I tweeted about this earlier. This is what I said this afternoon, when I heard what happened:
Michael Jackson. Dead. Like so much about MJ, it’s a mix of sad and weird.
Maybe it’s glib, but for the last – say – 15 years or so, it’s also been accurate. Michael Jackson was an astonishing performer – the most talented member of a very talented family, and the most fucked up member of a very fucked up family. He never knew what it was like to be normal. He was under the wing of a strict and abusive father, and a greedy and controlling Barry Gordy, since age seven. He never had a childhood, never had to deal with life as we knew it. He just performed.
The thing about him never having a childhood… that’s why I never bought the allegations of molestation. Not real molestation, at least. Were there “tickle parties?” Probably. Did he give the kids alcohol? It’s pretty much been proven. Did he sleep in the same bed with the kids on his ranch? Yes. But did he do all these things because he was a lecherous old pervert who desired them sexually, or because he was a messed up man who didn’t realize he wasn’t still a child? I’m sticking with the latter.
But that’s his legacy now. That’s what people of my generation, and the one after me, will probably think of when they think of Michael Jackson. Not “Off The Wall”. Not “I’ll Be There.” Not necessarily Thriller. Not “Smooth Criminal”, unless they’re thinking about the Alien Ant Farm cover. It’s like the joke about the old Irishman who won’t be remembered as a teacher, or as a leader, or as a hero, which he did for many years, because “ya sleep with one goat….”
So, look: I’m watching his videos on YouTube now. I just watched “Billie Jean“, and I’ve got “Jam” on now. There’s a certain messianic thread that runs through all of his videos. In “Billie Jean”, the sidewalk lights up as he walks past, and he vanishes as someone tries to take his picture. In “Jam”, he sinks a basket through the window of a completely different building, against Michael Jordan. “Remember The Time” has him surviving execution in ancient Egypt by morphing and melting into a pillar of sand for the pleasure of Pharaoh Eddie Murphy and Queen Iman. Even in “Beat It”, he pretty much puts an end to gang violence everywhere just by showing up. And the thing is this: Michael may have been the only artist in the history of the world who could get away with this shit.
At the moment, I’m watching “Leave Me Alone“, which, apart from being the most Quantel PaintBox-y thing you’ve ever seen, is like being inside Michael’s brain at the exact moment it all started going horribly awry. It’s full of paranoia, like a lot of his songs of that period, and the video’s full of tabloids and rumors about Michael marrying a space alien and such. Then Michael drives off into a strange Yellow Submarine-esque world of oddness. This should tell you everything right here.
He supposedly hacked off his nose because it reminded him too much of his Dad. He developed vitiligo, which causes your skin to slowly lose its pigment in blotches, and covered it up with too much pancake makeup. He became anorexic. He had other, weirder, surgery done. In the end, Michael looked like a completely different person than the kid who sang “ABC”.
Again, I’m being really glib. The fact of the matter is, here was a guy who was one of the most important, influential, and fascinating entertainers of the 20th century. If anybody represents the 1980s, it’s him (he’s at least third, behind Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.) He has millions of fans throughout the world, he got black artists played on MTV, he wrote “Beat It”, for chrissakes, and “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Scream” and “Blood on the Dance Floor” and “Man In The Mirror.” And, honestly, whenever I hear “Man In The Mirror”, I’m suddenly eight years old, in my mother’s blue Volkswagen, and it’s snowing outside. Oh, and he wrote “Do The Bartman,” for which we are eternally grateful.