Michael Jackson

Who or What Is Michael Fleeing From?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 31 2006 5:21 PM

Michael Jackson

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Jody,        

Everything about the treacly ballads and anthems makes me squirm: They infantilize Michael and us. These songs are where the lyrics get the most generic-sweet and wistful-innocent—as if there's no individual language for those all-purpose, almost pre-speech feelings. I was reading David Hajdu's review of the new Paul McCartney album in the New Republic this morning, and I thought, yeah, of course Michael and Paul became friends for a time, bonding over that cutest-little-boy-in-the-classroom thing. Paul carried it shrewdly into adulthood. But not shrewdly enough, musically or physically: dying his hair too dark and the stretched-to-the-bone plastic surgery.

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Funny you should ask about Invincible. I went back to it recently after a Philadelphia journalist told me that there's a bar she goes to frequented by working-class black and white men where Invincible is on the jukebox in its entirety. Whenever it's played—and it's played a lot—the guys get it in gear and sing along. I found myself liking the songs more than I had in the past. It's hard not to be pulled in by that layered industrial-drive sound. Also, you do hear a regular singing and speaking voice at times, a perfectly reasonable adult male tenor. I think I was put off too much by Michael's appearance when I first heard this album. His looks just didn't correlate with those "sex, love, and aren't you/me/we hot" tunes. They don't feel individual or especially honest.

I wonder if all this matching up with "the real men" froze or hid that absolutely individual core of his. That fragile arrogance and the flare-ups of vulnerable rage. Don't you think this assumed masculinity could have something to do with Michael's increasing mannerisms? Often you see that with performers—singers or actors who are getting alienated from their material, for whatever reason. They start burrowing into style eccentricities, echoing earlier riffs and melodies.

I'm glad you asked about the singing—I wish I'd written more about it. He's a crack singer. He had that pure child's pitch and diction. And style-savvy. So amazing to hear young Michael take up "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and really give it a gospely interpretation. Rough, sweet Michael. Flawless.

Back to the mannerisms, though. The chair is not my son. Jum'on. Chess. The hiccups. The pitched cries at mostly predictable intervals. Yikes. It used to feel like some form of treachery. Toward whom? What? As if he were going inside his own language but pretending it was still ours.

Maybe I'm at that stage when you've been "reading" someone for so long that you find an explication for everything, but some of his eruptions remind me of black mannerisms or made-up expressions of long ago. When my sister was in high school in the early 1960s, some of the guys she partied with started saying "Cheah" instead of "Yeah." Then there was "weh-eh" (as in "ooo-wee" or "uh-oh," emphasis on first syllable in the first case, last syllable in the second). Michael has these high "hee hee hees"—like a little old Negro man chortling a bit demonically. Noble Sissle used to do that in some of his 1920s recordings. Michael's always part of somebody's zeitgeist somewhere, sometime. And that tickles me.

Which leads us in some way to the Race Question(s). I agree about the "capricious, self-serving" quality of his Tommy Mottola denunciations. Still, as you also say, he has a clear awareness of how shabbily history has dealt with black performers. I'm certain his ambition was linked to that. I so often hear people say: How could he love or even like black people? Look how he whitens himself and narrows his features! Yes, but the world is full of black people who do the same (albeit less extremely). We don't charge them with mass race betrayal. Yes, Michael surrounds himself with white people. I don't know what that means or how close he was to entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. or Ray Charles (described as a dear friend on the MJJ Web site) or James Brown and so on. I don't know how close he is to Elizabeth Taylor now or to any of the white Hollywood crowd he used to be seen with. I do know that, black and white, these performers are in his body and voice and performing psyche. And he's never betrayed or ignored that black history.

Not long ago I heard Jane Fonda say something like, "How are we to know what he's fleeing from or who he wants to be?" Or was it "who he's fleeing from and what he wants to be?" Good question, either way. Who, adult or child, is Michael Jackson truly close to? What and who is he trying to flee? What's the nature of the psychic damage he has so clearly sustained? I suspect his racial identity is more a byproduct of that damage than the primal cause.

Margo

Margo Jefferson has written for the New York Times since 1993 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Her reviews and essays have also appeared in the Nation, Vogue, Grand Street, and Harper's magazine.