From all the fuss of the past few days anyone would think Elvis has just died. Instead it’s just the ever-encroaching end, the gradual unravelling, of an American Idol of yesteryear. To me, Jackson embodied in one increasingly strange person all the show business imperatives necessary to get to and sustain yourself at the top of celebrity today. Looking at all the Madonnas and Britney Spears of the past half-century, who have followed Jackson’s lead, it’s amazing how much success can be engendered by essentially stupid people with a single idiotic but unquestioned idea pursued single-mindedly, without thought entering to disturb the ‘creative’ process.
He was the dream of every American Idol show and its multifarious spinoffs around the world that perpetuate such realities as: the generic ‘rock’ voice shorn of all distinction or real emotion, pared of all identifying idiosyncracies or sign of humanity, so as not to offend anyone by unsightly originality or unseemly singularity — the equivalent of the ubiquitous fuzzed guitar notes and chords backing rock tracks for the past thirty years.
The toast of Motown and little soul-groovers around the world in 1970 (‘I Want You Back’, ‘A-B-C’, ‘The Love You Save’), the Jackson Five lowered themselves fast to Osmonds Pop and on to disco mid-decade. By late decade Michael as a solo had rid himself of genuine soul and found something distinctive: white skin and a perky little nose, which alarmingly shrank year by year into an almost microscopic compass point. More than music, most charitably described as amorphous sound designed to dance to, the multitude of stage moves he devised, all executed jerkily at lightning speed but still with immaculate timing, were right up there in the best traditions of circus performers seen on America’s Got Talent — and, it must, be remembered, years before them.
Most successfully of all in the superstar firmament, he developed an unparalleled ability to generate fan sympathy in the face of evermore outrageous self-indulgence, previously the domain of friends and mentors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross. Was that his underlying essence, and predestined downfall, that he possessed the psyche of an androgynous being in which the rules that everyone else had to live by didn’t count? Like your ordinary garden-variety diva (and many are said to have the mentality of cultivated, nurtured pot plants) but encumbered by male expectations?
Generating so much money for so many people, he was pampered so that every whim no matter how bizarre was catered for. Every momentary desire was met with a resounding “Yes” by the Yes Men surrounding him day and night, and female celebrities spread their legs to be implanted with his divine seed in hopes of producing cloned products in a dynasty of inevitable success. Not only were the needs of others of no account but he was so far removed from reality that he brought others into actual physical danger — as when he used his baby as a public performance prop — to satisfy his own need for public acclaim, at least notoriety when he was capable of nothing more.
Above all he is responsible for the superstar mantra “Make your own rules” — not in stretching the boundaries of intellect in creating imaginative new music.
And tonight on the news there is a mass spontaneous tribute to his “Moon Walk” — with fans crowded in the street, linking hands and all shuffling backwards together, at least with better coordination and timing than you would expect from, say, a gathering of demented winos. What greater legacy can a performer leave?
His other trademark innovation on stage was simulating masturbating on stage, in time, into a white clinical glove — presumably all the better to inspire those better endowed with semen to donate. It undoubtedly inspired Justin Timberlake to develop his own innovative great leap forward in performance art: simulating humping women dog-like from behind, on stage, to the delight of his millions of fans around the world who pay hundreds of dollars each to see this and the other wonders of his talent.
That all said, I once caught a sustained glimpse of Michael Jackson in a two-hour interview, probably recorded around the turn of the millennium, undertaken to ameliorate the worst backlash after the pedophile accusations. (For the record, I believe them to be false, but how stupid can you be to take unrelated children into your bed and explain it “as the most loving thing in the world”?) I remember my mother, who had just watched it with me and was genuinely intrigued, asking what I thought of him as a genuine creative personality. I told her that I didn’t know if he was a genius but he came across to me as a genuine artist in pursuit of what artists should be — thoughtful, considered work.
Given the nature of the sensationalizing media and the chameleon-like image of Jackson’s public persona as portrayed, who can say what was in his mind from one minute to the next? So I bow to the authority of Quincy Jones, a hugely influential figure in music production for half a century, for the final word — confirming Michael Jackson didn’t like being a black man but dubbing him all the same a “performance genius”. Who might guess what Leonardo da Vinci would have turned out looking like had a mass media existed to shine the brightest spotlight in the world on him 24-7?
And so the debate goes on …