Songs of sensual fantasies from a man with little sex appeal
Michael Jackson’s signature crotch-grab was all kinds of things: an ’80s update of the previous monarch’s pelvic thrusts, a willfully human touch during his otherworldly dance routines, eye-popping punctuation to the music. One thing it wasn’t was sexy.
Jackson is the only pop star I can think of who didn’t use sexuality in the service of his songs. It was neither flaunted nor withheld; it just wasn’t part of the package. In the early Motown days, despite his preternatural feel for a love song and a come-on, the Jackson 5 frontman was a mere tyke. During his glory years, Jackson’s videos featured a crafted caricature of machismo: the street urchin who harasses a girl in front of his heckling homeboys in “The Way You Make Me Feel,’’ the grimacing gang leader in “Bad,’’ a gun-toting mobster in “Smooth Criminal.’’ Later, as Jackson’s self-inflicted physical alterations grew more and more grotesque, he erased all traces of sensuality, along with color and gender. The music, too, began disappearing.
It seems clear that Jackson’s sexual self, like his racial identity, was complicated, to say the least. That’s not to say he wasn’t hot, in the most literal sense. Jackson was on fire there for a good long stretch. But his heat, his passion, was fueled by an electrifying musicality and a cunning grip on rhythm. He seduced us with his body, but there was no implied promise, not even a suggestion, of unchoreographed physicality. I don’t imagine teenagers daydreamed much about Jacko, not in the way we all fantasize about more conventional musical performers and movie stars. Did anyone believe Billie Jean? Or Lisa Marie Presley, for that matter? Honestly, it was hard to imagine Jackson as anyone’s lover.
That absence of titillation infused his art with a rare purity. We knew why he was here, and perhaps more profoundly, we knew why we loved him. He was gifted. He was also incredibly needy, but ironically, for a performer so consumed with his own deification, Jackson didn’t cultivate much of a public image. The news he did generate certainly didn’t contribute to a picture of Jackson as a sexual adult, but rather a man obsessed with childhood in ways that ranged from unsettling (a home called Neverland) to disturbing (allegations of child sex abuse).
And still Jackson remained the object of extraordinarily innocent affection from so many fans. It’s what he asked for. It’s what he earned. JOAN ANDERMAN