The mourning over Michael Jackson, dead of a heart attack at the absurdly young and weirdly old age of 50, can be said to have started on Thursday, June 25, 2009. Let’s be honest, though. It began when “Bad” was released 22 years ago.
That was when Jackson embarked on his long journey from born genius to all-American freak. We need both in this culture: we revere the first and dish endlessly about the second, and the King of Pop fulfilled both by virtue of his immense talent and tragic, inscrutable insecurities.
But the shift was still awkward and sad, from the pop artist possessed with grace to the mercurial figure of deepening tabloid headlines. Which Michael was the real Michael? Which face his real one? How do we reconcile the artist-changeling of “I Want You Back” or “Billie Jean” or “Off the Wall” with the sideshow that came after: the buyer of bones, the keeper of chimps, the dangler of babies. The (alleged) molester of boys. The man who thought himself a Lost Boy.
You don’t reconcile. You synthesize. You understand that Jackson was – and remains – a quintessential example of modern pop culture, the doomed superstar naif. The brilliant baby. The kid from nowhere whose high, clear voice cut through the white noise of the late 1960s, reminding us that pop could matter as much as politics. Michael was the centerpiece of the Jackson Five because Joe Jackson knew that a preternaturally gifted child (a few years shaved off to make the miracle complete) was a show biz staple. Money could be made. Security could be bought.
How many young prodigies have sacrificed childhood to be their families’ breadwinners and then gone on to stable adulthoods? The anomaly – the truer miracle – came when Jackson appeared to fulfill his childhood promise. 1982’s “Thriller” was the album that moved a bazillion units and seemingly the earth itself, but this writer was always more stirred, more warmed, by the album that came before it.
Released in 1979, the year the singer turned 21, “Off the Wall” was Jackson’s statement of purpose, an avowal that he could do it on his own. He had help from new friend and mentor Quincy Jones, but even the songs Jackson didn’t write flow from a unique place of confidence and comfort. “I Wanna Rock with You” is one of the sweetest come-on songs ever produced, and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” lays out every promise of energy and groove he would keep for the next few years. The message of “Off the Wall” can be found in a line in its title song – “just enjoy yourself” – and the greatness of the record is that Michael Jackson was doing just that and only that, on his own terms.
This is not how things are supposed to go in this culture. In 1923, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote “the pure products of America go crazy,” and in this he predicted Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Kurt Cobain – any public figure whose inability to handle stardom becomes an inherent facet of their stardom.
So it was with Jackson. The demons were there but invisible in “Off the Wall.” With “Thriller,” the anxiety starts creeping in. The lyrics are tinged with defensiveness and paranoia – “Billie Jean is not my lover, but she says that I am the one”. “Beat It” is a song about fleeing an angry mob (and about self-pleasure, too, if you want it to be). “Thriller” came with a famous 14-minute horror movie, directed by John Landis, in which Jackson becomes a pale-faced, wide-eyed ghoul.
The album was one of the great pop moments in 20th century culture, yet how much does “Thriller” the video predict what Jackson would become? Here is where the strangeness starts, the facial surgery and the skin lightening – was it vitiligo, as was claimed, or a renunciation of self? Who was he turning himself into? Or what was he turning away from?
We don't know, since we only saw the headlines and never knew the man. Jackson became more globally loved, more famous, more controversial the odder his behavior got. Bubbles the Chimp, the building of Neverland, the 19-month marriage to the seed of Elvis, the impregnation follies of Deborah Rowe, the court cases and settlements and ugly rumors – this is not the life of someone who lives in the world but behind a wall of adulation, rhythm, money. Who built the wall – him or us?
It was a collaboration. The more bizarre Jackson got, the more we responded to the behavior and not the music, and the further he ran from the world. The records still sold, especially overseas, but did anyone buy them with the same thrill they did “Thriller”? With the feeling that an artist who had the gift of conveying such uncomplicated joy might rock with us once more?
No, never, and now he’s dead at 50, on the eve of a comeback that might have revived his career or just prompted more cultural gawking. You are forgiven if you felt this coming a long time ago, in your bones – the early death of another uneasy mass idol. Maybe even congratulations are in order, since Jackson did manage to live longer than Elvis (42), Garland (47), and Cobain (27).
What happens now? What always happens: The great industry of pop-culture mourning cranks up, the end-stage of every superstar career. Jackson’s music is currently flying off iTunes and a public grieving site has been set up at Legacy.com. Somber quotes are offered from those who loved him and profited by him while he was alive. Newspaper writers like me wonder what it all means. Every media outlet has a page where you, too, can share your memories of what Michael Jackson meant.
So who are we grieving for? The star he carved himself into, or the person we wanted him to be?