Michael Jackson

How "Black" Is Michael?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 31 2006 7:06 AM

Michael Jackson

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Blackness: alleged

Both I and my monstrous inner child understand what you're saying now—and we agree. Michael is much different, I think, than most other pop superstars, who tend to be hyperemotionally guarded and strategic about the feelings they expose. He seems to have no filter whatsoever. Perhaps this is a factor of his extreme emotional immaturity rather than a conscious artistic choice. But it makes his music fascinating, even when it's colossally, grotesquely self-pitying. (I'm thinking of songs like "Childhood.") His post-Bad albums have been roundly dumped on, but as snapshots of the monstrous child's mind, they're pretty amazing. Speaking of which, I wonder what you think of albums like Dangerous and Invincible? Does any of the more recent material measure up to Michael's best?

What you say about artistic "terror" and Jackson's megalomania is interesting. There's nothing quite like a bad case of writer's block to drive a person completely around the bend. I remember one of the more infamous megalomaniacal incidents: Michael's performance of "Earth Song" at the 1995 Brit Awards (the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys). Michael appeared onstage bathed in an unearthly light, dressed all in white, and surrounded by a throng of worshipful children—literally worshipful, for he cast himself as a Christ-like healer, a shtick that culminated in Michael's "blessing" of an actor dressed as a rabbi. About midway through the song, the tableau was disrupted by the appearance of Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of the band Pulp, who stormed the stage, danced like a maniac, shook his ass at the camera, etc. It was an awfully disrespectful move on Cocker's part, but it was thrilling, and hard to disagree with Cocker's motives. I was living in London at the time, and I watched this happen on TV. All I remember thinking was: what a terrible song. If Michael had had some decent material he wouldn't have needed to drag out the kids or the rabbi or don white robes—he did pretty well at Motown 25 with just a bare stage set and a microphone.

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I wish that Michael could have been what you call a "smart survivor," rolling with the changes in pop music. He might have made some savvier choices when it comes to record producers. Or he might have chosen not to try to keep up at all; there's real nobility in sticking with your own thing and not chasing trends. In any case, he's hardly the only one who was tripped up by hip-hop. Jackson's old '80s rival Prince made a fool of himself trying to put some rap in his music before doing an about-face on the Musicology album, dissing hip-hop outright and embracing old-fashioned funk and soul. If Michael were smart he might make a similar move now, returning to his classic postdisco sound—lord knows Justin Timberlake has had success putting his own Off the Wallisms on the charts. Of course, if Michael really wants to make a comeback album splash, there's the obvious ploy: head back into the studio with Quincy Jones.

Then again, it may be the case that, after Thriller, there was no real way for Jackson to be a smart survivor. I think of what Philip Larkin said about the Beatles: "The Beatles had reached the top and there was nowhere to go but down. But the Beatles could not go down."

A couple more quick questions for you, Margo. I'm curious to hear more of your thoughts about Michael's singing. I remember back in the Thriller era there were widespread rumors that Jackson was taking female hormones to keep his voice childlike. True or not, his singing has remained eerily high-pitched, a castratolike permanent falsetto. Meanwhile, his diction has gotten crazier and crazier over the years—it's often hard to understand what the hell he's singing. (You know the old joke about "Billie Jean": that it sounds like Michael is singing "the chair is not my son." It really does.) Anyway, I wonder what you make of the Voice, then and now.

Finally, a question about Michael's racial identity. Many people have dismissed Michael's "use" of his blackness as a kind of political cudgel. It did seem pretty capricious and self-serving when he called former Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola "racist … very, very, very devilish" for having insufficiently promoted Invincible: nothing like a flop album to get Michael Jackson whipped up about racial injustice, talking that Nation of Islam talk!

Still, at the same event where he called out Mottola, Michael spoke quite cogently about the history of white businessmen ripping off black artists. Beyond the incredibly tangled questions raised by Michael's literal whitening of his skin, I wonder what you think about his race consciousness generally. The fact is, Michael is the single biggest black entertainer in history, and he must feel the burden that comes with that position. You described Michael's marrying Lisa Presley and buying the Beatles catalog as a kind of symbolic payback for the history of white artists ripping off black music. Is there anything you'd care to add to all this?

Jody

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.