Jacksonian America

Slate's Culture Blog
June 26 2009 10:42 AM

Jacksonian America

Forgive me if I don’t linger on the man’s music.

Thriller was released on November 30, 1982, but it was an album of 1983. The label led with the single "This Girl Is Mine" before releasing "Billie Jean" on January 3. "Billie Jean" was an instant hit for Jackson, but full beatification and canonization was yet to come.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

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On March 25, 1983, NBC aired "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever," featuring a reunion of the Jackson 5, a group the Peacock’s audience no doubt remembered fondly from AM radio play, variety hours, and Saturday morning cartoons. As their medley wound down, volume came up on the predatory beat of Billie Jean; and something new and else began to throb through both Jackson and the audience.

An astonished Fred Astaire was in the home audience of 47 million—the most ever to watch a TV music special—and he was moved to phone up Jackson the next day. The two have similar body types: sylph-like elongations for limbs, responsive to every unlikely command. Astaire had seen what everyone had seen. The fedora, the spangled jacket, the slink, the moonwalk—in sum, the rebirth of the total superstar—but he also saw something else. "You’re an angry dancer," he reportedly told Jackson over the phone.

The moment I heard he died I watched the Motown appearance on my iPhone. It is thrilling. It belongs to eternity. But it also belongs to something else. It belongs to 1983, an annus mirabilis, in its way, in American life; a year of economic recovery that, in addition to prosperity and the King of Pop, brought us Madonna, Oprah, Jay McInerney, Tom Cruise, Michael Milken,Vanity Fair, and the resurrection of Andy Warhol, downtown impresario behind the Limelight nightclub. Thus Jackson was a central figure in the re-creation of a viable American mainstream, a mainstream dominated by the larger-than-life, if you’re being polite—or credulous. I prefer the noun form of "grotesque."

What Jackson made of himself must form part of any honest eulogy. Defendants wish to be found innocent of the charges. Jackson was no usual suspect. He wanted to be found innocent, through and through. Innocent of guile, of all bodily dross and urge. Innocent of adult experience. Instead he found himself, as he sequestered with the bones of the Elephant Man, merged physiognomy with Diana Ross, and bedded down with little boys, at some weird four corners of his own making, where the innocent and the sinister, the icon and the freak, all come together.

The falsetto speaking voice, the licorice eyes, hair steam ironed and Zambonied until it was straight. The skin—what? We still don’t know. Bleached? Blanched? Poached? The barely suppressed facial hair. Effacement, defacement, refacement, unfacement. What word could do justice to the creation, out of a perfectly normal human countenance, of the dilapidated faerie mask that MJ’s eventually became? It was as if the slightest concession to the normal human horizon would let in a besieging pain. To substitute for the childhood he never had, he picked, with uncanny accuracy, exactly those things that don’t substitute for an actual childhood. Amusement parks and toys—the placatory devices of the bad parent.

A genius; an angry dancer; a grotesque among grotesques. What to make of Jacksonian America, now that the King himself is dead? An immense and spectacular frenzy; an urgent celebration; the affect of triumph; at its center a derangement; beneath that, in all likelihood, nothing.

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