Don't stop 'til you get enough

Critics and Salon staffers remember Michael Jackson's legacy, his racial impact and the brilliance of "Billie Jean"

By Various

Published June 26, 2009 1:27PM (EDT)

Margo Jefferson, author of "On Michael Jackson"

 After I’d written a book about Michael Jackson, I found myself struggling with a sense of shame on more than one occasion. So many people said things like: “You’re a serious critic. Why are you writing about Michael Jackson?” Or, “I mean, I love his music, and 'Thriller' is one of the all-time great videos, but I can’t stand looking at him and I don’t want to think about what he’s done.” If I’d published it before the sex scandals and trials, my interest -- let’s go ahead and say my passion -- might have looked different. It might have looked as reasonable as writing about Madonna, Elvis or Bob Dylan.

 Suddenly, death has restored Michael Jackson to cultural respectability. Death gives us an easy way out of the unanswered questions and uneasy feelings. But (and this is the good thing), death also restores our total pleasure in his artistry. It makes me happy to see masses of people revel in the ache and charge of the music again, in the brilliant dancing, in the reckless splendor of his showmanship.

Never has the phrase “body of work” suited an artist more. Remember the body of that 10-year-old could do the work of men twice his age. Remember the voice that could pipe, growl and croon. Savor the gestures and costumes he took from every show or film he'd ever seen, then made over and made new. About films, John Berger writes that when they “achieve” art, they create "a spontaneous continuity with all mankind." Though I have to change his “mankind” to "humankind," that’s exactly it. That’s what Michael Jackson, did, that’s what he still does, and that’s what he’ll do forever.

Joan Walsh, Salon editor in chief

Though Fox had the best coverage of Thursday night, tabloidy and informative, I got so fed up hearing Geraldo Rivera calling Michael Jackson "post-racial." There was nothing post-racial about Michael Jackson's life or death.

I'm stunned at how sad I am, and I don't think it's because he's only a few weeks older than I am. Although I can't separate those things: We were the same age back in 1969, too, when the Jackson 5 jumped out of AM radio into my grade school music world. Even then I was aware of a strange thing: He was the only black star in my white school anybody would admit to liking. His pre-pubescent lack of sexuality had to be part of what made him acceptable, and there's nothing post-racial about that: He worked his way into our lives as a harmless, asexual child singing about love.

But boy, could he sing. "I Want You Back" is still one of my favorite songs, yet watching this smiling little boy belt it out on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1970 is surreal now. We know he never really had a childhood; not only did he perform professionally from the age of 7, his father physically and emotionally battered him. No matter where you come down on the question of whether Jackson abused children, it's clear he spent his adulthood trying to stay a child, to have the childhood he never really had -- and maybe make himself even less threatening, by bleaching his skin and shrinking his nose, the effect not ever making him look white, exactly, but as Bill Wyman notes, more like a Eurasian woman. It seems clear he was never comfortable in his own skin, being an adult black man.

And I know there were fans of every race outside UCLA Medical Center, where Jackson died, all day Thursday, but the larger crowd outside Harlem's Apollo Theatre, and the hometown crowd outside the Jackson family home in Gary, Ind., and the people in Detroit who gathered outside the Motown headquarters remind us that African-Americans don't see Jackson as "post-racial," either. He grew up a part of black culture in Gary, home to one of the nation's earliest black mayors, Richard Hatcher, performing on the "chitlin circuit" before he made it, a tiny dynamo who could sound like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson even as a preteen. I liked this letter from frequent Salon letter writer pastorhorace, who recalls being a lone black kid at an East Coast prep school in 1983 and how Jackson helped him fit in: "Michael Jackson was the coolest person in the world ... Jackson belonged to me in a way he could not belong to the other kids."

It's fair to call Jackson a racial hybrid, like Elvis; how strange they both descended into unhappy private worlds colored by drugs and paranoia. (There's a big likelihood we'll find Jackson's long history of prescription drug dependence contributed to his death, if it didn't cause it.) It seems a kind of foreshadowing that he married Lisa Marie Presley, who tried to help him through drug rehab in the early '80s.

I didn't like much of anything Jackson did after the amazing "Off the Wall." "Thriller" unsettled me, and not the way Jackson intended to, I don't think. His physical transformation began there, and so did the paranoia. For the last 20 years I tried to tune out the tragedy he had become. I was cringing at the idea of his comeback tour. I expected it would be a train wreck and I preferred to remember him from the '70s. And so I will.

Michaelangelo Matos, critic and author of "Sign 'O' the Times"

It's easy to forget, watching the music industry disintegrate, that it was ever endangered before file sharing came along. But 30 years ago, the record biz nearly collapsed thanks to coke-fueled overspending and the disco backlash; sales were notably weak during the early '80s. The Nov. 21, 1981, debut of MTV helped turn things around by fueling a Top 40 resurgence that made the mid-'80s the greatest time period for hit radio since the '60s or, I'd argue, ever. But "Thriller" had a lot more to do with it. Everyone knows it's sold 50 million copies worldwide, but the more telling statistic is that it sold 30 million of them within 15 months; after the Feb. 28, 1984, Grammy Awards, it was shipping an estimated million copies every four-and-a-half days. It may be an exaggeration to say that Jackson single-handedly revitalized the music business, but it isn't much of one.

Pop music has been living in his shadow ever since. Not specific artists -- though his stamp is over more artists than I have room to list here -- but the music biz itself. "Thriller" invented the modern-era mainstream pop album as assuredly as the Beatles' 1965 "Rubber Soul" invented the golden-age rock album. Aiming for a hit single with every song and achieving it with all but two, it radically reshaped the way musicians conceived their works. But both"Thriller" and its hit-filled predecessor, 1979's "Off the Wall," are more than hit machines; they're indelible wholes. For Jackson, all-the-songs-are-hits meant that all the songs should be great -- and if they aren't, they should sparkle just as brightly as the ones that are.

"Off the Wall" was my first album in as many ways as you can twist the phrase. It taught me how to listen to music -- how to phrase on the beat, how to pace an album, what it meant to give yourself utterly to a performance. Flipping between CNN and MSNBC during the agonizing wait between TMZ's claim-jump and the L.A. Times' confirmation, then calling a good friend to break the news (he had to go; he felt the way I had for a couple of hours), and with the parallels between Jackson's death and Elvis Presley's growing sadder and more obvious by the minute, I listened to "Off the Wall" again. It hasn't lost anything. We have.

What we've lost, in a word, is monoculture. Michael Jackson is the final pop star of seeming consequence to everyone -- not just people who don't normally care about music, but people who don't care about culture, period. Obviously, it's been a quarter-century since that was unequivocally true. But he's the last pop musician for whom it was even equivocally true. The fact that the business he saved has been crumbling for some time was given a brutal underlining by Jackson's sudden, unexpected death, the question of what's-next now punctuated with what-will-never-be-again.

ZZ Packer, author of "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"

When you said "Michael" in Atlanta in the 1980s you were talking about the only Michael of note, the Michael Jackson. My aunts had Teddy Pendergrass, I had Michael Jackson. Much more than a superstar, he was a certifiable crush. My friends and I were convinced he sang "PYT, Pretty Young Thing" directly to us (and as a young black girl in Atlanta, it was reassuring to be someone's PYT). That his voice was equally sweet and strident didn't erase any sexuality, but it did sublimate it into something more believable coming from Jackson's desire, need, whirlwind energy and ecstasy.

His genius wasn't simply in superimposing the high-octane choruses of "Beat It" and "Thriller" with rippling otherworldly falsettos, guttural growls of pantomimed machismo, and his trademark piercing, glittering "he hee"; he was a master at painting a vocal landscape centered on innocence and embellished with idealism, vulnerability, sweet bursts of bravado and utopian visions of racelessness.

Blacks in all fields have had to build their own glass houses just to break through the glass ceiling, and Jackson, whose own negritude in certain quarters has been viewed as nominal, was no different. He broke the race barrier on MTV, refusing to submit to its genteel yet petty segregation of black artists to the extent that there were no "black videos." That "Thriller" became a video played on MTV ensured crossover success and mainstream media coverage, which in turn helped forge his status as superstar, rather than a short-lived R&B or pop phenomenon. He, like Oprah, amassed wealth by ownership of his own product, earning a startling $2 per every album sold during the "Thriller" days, and at one point, the highest royalty rate of any musician.

The child molestation scandals, the less-than-ideal parenting antics, and the multiple self-induced disfigurations are all far from trivial, and ought not be forgotten. For these vagaries, black America viewed him, in his later years, as a backslider, a sort of wayward cousin who we secretly prayed would come to his senses. He'd internalized any number of pathologies, then expressed them writ large: a skin-color complexion obsession, a troubled relationship with black masculinity and sexuality, a truncated childhood, which -- ironically and inevitably -- lead to protracted infantilism. Born with beautiful classically black features, he died, oddly enough, the stereotype of the "tragic mulatto."

Despite the scandals and plastic surgeries and self-hatred, the real reason his legacy will endure is simple: he was the real deal. In an entertainment world where kinetic energy comes cheap -- i.e., Shakira's gyrating hips, Britney's endless synth-pop ululations, Beyoncé's booty shakes -- Jackson's particular brand of unstoppable dynamism amounted to more than amped-up brio: As a dancer he was gymnastic and balletic, with the snap and bounce funk of a tap-dancer birthed by James Brown. He was, above all, a performance artist, with the audience as medium. It was showmanship of a sort that was a throwback to the Motown era in which genuine talent was shaped rather than manufactured, in which stardom was the hoped-for reward of artistry, and artistry itself drew from a decent amount of pain, melancholy and often abuse.

We have no shortage of stars, but we do suffer a dearth of artists, and Jackson, despite his stardom, never stopped being an artist. Perhaps his mistake later in his life was that he became a performance artist of himself, unable to extract his true self from the performance of Jacko, his fans downgraded from audience to onlookers while his id and superego duked it out. But we audience members are greedy, hungry; we have a void that needs constant filling. Once upon a time, he filled that void with his music. Now, the music is all we've got left. Though we'll miss him dearly, the music will never die.

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon senior writer

For me, it's all about "Billie Jean." It's all about the amazing, snaky, best-bass-line-in-all-of-pop-music "Billie Jean," pumping out of car radios and dilapidated rowhouses all along Calvert Street in Baltimore. For a while there in the winter and spring of 1983 on Calvert Street, instead of air we had "Billie Jean." Michael wasn't calling himself the King of Pop yet, but that's when it happened, because that was the song that united the surly African-American b-boys and slumming speed-freak college kids of East Baltimore. (That and the Orioles, who dominated the American League that year. That's how long ago it was.) My drugged-out Lothario roommate, the one who was screwing the shah's niece, loved the song. "Fuck, yes! Play that again!" they would call out from their cocaine-futon orgy when I put it on the stereo, while her bodyguards sat downstairs on our flea-infested sofa, tapping their toes and watching "Wheel of Fortune." And the black guy with gold teeth at the corner store loved the song, the one who sold us loosies. "Oh hell yeah," he said, grinning at me and turning up his tinny transistor radio. "Michael made him a goddamn record!"

He did indeed. That was a tense time in not a great place, and that amazing song, with its bass line, its hypnotically percussive vocal track, its undertone of sexual predation and danger, made us feel delighted to be alive and sharing the same dangerous streets. Michael Jackson was the most important popular entertainer since Elvis; he shared some of the same pathologies, and they also shared the ability to reach across cultural boundaries and get you right where you are. Yesterday I got to hear "Billie Jean" again, pumping from a passing car on a beautiful summer afternoon in my middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., just minutes after Michael had died. It's a great place to live, and in his own weird way, Michael helped make that possible. Walking from my house to the subway, I must have passed 30 different conversations about Michael Jackson. As the "Billie Jean" car slowed in traffic, a couple paused on the sidewalk to listen, and I nodded at them as I went past. "It's such a great song," the woman said sadly, whether to me or to her boyfriend or to nobody in particular.

Jeff Chang, author of "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of The Hip-Hop Generation" and the forthcoming "Who We Be: The Colorization of America"

Long before anyone could read into Michael Jackson's cubist, etiolated face a work of performance art, the wounds of internalized racism, or the excess of boredom and wealth, all those things that would make us either look away or gawk, there was his voice.

The thing that Berry Gordy heard from the 9-year-old little boy was "knowingness," he said, "feeling, inspiration, and pain." There was an early protest song, "The Young Folks," that now seems telling. But as time went on, Gordy and his songwriters gave Michael songs in which loss loomed large, the better to exploit that glorious instrument of his. And for that voice, he lost his childhood.

Or more precisely, he gave it to us. Many of his most affecting performances were about distance and displacement, the desire to be somewhere else, the inability to return to a lost past. Think of the songs that the hip-hop generation adored so much: "I'll Be There," "I Wanna Be Where You Are," "Who's Loving You," "Maybe Tomorrow," "All I Do Is Think of You," "Ready or Not." On these songs, Michael's "knowingness" sounds more like fragility. On the other hand, but hardly balancing the scale, is the joyous Bronx summer break of "It's Great to Be Here." If you want to wonder how ambivalent this boy-dream, this incarnation of all our notions about youth and beauty, felt about the limelight and wanting to be "normal," listen to him sing "Got to Be There." When he sees the girl of his desire walk into the morning light, it's as if he has transferred the shine away from himself to her, imagining a perfect love above the blood and grind of the daily celebrity-making machine. When he hits that high "me" (matched later by the word "home"), he has given all of it up to all of us.

But as an audience, we were insatiable and ruthless. Years later, after the satisfaction and ease of his 20s, after he had been broken by self-mutilation and bizarre scandal in his 30s, Michael Jackson would reveal a tragic, bathetic emptiness, pleading, "Have you seen my childhood?" By then, many of us had either turned away or turned on him. The transaction was done. In the end, he lost even his voice, autotuned first by lawyers and other keepers of his dissipating wealth, consumed by Mickey Mouse-sounding paid-TV defenses and overproduced songs, before finally going silent forever. Time will restore the greatness of Michael Jackson's artistry. May it also cause us some revulsion at our complicity in his fall as well.

Andrew Leonard, Salon senior writer

In the mid-1980s I worked as a disco DJ in Taipei, Taiwan, at a nightclub called the Metro. There were some songs that got all the foreign guys to rush the floor and start behaving like fools, like "Add It Up" by the Violent Femmes. There were some songs that got all the foreign girls swooning off their bar stools, like "I Melt With You" by Modern English. And there were songs that got all the Taiwanese girls in the house up at once, like almost anything by Madonna. (The Taiwanese guys would follow the Taiwanese girls.)

And then there was "Billie Jean."

"Billie Jean" was the song that you saved for when you needed to rejuvenate a dead night; a magic trick that could instantly transform a cemetery into a rave. As the first sinister notes pumped out of the speakers, you could see ears prick up and bodies tense all over the club, as if a meadow full of grazing deer had suddenly caught the scent of a pack of wolves. Except, instead of fleeing in terror, the mass reaction was to surge onto the dance floor.

"Billie Jean" was a song that made everyone feel instantly three times cooler than they had any right to be. The antithesis of a love song -- a man denying paternity! -- it had a mean edge perfect for the Darwinist natural selection of a sexual meat market cruising long after midnight.

Every time I played it, I would stand in my booth and marvel at the ironic perfection of the genius of Michael Jackson. The song demanded that everyone be as sexual as their psyches would allow, while at the same time warning of the dangers of sex, of entanglement with the wrong person, "to be careful what you do, because the lie becomes the truth." Everyone who danced to that song in a seedy disco while dawn waited just around the corner was asking for trouble, whether they knew it or not.

I loved that song.

Kevin Berger, Salon features editor

I have always been terribly fond of the nut. I remember watching that 2003 TV documentary about his problem with the boys and thinking: Who is this loathsome British interviewer? Obviously history will not note Martin Bashir while it has already recorded Jackson's scintillating songs for eternity. What music fan couldn't have sympathy for the soul-pop demon? Everything about the last two decades of his alien life has obscured his sensational tunes. You have to cut a clear path in your memory to the first time you heard "Billie Jean" on the radio, when we still listened to that ancient device in a genuine act of community, and that bass line danced on your heart, and Jackson's angry falsetto sliced up his accuser, to strip away the culture of celebrity, so ridiculous now, and relive a musician who was so electric and alive that he simply made us cheer.

Sarah Hepola, Salon Life editor

At 9 years old, I wanted so badly to be Michael Jackson. It's weird to think now -- because of the parade of grotesquerie that came later -- but in 1984, I was insane about him: Michael Jackson on the cover of "Thriller," crisp white suit and bedroom eyes. Michael Jackson gliding backward across the stage on the Motown anniversary special. Michael Jackson in his videos, all wild yowps and crotch-grabbing and shoulder pops. For a man who seemed so miserable in his own body, he sure knew how to make it move.

He was my first crush, precisely because he was so unthreatening and emasculated: Because he was tender and spoke like a geisha; because he sang songs to rats and his voice broke in the final lines of "She's Out of My Life"; because he didn't talk about women or drugs or cars but about Peter Pan and Charlie Chaplin and Edgar Allan Poe. He also spoke about being alone, about his sadness; celebrities have so much license to be cruel, to be foul, but he was always tender. Don't get me wrong: He was messed up. He messed up. But I was a white kid growing up in suburban Dallas, and he taught me to love old soul and Top 40 pop. He taught me that black skin is beautiful. I always wondered if he knew that last part.

Michael Jackson adored PT Barnum, and he sometimes spoke about wanting his life to be the "greatest show on earth." And maybe it was: Not just the videos I like to remember but the hyperbaric chambers and Bubbles and the Elephant Man. But if celebrity is a mask that eats the face, he seemed to be wearing a full body suit. And in the last 15 years, there are few people I would want to be less than Michael Jackson. It was hard to love him. It was hard to defend him, and sometimes I didn't even want to. He was my childhood hero, and I'm so sad he died. But I also have to admit that, in a lot of ways, Michael Jackson died for me a long time ago.

Mary Elizabeth Williams, host of Table Talk and Broadsheet contributor

Those of us born in the '60s can measure our youth in Michael Jackson songs. We were children when he was in the Jackson 5, when "ABC" and"I Want You Back" and "The Love You Save" were the soundtracks of our school days. We were teenagers for "Thriller," and if you are either too young or too old to have been on the dance floor when the DJ spun the title track of that 1982 album, well, it was grand.

What I loved about "Thriller," even as I plunged into my disaffected, punk rock phrase, was how everybody loved it. That album was urban and soulful and danceable. It was for the black kids and the white kids. No matter where we came from or what color we were, we all whooped when Michael came on.

When I think of Michael in his subsequent years -- when I remember laughing at his unconvincing bleat in"Bad," when I recall watching the "Black or White" video in bed with my then-boyfriend, when I think of being a new mother and gasping at the video of him dangling his son from a balcony -- it breaks my heart. Most of us got to grow up, fall in love, raise families -- to move on. Jackson was trapped in his own fame, a plastic surgery junkie in a surgical mask holed up in a place called Neverland.

Now that he's died, the rest of us can grieve not just for his death but for what he ultimately became. But the circus of his life will never mitigate the genius of his talent, or the way we feel, even now, when "Beat It" comes up on our iPod's shuffle. His voice, his moves, his gift, they're inside of us, in every exquisite Quincy Jones-produced moment. And if they say why -- tell them that it's human nature.

Alex Koppelman, Salon staff writer

"Thriller" was the first album I ever owned. It came out a week before I was born; a friend of my mother's gave it to me when I was still an infant -- she was worried all the classical music my parents were playing would turn me into a nerd. I doubt she ever had any idea what she was really doing for me: For the first 10 years of my life, that album meant the world to me. It still does.

It's awful to say so soon after, but what happened Thursday might have been the best thing for his legacy. Yes, he was about to go back onstage, and his shows had sold out. But so much of the excitement, now, was the perverse pleasure we all take in watching a tightrope walker work without a net. Had he lived, continuing down his downward spiral, the turmoil and scandal might have obscured his music for good. Now that he's gone, we can allow ourselves to think of him the way we've always wanted to. After he was pronounced dead, the obsessive fandom that had become taboo, left to the kooks who were still true believers, was suddenly alive again. Everyone was listening to "Thriller," crowds flocked back to Indiana to say goodbye and people were dancing and singing in front of the Apollo for him.

We shouldn't slap a halo on him, or ignore the truth of the man. But for now, it's nice to have that talented kid with the one sparkling glove back.

By Various


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