It’s not like there’s anything new that needs to be pointed out about Michael Jackson, but I can’t think about anything else. Over the years I’ve spun off on many tangents about his talent, his fascinating persona and the tragic circumstances of his life, so it’s nothing really new except for the unhappy ending, the lid put on my dreams of what could happen next. But maybe putting it into words again will help me accept that this has really happened.
The news just blindsided me and ended my day. I was researching something on IMDb, and as the page was changing I noticed the headline saying he’d been hospitalized. I was immediately worried because it said “cardiac arrest,” but thinking he was okay for now. I hit back, clicked on the link and didn’t even read the story because my eye went to the link below it, a TMZ story saying he was dead at 50. I wanted to believe it wasn’t true, a dumb mistake, or Michael doing a tasteless stunt he’d have to apologize for later. But somewhere in my brain I thought, 50, huh. Nice round number. I always wanted to see him get old with that face, keep that nose but have wrinkles and grey hair like a normal person. Walk around with a black coat and an umbrella, a strange but graceful old man. But it figures it would be something like this. Not 49, not 51, but 50. Fifty years of Michael Jackson, one half century. That’s all you get.
It took me about 2 or 3 minutes to remember how to turn the cable on, seriously. I just stood there with the remote control in my hand. I get bummed by celebrity deaths, but they never hit me like this. I was literally shaking. I got alot of singers I’m always dreading the death of, but he wasn’t one of them.
For the rest of the day it seemed like every 2 minutes my brain would reset itself, suddenly remembering “oh shit, he really died.” During the night I kept waking up and that was all that was on my mind. This morning I watch a youtube video of the legendary Motown 25th lipsynch of “Billie Jean,” and I forget again, I get so caught up in appreciation. You’ve seen that thing, right? One thing that’s incredible about that performance is that except for the moonwalk part (with its pulling-up-the-pantlegs buildup) it’s disguised as not really being a dance. It’s like that’s just how the guy moves when he’s singing. But it defies gravity. It’s like he’s the coolest strutter ever and he’s standing on a giant air hockey table.
Michael was supernaturally talented. There’s another video that shows him as a little kid auditioning for something, and he’s doing some of the same moves we associate with him as an adult. In a way, and not by choice, Michael sacrificed his own life and well-being for our entertainment. By all accounts his father was cruel. He drilled, overworked and beat those kids to be a success, to bring their family from poverty to wealth. You could compare it to the Chinese Opera that Jackie Chan grew up in, a miserable childhood of extreme training that brought him great skill. But of course that can’t explain it all because the whole Jackson family experienced that, they were all talented kids who could sing and dance and play instruments. And none of them approached Michael. He just had something.
Stevie Wonder was a child genius who grew into an adult genius, and he doesn’t seem to have the same damage. But I’m guessing he had kinder parents. I wish Michael could’ve gotten over it. But he felt he had missed his childhood and he spent most of his adult life trying to get it back. He was unhappy with reality so he built a new reality, an amusement park, a zoo, a statue of himself with a Batman costume. He apparently leaked stories to the press to make himself seem even weirder, like the one about sleeping in a hyperbolic chamber to protect his skin. And his skin was an issue. He was unhappy with the reality of himself so he transformed himself as well. He smoothed out the vitelligo and everyone made fun of him for becoming “white.” He slowly chipped away at the nose, changed the eyes, until he was a completely different person who on a bad day looked like a drag queen with an alien nose, on a good day a pixie-ish Peter Pan type like I imagine was the goal.
It seems pretty clear that somebody who would do that is deeply troubled. But I can’t lie, the bizarreness was part of my fascination. It’s just amazing to me that somebody could and would do those things. He seemed like a fictional character. Sometimes I thought of him as a weird Vincent Price anti-hero, a wronged madman living in a spooky castle, with rides and mannequins. And I was thrilled every time I read a new strange thing that he did. I remember years ago he was interviewed in TV Guide and claimed that he went door to door like other Jehova’s Witnesses, but that he did it wearing a fat suit, afro wig and buckteeth. And I thought damn, what I wouldn’t give for Michael Jackson to knock on my door wearing a fat suit, afro wig and buckteeth.
Oh man, the disguises! I loved the disguises. The first time I knew about it was a picture I saw in People magazine or some shit like that, maybe in the early ’90s. He went to Disneyland in disguise. He had a mustache and a trucker hat (at that time only worn by actual truckers). But his eyes looked like Diana Ross. It was not convincing, and I loved it. This was years before we all became accustomed to the face mask and the umbrella, later the plastic mask, recently the Zorro mask (and pajama pants). And his kids wearing Spider-man masks. I mean, if you’re Michael Jackson, why not celebrate Halloween everyday? (although I guess Jehova’s Witnesses aren’t supposed to celebrate holidays.)
I don’t think most of that stuff was a put on, but it fit nicely with his work, which was equally bizarre and eccentric. There was of course Captain Eo, the 3-D movie at Disneyland (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) where he flew around in a spaceship with robots and furry aliens, and used his dance moves to transform a Giger-esque Angelica Huston into pretty lady Angelica Huston. I always liked when his moves made sound effects or shot lasers. Moonwalker was my favorite, the home video that was basically a feature length expansion of the Smooth Criminal video. He fights Joe Pesci, saves the children, turns into a car, a robot, a space ship. Flies away like E.T.
Much later on there was his short film Ghosts, which took me a while to get a hold of, but it was worth it. Come to think of it this is probaly the last time he worked with a bunch of special effects. It’s bizarre, with creepy hints about him being a child molester, which I could never figure out how they got in there. Was somebody trying to make him look bad? But it also was the first time I saw motion capture put to good use, and still one of the best. He tears his skin off, becomes a skeleton, then proceeds to dance in ways that only Michael Jackson could, ways that could never be animated by hand.
That one came out after his first trial. It portrayed him as a weirdo in a castle who some of the neighbors want to get rid of, but then when they come talk to him and see him dance (and turn into ghosts) they are won over by him. In real life people were more eager to condemn him. I guess that’s fair. I would like to believe he was totally innocent of all charges, but I don’t. Still, when the allegations came out it infuriated me because I felt like innocent or guilty didn’t matter to anybody, he was a weirdo so he was guilty. I felt bad because I knew if he really was innocent nobody would ever believe him. And now that I think about it maybe I’m included in that, I didn’t believe him either, as hard as I tried.
I remember eulogizing Michael’s hero James Brown when he died a few Christmases ago. That was a tough one because he created some of my favorite music in existence, and inspired so much, but I’m convinced he was a total bastard. James Brown beat up women, I don’t think he denied it. Michael, although never convicted, most of us believe he molested children. If it’s true it will damage those kids just as Michael’s childhood damaged him. If you believe or know they did these things, but you think they make great art, you have to do that separating-the-artist-from-the-person thing.
But with Michael it’s hard to know where the line is between those two sides. For me the eccentricities were part of the performance. I remember watching that TV documentary by a guy named Martin Bashir, the first thing that gave an inside look at Neverland Ranch, and showed Michael going on ridiculous shopping extravaganzas in Vegas. I was so thrilled to be seeing every weird detail at the same time as I wanted to punch Bashir in the balls for being such a clueless, sensationalistic prick. I haven’t seen that thing in years but it still pisses me off thinking about it. He asks Michael why he’s so fascinated with Peter Pan and Michael says, “I am Peter Pan.” And Bashir says, “You’re not Peter Pan,” pretending that Michael meant it literally, which he fucking well knows he didn’t. The part that really gets my blood boiling is thinking about them walking around the ranch and Michael spontaneously starts singing. Bashir doesn’t give a shit and interrupts him to ask some trivial questions.
Hey asshole, you are privy to a private Michael Jackson performance, you don’t want to hear it? Fine, go stand in the corner so the cameraman can get it. We want to hear it.
But also that special broke my heart because that was when Michael addressed the allegations, and at the same time made suspicions worse (and I believe one of the kids hanging out with him there is the kid that his second trial was about. Although that one did seem like a setup.) I guess this was nothing new. He had done that interview when he was married to Lisa Marie Presley, and I listened to him and wanted to believe him, but I just didn’t.
I believe Michael Jackson was an otherworldly talent, and was very sick. He was a victim who was not strong enough to survive, and instead perpetuated the cycle of victimization. And if we believe that’s true we have to condemn him for that but also I think we should weigh his flaws against the good he did in the world. Despite his probable sickness I genuinely believe he was a good person who wanted to heal the world and spent millions of dollars helping people, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick. Believe it or not I have a friend who’s even more into Michael Jackson than I am, and he always points out how Michael is one of the only people always talking about healing the world and seeming completely sincere and unironic. Nobody these days wants to be that earnest all the time.
He also improved the world in ways that were not intentional. His phenomenal success on MTV (which would not even play black artists until his record label backed them into a corner to play him) truly did break a color barrier in pop culture that opened a floodgate that over time massively changed race relations at least in this country. He was the Jackie Robinson of the video age. He absolutely was the spark that lit the fire that brought a generation together through music. He made all kids of all races learn about breakdancing. He was a pinup in the locker of girls of all races. Little boys of all races wanted to be him. Corey Feldman dressed up as him, Alfonso Ribeiro dressed up as him. Some people say there would be no President Obama if not for the generation of white kids who grew up on hip hop, breaking down racial barriers. But I don’t think there could be that generation if Michael hadn’t integrated MTV. What if it had been Orin “Juice” Jones or somebody, nobody gave much of a shit and MTV went back to all white artists?
Shit, you can say Elvis was a white guy stealing from black music, here was a black guy stealing it back from white people. And then sharing it with them, and erasing his race altogether. There are a million ways to interpret what he did with race. Who knows what the fuck it means? It could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing, it’s definitely an incredible thing, that this really happened.
I don’t know, man, all I know is I woke up this morning knowing there’s no Michael Jackson anymore, there’s only Michael Jackson music. Like Elvis he will start to be remembered less as a person and more as an icon. A t-shirt. A magnet. I regret that I never got to see him in person, or even see a DVD of the London shows I was hoping would be amazing. But I’m thankful I got to live through his era. In death, at the very least, there is an end to his pain. If there is something beyond this I hope he finds peace and forgiveness.
Okay, I apologize in advance for giving you this mental image, but yesterday I was really crushed and grieving about this, and watching the TV for hours and feeling weak and helpless. But then I started putting on my favorite MJ songs… “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Another Part of Me,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Ben”… and I started to fucking dance. Or as much of an approximation of it as a guy like me can accomplish. And as long as the song was on I could smile and I could laugh. The song would end though and it would all come crashing down, because during the song I was just thinking about the music, celebrating it, enjoying it, and when it faded out I would remember “Oh shit, Michael Jackson is really gone.” And I’m still having those moments while writing this. But I know that some day not too far away it will be different. I’ll listen to those songs again, and when they end the joy will stay with me. My mind won’t dwell on how much of Michael is gone, but on how much of him is still here, and how great it is.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.