacle. Jackson had agreed to participate in a BBC documentary and his interlocutor permitted to shadow him for eight months and granted unprecedented access. Not quite at the peak of his powers, musically or otherwise, his mounting eccentricity nevertheless ensured a fair share of curiosity. His intention, one presumes, in consenting to this probing was to rehabilitate his image. I found it to have the opposite effect, not exactly damning for what he said, but for what he had become.
There is something sinister about this Michael Jackson, this creepy curator of his own waxwork museum. He still professes shyness (only we don't trust it) he still chokes up (only the tears never fall) he still indulges in childish antics -climbing trees, riding bump cars (only it feels joyless). There is something extinguished in the eyes. Something is rotten in the state of Michael Jackson, and the overall impression is: contrived, disingenuous, untrustworthy. At one point in the interview, he sits in his recording studio, behind him a larger- than-life idealized painting of himself in a loin cloth with surrounding cherubs. His imago's face is framed by two rosy cherub's butt cheeks. Another moment lacking in taste is a shopping spree at a gift shop inside a Las Vegas casino where Jackson spends millions on kitsch, hardly noting what he purchases (gaudy gilded urns, painting and statuary reproductions). There is something pathetic about this decadent, lethargic Jackson and the means with which he arouses himself. His eyes are as wide as dinner plates, two haunted orbs, mostly vacuous. There is no reading him, now.
In another episode of the documentary, when he harps about his dad calling him 'big nose,' we roll our eyes, thinking, please, get over it. We are all-too familiar with Jackson's past, Jackson senior's unusual expectations and usually cruel punishment (including alleged beating). But, it's Michael's present state that concerns us, now. What to make of the unsavory prospect of an unmarried and middle-aged man, sermonizing about the unassailable innocence of his ongoing habit of having overnights with kids.
A full decade after the first accusation of sexual misconduct with a minor, Michael Jackson found himself facing multiple counts of lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14 (a 12-year old cancer patient that he reportedly helped to cure). Is it a coincidence these accusations issued from a boy who slept over at Neverland, his personal fair and petting zoo? And, was he guilty?
Well, in some ways it's always been written all over his face. His startlingly white complexion, which he blames on vitiligo (a skin disorder causing loss of pigmentation), cannot explain away the false eyelashes or lipstick he habitually chooses to wear. We know that he has an addictive personality as evidenced by the compulsive plastic surgery. We have always suspected that he is violently uncomfortable in his own skin or at war with his own impulses, as seen in the tension between his Peter Pan and crotch-grabbing, bad-guy personas.
In short, that Michael Jackson may suffer from a kind of arrested development (or stunted emotional maturity) and/or a psychosexual disturbance should come as no surprise to us. Is it unimaginable then, that just as he claims to so completely relate to children, he also shares his sexual self with them? Is it not possible that this unhealthy man, with his victim complex could have justified to himself that, in Shakespeare's word's, "[he is] more sinned against than sinning," and thus permitted himself to violate the innocence that he claims to have been deprived of? Or, in the words of Auden "I and the public know /What all schoolchildren learn /Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."
Ultimately, there is no saying whether Michael Jackson, clearly not on the best of terms with reality, is guilty or not. Jackson's former financial adviser, Myung-Ho Lee, told Vanity Fair magazine (March, 2004) that Jackson reportedly checked into rehab in London after becoming addicted to painkillers Demerol and morphine in 1993 (following the first time he was accused of abusing a teenager). According to the report, a doctor told a Jackson adviser: "Either the drugs are going to kill him or he's going to die by flying out of a window because he thinks he can fly."
The question is how much can one forgive the man for the sake of the artist, and his undying, unlying legacy of song and dance? One can only say this, with Pascal: "Man is neither angel nor beast. And it is his misfortune that he who seeks to play the role of angel, acts most like a beast."
By Yahia Lababidi