If memorial services were really able to capture the best of the departed there would be no need for mourning. Michael Jackson’s celebrants at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday paid their highest tribute through a kind of inadvertent omission: try as they might they couldn’t say or sing anything that was as gorgeous and exhilarating as Jackson was when he was at his best.
Singers from Mariah Carey to Usher showed how easy it is to make a pop song sound trite, but that only made the alchemy of Jackson’s own best performances all the more impressive. A succession of stars used hyperbole after hyperbole to describe the dead entertainer, making clear the difference between being big and talking big. “Michael was the biggest star on earth,” Queen Latifah said. Magic Johnson, the legendary Lakers star, said watching Jackson perform made him a better point guard. Nelson Mandela sent a message. Maya Angelou sent a dreadful new poem. Somehow most of it managed to be moving, because all the clumsiness and gaucherie were in the service of real love. When paying tribute to Michael Jackson, anything less than excess wouldn’t do.
The surprise, then, was that in all the lavish praise so little was said about Jackson’s last years. And not only the last two or three of them: anyone taking his memorial as a primer on his life would be left with precious little information about the years after 1991. True, his children were there. And Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee showed up to remind everyone that “people are innocent until proven otherwise,” a reference to the accusations of child molestation that never led to conviction in court. But about almost the last two decades of the man’s life, there was nearly nothing more.
Again, this is not all that unusual. The best years always figure most prominently in tributes. So Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, who had little to do with Jackson’s life after 1975, gave tribute to his boyhood genius, and Brooke Shields, who has told interviewers she last saw Jackson in 1991, shared charming stories of their friendship as young adults. You would have to piece these tales together to notice something unusual: Jackson showed the wisdom of experience when he was too early to have such a thing. Childlike naïveté came later, when he had lived through things that cannot have left him naive. This was a life lived backwards. The pictures on the Staples Center stage showed Michael Jackson but the mourners were describing the life of Benjamin Button.
Gordy talked about hearing a little kid performing “way beyond his years. This little kid had an incredible knowingness about him.” Robinson said the first time he heard one of his songs out of Jackson’s mouth, “I quickly went over to him because I wanted to see his birth certificate.”
Part of that preternatural wisdom in the young Jackson was the way he was planning, almost from the outset, for a twilight career that fate would deny him. His career had barely begun before he was preparing for life after the hits.
In 1975 a music writer for the Village Voice named Vince Aletti went to visit the Jackson 5, whose “Special Las Vegas Show” was in New York for a week at Radio City Music Hall. It was Jackie, the oldest at 23, who explained to Aletti what the brothers would be up to that week. “A Vegas show is a show that you play in front of an audience of people who have different ages—from the 50s on down—you know, all ages. So you have to satisfy all those people: you do a little of everything to get ’em on their feet.”
“A little of everything,” Aletti told his readers, “turned out to be: takeoffs on the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, the Supremes, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and Sonny and Cher; ensemble tap dancing; scripted between-songs patter; Danny Boy, By the Time I Get to Phoenix and Killing Me Softly,” along with a medley of hits and half the songs from the Jacksons’ most recent album. “They’re proud of their Vegas show,” Aletti wrote, “because it means they’ve achieved a certain kind of showbiz security: ‘Like Frank Sinatra,’ according to Jackie. ‘He don’t have to put out a hit record, he can still go to Las Vegas and pack ’em in.’ ”
So when Michael Jackson was not yet 17 years old, he was already the lead in a show designed to ensure his commercial viability long after he’d had his last hit record. He was already practising giving “a little of everything” to an all-ages house, deploying whatever worked to “satisfy all those people.”
“Though they’re obviously concerned with their post-pin-up careers,” Aletti wrote, “I’m more interested in why Jermaine has his hair straightened.” His article never answers that question directly, but it’s not hard to figure out. These five telegenic young African-American men from Gary, Ind., wanted a fame that would extend far beyond the ordinary barriers of race, age, and gender. Their show featured music from long before Jackie was born, much of it from white artists, some by women. On YouTube there’s a clip of the Jacksons performing some of this material on The Carol Burnett Show in 1974. The guys make a great show of not wanting to do the girl parts—“I don’t wanna be no Andrews Sister!”—but they do it anyway, and well.
So by the late 1980s, when Michael Jackson’s skin started to whiten and the effects of successive waves of plastic surgery on his chin, lips and nose became increasingly obvious, he had already been gender-bending and race-blurring for at least half his life. Long before he died, at 50, those attempts to alter his appearance got bundled up with all the other excesses in a life gone utterly out of control. But at first Jackson’s testing of limits, the liquidity of his identity, were solidly within the oldest traditions of American popular song.
The Jackson 5 were a crossover play from the outset. To a great extent, this was only fair. History is full of white artists who achieved commercial success by filing the rough edges off music that African-Americans had been making for years. If you couldn’t stomach Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, there was always Bix Beiderbecke. Chet Baker played a sort of pastel Miles Davis in the ’50s. And Elvis Presley’s genuine regard for the black artists of the South didn’t keep him from becoming wealthy beyond any of their fondest dreams.
It’s never been possible to go too far into American music without bumping up, usually pretty hard, against questions of race, because a lot of the creativity in any society can be found among its outcasts, while most of the money is in the mainstream. In America some kind of colour line has almost always separated the two. If the music business had evolved by the end of the ’60s to where a black artist could do the watering down and the cashing in all by himself, surely this meant the world had moved a little closer toward some kind of justice.
Except it’s never clear where the watering down is supposed to end. One of the major differences between Off The Wall, Jackson’s 1979 collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, and Thriller, their astonishing encore three years later, is that Off The Wall fits more or less comfortably into the R & B genre, whereas Thriller is all over the map. Beat It is hard rock with an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. The Girl Is Mine is a washed-out puppy-love duel with Paul McCartney (“Don’t waste your time / Because the doggone girl is mine”). That broader conception obviously had a lot to do with Thriller’s greater success. It was the Special Vegas Show writ large, a little bit of everything to satisfy all those people.
But it didn’t stop there. The frail, pale singer with the delicate nose staring out from the cover of Bad didn’t merely sound like he had come from Diana Ross’s corner of the aesthetic universe: he was starting to look like her, too. Not surprisingly, this freaked a lot of people out. “Michael Jackson has crossed so way far over the line that there ain’t no coming back,” Greg Tate wrote in the Village Voice, “assuming through surgical transmutation of his face a singular infamy in the annals of [Uncle] Tomming.”
In 1987, this was still an arguable point of view, and if anyone was up for the argument it was Stanley Crouch, Tate’s older and more ornery colleague at the Voice. Crouch argued that Jackson was merely taking the identity games that every American indulges in a little further. Just as the Boston Tea Party rebels had affected Indian war paint for their adventure, and millions of American women spent fortunes straightening or kinking their hair, Jackson was just playing with roles, Crouch wrote. “The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else.”
Seen that way, Jackson’s increasingly ambiguous identity, like his music, was about embracing, not denying. The problem was that he didn’t stop. He didn’t stop defacing his own physiognomy. He didn’t stop living outside the boundaries of behaviour most people would find acceptable. And he didn’t stop making music. The best word to describe much of the latter is “terrifying.”
Quincy Jones had moved on by this point, and increasingly through the 1990s Jackson’s music eschews strong melody for interchangeable grooves over background noises that repeatedly include screaming and the sound of breaking glass. Lyrics went from defiant (“I’ve seen the bright get duller / I’m not going to spend my life being a colour”) to anguished (“Stop pressuring me / Stop f–king with me”) and then pretty much stayed there. In 1995 he released They Don’t Care About Us, with its Jew-hating lyrics: “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me / Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.” Jackson sounded genuinely hurt that anyone could take his lyrics’ plain meaning at face value. “I am not the one who was attacking,” he wrote. “I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man.”
Mostly he was lost. Two years later he released Morphine, its lyrics so harrowing in light of the rumours about drug abuse contributing to his death: “Demerol / Oh God, he’s taking Demerol.”
And here’s the thing. Twelve years separate that song from the man who died in Los Angeles this year—almost the distance from I Want You Back to Beat It. The Staples Center celebrants concentrated on his early music with its gorgeous message of universal embrace because that was so much easier than contemplating his very long twilight would have been. But averting our gaze is our luxury. He lived those 12 hellish years all the same. Michael Jackson came from the American ideal of bridging the gaps that divide us all. Where he went is beyond imagination.
In the end he reached for the dream his big brother Jackie had described to a reporter back in 1975: a kind of Special Vegas Show that would sell out a London stadium for 50 nights. The dignified final act of a professional entertainer. He couldn’t get there from where he’d wound up. The prospect of trying killed him. There is wonderful singing and dancing in this tale, but do not try to kid yourself: this is a horror story.