Blame it on the boogie

Andrew O’Hagan

  • On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson
    Pantheon, 146 pp, $20.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 375 42326 5

Since being acquitted of child molestation charges last summer, Michael Jackson has been hanging out in Bahrain, enjoying the hospitality of the ruler’s poptastic son Sheikh Abdullah. Jackson is said to have become a Muslim (which is sure to please his critics on Good Morning America), but evidence would suggest he has yet to get the hang of Islamic custom. Not long after arriving in the famously tolerant state, he caused uproar when he entered the ladies’ loos at the Ibn Battutah Mall dressed in female headgear and positioned himself at the mirror to put on his make-up.

Jackson’s new friend has a bit of cash, and the pair have set up a record label called Two Seas Records. Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad al-Khalifa is also the governor of Bahrain’s Southern Region, but that hasn’t prevented him finding time to write a song with Jackson’s brother Jermaine, ‘a passion-filled song that calls for world peace and global solidarity in the face of wars and disasters’. According to local correspondents, the record already has a title, ‘He Who Makes the Sky Grey’, but no release date is in sight. The king’s son has high hopes for the recording. He recently called a press conference in order to claim that the project ‘intends to bridge the gap between East and West’. Meanwhile, Jackson is in the habit of smiling widely beside his new friend. Things are going well in Bahrain. According to the Militant Islam Monitor, he is planning to build a new mosque in Manama.

Some insight into Jackson’s life in the Middle East was offered recently by a young man who goes by the name DJ Whoo Kid, has a radio show on the New York station Hot 97 and produces work with gangsta-rap outfits with names like G-Unit and Lil Scrappy. According to MTV News, ‘Whoo Kid says he originally connected with Bahrain’s royal family when he was recommended to DJ their parties by mutual contacts, including the Prince of Monaco and Seif Gaddafi, son of Libyan dictator Moammar (“They’re huge G-Unit fans,” the DJ said).’ The last time Whoo Kid turned up in Bahrain he found Jackson drinking lemonade by some profoundly extravagant swimming-pool. They went to supper with the sheikh that night and DJ Whoo Kid decided to give the Gloved One, the Baby Dangler, or the Prince of Pop, as he’s still sometimes known, some wise advice on the fashion front. ‘You can’t talk to Mike all fluffy like everyone does,’ he told a reporter. ‘I told him he needs to cut his hair, get some million-dollar earrings, get a million-dollar watch and take all them spaceship clothes off. He said: “I have to change my whole outlook.”’

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, things are getting a bit wild with Michael Jackson’s finances. The star was about to be made bankrupt over a $240 million debt to the Bank of America – he was also being sued by 90 of Neverland Ranch’s employees, who hadn’t been paid for some time – when the bank sold the debts to the Fortress Investment Group, which has issued Jackson with a $270 million loan, saving him from bankruptcy but costing him part of his share in his greatest asset, a music catalogue which gives him rights to four thousand classic songs, including two hundred by the Beatles. Jackson bought the catalogue against stiff competition, including that of Paul McCartney, in 1985, and it is said to be worth a fortune, though perhaps it’s worth more than money to Jackson, who proved by purchasing it that he was bigger than the Beatles, who were once said to be bigger than Jesus.

What explains Jackson’s journey from cute little black boy with immense talent and optimism to a mutilated gender fiasco who busies himself impersonating Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8? Jackson is a protean idea of a person, rather confused, rather desperate, but complete in his devotion to self-authorship. His every move shows him to be a modern conundrum about race and identity and selfhood. He might make us laugh, but he might also frighten us into recognising the excesses we demand of those we choose to entertain us. For my money he also constitutes a mind-boggling and vaguely uplifting example of human instability in pursuit of perfection. In a sense he is all of the showbusiness spectacles we have ever known rolled into one: Barnum & Bailey to James Brown, Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Temple, and David Blaine, and Peter Pan, all the way back to Neverland. We want to see him as pop’s greatest distortion of human nature, which he may be, but isn’t he also the most interesting person on the planet?

Jackson’s mother, Katherine, a Jehovah’s Witness, has said that Michael never quite seemed like a child, that even in his nappies he ‘felt’ old. At little over a year and a half he would stand with his bottle and dance to the rhythm of the washing-machine. Joseph, his father, was angry and ambitious, an excellent if often sorry combination in the parent of a child who wants to be successful in showbusiness. Everything that is bad for a child might be good for a performer – including, I suspect, being locked in a cupboard by one’s father – and the horrors of his childhood very soon became part and parcel of Jackson’s act. In many ways, the early career of the Jacksons is a classic American showbusiness story – the Gumm sisters with spandex trousers – except that the boys were black and suburban and they became unprecedentedly popular in white America.

Only in the early 1980s, after Jackson went solo, did he go from being a musical genius to being a genius at selfhood. He remade his nose, he started getting interested in robots and toys, he began to wear make-up every day, and he began to fashion himself as an only child and a lost boy. He began, in other words, to disappear into some region of total ambiguity. In his biography of the star, J. Randy Taraborrelli describes going to interview Jackson at his California home in 1981. Jackson’s sister Janet was there and Jackson insisted that the journalist ask her his questions, then she would ask Michael, who would tell her the answer and she could then tell Taraborrelli. Here’s part of the exchange:

‘Let’s start with the new album, Triumph. How do you feel about it?’

Michael pinned me with his dark eyes and nodded towards his sister. I redirected my question. ‘Janet, would you please ask him how feels about the album.’

Janet turned to Michael. ‘He wants to know how you feel about the album,’ she said.

‘Tell him I’m very happy with it,’ Michael said, his tone relaxed. ‘Working with my brothers again was an incredible experience for me. It was,’ he stopped, searching for the word, ‘magical,’ he concluded.

Janet nodded her head and turned to me. ‘He told me to tell you that he’s very happy with the album,’ she repeated. ‘And that working with his brothers was an incredible experience for him.’

There was a pause.

‘You forgot the part about it being magical,’ Michael said to her, seeming peeved at her for not doing her job properly.

‘Oh, yes.’ Janet looked at me with apologetic brown eyes. ‘He said it was magical.’

‘Magical?’ I asked.

‘Yes. Magical.’

Jackson has what might be called a supernatural relation to his own personality, a position which, far from holding him back in the real world, led in the months after this interview to the making of his album Thriller, which became the biggest-selling album of all time (fifty million sales, plus seven Top Ten singles). That level of success seems both to have enlarged his sense of messianic purpose and deepened the role of fantasy in his life. He had more and more operations on his face, he went to Disneyland every chance he got, he starred in a remake of The Wizard of Oz, he befriended a monkey called Bubbles, he pretended to sleep in an incubator each night, his skin got whiter and whiter, he became a recluse, and he invited children to stay at his ranch.

Margo Jefferson’s essay on Michael Jackson displays a lively understanding of black performing history. Thankfully, there is not (yet) a Department of Michael Jackson Studies at Harvard, but Jefferson makes clear the extent to which the former child star is a loose-limbed signifier for the kinds of issue that matter to cultural studies majors: black history, gender politics, the aesthetics of the closet and all that. But Jefferson is enough of a writer to convince one, rather quickly, that the big-hearted, firm-minded essay – more than the novel or the biopic – may be the place where such issues can begin to find their most open-ended resolution. She makes it clear that Jackson had a freak-making childhood, and argues energetically that his career should be seen as an emotional extrapolation of everything he fears about adult power and the loss of innocence:

Neverland is a happy presexual island (‘for the Neverland is always more or less an island’) ruled by boys. Grief and loss are at its root. Peter Pan ran away from home when he was seven days old … and settled in Kensington Gardens. ‘If you think he was the only baby who ever wanted to escape, it shows how completely you have forgotten your own young days.’ The birds taught him to fly, and he settled in with the fairies and had a fine time dancing and playing his pipes night after night. Eventually he became half human and half bird, a ‘betwixt-and-between’. Sometimes, though, he would visit his house and watch his mother weep; the window was always open. He liked that she missed him, and he wanted to keep his options open. But one night when he arrived expecting a welcome, the window was locked. When he looked in, she was asleep with her arm around another child. ‘When we reach the window, it is Lock-Out Time. The iron bars are up for life.’ Devastated, he turned his back on her, flew to Neverland, and turned himself into the island’s boy-king. From that day on, he helped other children flee their parents to a life of pleasure and adventure. ‘I’m youth, I’m joy,’ he crowed to his enemy, the wicked, unloved Captain Hook. Hook and his pirates were the only adults on the island. Peter and his band of Lost Boys killed them all. But they never discussed fathers. Mothers, he told Wendy, were not to be trusted.

When Jane Fonda told Michael that she wanted to produce Peter Pan for him, he began to tremble. He identified so with Peter, he told her; he had read everything written about him. Did he know that the book’s original title was ‘The Boy who Hated His Mother’? As Michael wrote in his autobiography: ‘I don’t trust anybody except Katherine. And sometimes I’m not so sure about her.’

In his extensive reading about Peter Pan, Jackson cannot have failed to notice the recently very popular view that J.M. Barrie was a paedophile, haunted by his dead sibling David, and animated by his fascination with the Llewellyn-Davies boys whom he met in Kensington Gardens. Jefferson does not pick up on the parallels – the horrible accusation, the sibling psychodrama, the company of children – but she has a lot of time for the idea that we live in a culture that enjoys the oddness of child stars behaving like adults (singing about sex) and also enjoys punishing them for having an odd relation to childhood when they become adults:

Michael never admits that he is angry as well as lonely and sad. And yet, what better reproach to all grown-ups – family, siblings, fans – than to have nothing to do with them except as businesspeople you can hire and fire. Or as wives you can marry and divorce. Or as surrogate mothers you can pay and dismiss.

Sometimes when I think back on that infamous photograph of Michael Jackson holding his baby over the balcony of a hotel, I see it as a child star’s act of vengeance. Holding a baby over a balcony is a furious, infantile acting-out – doing something outrageous when people are interfering with you. ‘You follow me, you hound me, you won’t leave me alone, you want to see me, you want to see my baby, fine. Here’s my baby. If I drop him, if he falls, it’s your fault.’

We talk about how we think, believe, suspect Michael Jackson treats children. We don’t talk about how we treat child stars. Child stars are abused by the culture. And what’s more treacherous than when the rewards of child stardom issue from the abuse? Child stars are performers above all else. Whatever their triumphs, they are going to make sure we see every one of their scars. That’s the final price of admission.

We could go a stage further, and suggest that our tabloid media have a paedophile element to their subconscious, a child-abusing energy at the heart of their own anger. The British tabloid newspapers demonstrate this every day, with their talk of ‘our tots’ and their enthusiastic ‘revelations’ about suspected child abusers and child murderers. You can’t read the British papers without feeling polluted, not only by the stories but by the degree to which the writers and editors of those stories appear to want them to be true, even before the evidence has proved it. Beyond this, a carnival of sensationalism vies with a deadly prurience, matched by a creepy populist appeal to the ‘common decency’ of the mob. You feel that the hacks are getting off on the horrors they ascribe, getting high on the pseudo-democratic vengeance their stories might excite. ‘Here’s an ugly fact,’ Jefferson writes. ‘The sexual abuse of children largely goes underreported. And even when it’s reported, it often goes unpunished. But here’s a sorry fact. We’re mesmerised by such crimes: they have become a form of mass culture entertainment, and a cover story for all kinds of fears.’

This is a horrible trap for a damaged and damaging person, and if that person is famous – superstar-famous – it may be the end of him. In Jackson’s case, the tabloid mentality has had a field day, thanks to his weirdness, his nose-jobs and his Neverland Ranch. Wacko Jacko was found guilty of his appearance, his little voice, his white skin, his make-up, his friendship with the young film star Macaulay Culkin: he was guilty before he was charged with anything, though every time he has appeared in court the jury has concluded that there is not enough evidence to secure a conviction. I have no information about what Michael Jackson did, or intended to do, when he invited those young people into his bed, but nobody else has any clear information either, and we are bound to forget, as the tabloids do, that having weird hair and a strange outlook and odd abilities does not place him outwith the bounds of common justice. It was those peculiarities which made him famous in the first place, and the whole circus may actually say less about the possibility of his having a criminal nature and more about our capacity for enjoying the ruination of a public figure.

What is it about fame that can make people unbearable to themselves? In the right conditions – the wrong conditions – a dreamy and over-watched person of sizeable talent can turn steadily into a tragic being, as vulnerable to the psychically destructive forces of the age as the great heroines of the 19th-century novel or the doomed figures of Romantic opera. Moral captives such as Emma Bovary and Tess Durbeyfield have destruction written into their code of happiness, as does Cio-Cio-San or Verdi’s Desdemona, suffocated by bad men or bourgeois custom but most effectively by a public (an audience) that loves to be complicit in the undoing of women and the aestheticising of their pain. Once you get to Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe or Billie Holiday or Lena Zavaroni, the thrill has become a fetish, and you can see how self-change and death-throes have become in a rather naked way the bigger part of their performance. Michael Jackson has all of that by rote, and is distinguished among such figures as a black man who wants to be a white woman; a person who wants to unperson himself, to become something beyond nature, something entirely concocted of private fears and public desire.

Jefferson quotes Ralph Ellison’s line that the challenge for a black artist ‘was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face’. Has this been Jackson’s greatest crime: to attempt to ‘pass’ for white in full public view? Did this put him beyond all possibility of acceptance or belonging? An alien? In The Human Stain, Philip Roth showed us Coleman Silk, a black man whose whole life had been a shoring-up of a place of greater safety for himself as a member of the white intelligentsia, a person who sought to put his secret self permanently out of sight in order to live as he wanted. He thought he could ‘play his skin however he wanted, colour himself just as he chose’. The world comes down on Roth’s character after he is accused of racism. One can barely conceive of what the world has in store for Michael Jackson, who has appeared to flout every rule of selfhood and secrecy made fashionable or necessary by the times he lives in.

The most interesting artists are a compound of talents and shibboleths. Everything that happens to Jackson, including his unacceptableness, which has recently come to seem final (thus Bahrain), is drawn eventually into his wonder and into his madness and into his work. A few years after the first charges of child molestation were brought against him, Jackson released a song called ‘Ghosts’. The video is a funny, frightening and slightly stressed response to Jackson’s many alarming situations, internal, external and otherworldly, but it also shows how his work can transform his isolation into yet more public performance. I’m not sure he can do this any more. Jefferson gives an excellent description of the video for ‘Ghosts’:

The parents carry torches to the castle, like the villagers in Frankenstein. The castle is a cavernous, Poe-like dwelling with heavy brocade curtains and suits of armour. Lightning flashes; a raven flaps its wings; thunder cracks and doors slam shut, closing the intruders in. The Maestro appears, first as a skeleton in a black robe, then as Michael Jackson in a white shirt with a single row of ruffles, a white T-shirt, black pants and black shoulder-length hair.

The Mayor calls the Maestro a freak and orders him to leave town. The Maestro challenges the Mayor … twisting his face into masks that are part ghoul, part 19th-century black minstrel. ‘Did you think I was alone? Meet the family,’ he adds, and summons forth creatures who shape themselves into the skeletons of antique courtiers, ladies and jesters. The skeletons dance with African squats and robotic rotating knees and shoulders, with flamenco stamps and Native American stomps up the walls and across the balcony, cluster around a golden chandelier and drift lyrically down. Then (surely a reference to the gossip about his plastic surgeries), the Maestro tears his face off to reveal a skull. Later he bends down and, starting from his feet, tears off his whole body. Now he is Mister Bones in a Walpurgisnacht minstrel show.

The music is a bit insipid and nonsensical, the dance moves freakazoid and ridiculous, the scenario grandiose and egotistical, but the whole package is nevertheless a riveting, baroque and show-stopping amplification of Jackson’s fractured self-image. Whether he means it or not, Michael Jackson is a constant projection of his own nervous imagination, a showman and a shaman embedded with all the hysteria and all the ambition of the age. And to think there’s a little boy in there somewhere, asking for love in the dark.

At the height of his 1980s mega-success, Jackson still attended meetings at the Kingdom Hall with this mother. Two or three nights a week, he would also go door-to-door with the Watchtower magazine, trying to recruit for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. To make things easier, he would cover his head for these outings and wear a false moustache and glasses. Wandering around the suburbs of California, he would suffer the usual abuse and door-slammings. One girl, Louise Gilmore, recalls a man coming to her house. ‘Today, I’m here to talk to you about God’s word,’ he said, and she let him in. According to Taraborrelli, the girl didn’t recognise Jackson, but noticed he was odd. ‘He looked like a little boy playing grown-up,’ she said. He spoke to her about his faith, then drank a glass of water and left. When a neighbour later told Louise that the visitor had been Michael Jackson she says she almost fainted. She didn’t join his religion, but she kept the pamphlets he gave her as souvenirs she would treasure all her life.