Being a Michael Jackson Fan Means Always Having to Feel Sorry (For Him)

6 May

I love Michael Jackson, I really do.  But, as you all know, there isn’t one single entity known as “Michael Jackson.” No, within that too short life span were several Mikes, each with their own distinct personalities, clothing styles and yes— races.  And the incarnations of Michael Jackson are not  created equally.  I have my favorites.

First is Jackson 5 Michael, the universal, uncontroversial favorite. In my view, this Michael Jackson unfairly benefits from his youth. Add the fact that he was preternaturally talented and ridiculously adorable, and the deck is stacked in his favor.  Despite that, I’ll admit that I too have a soft spot for the kid.  He was so beautifully black, with his well-maintained afro and genuinely mischievous smile. And that voice! Whenever I listen to a Jackson 5 track, I am always unnerved by how emphatically Michael sang about love and other grown-up issues, given that he was still technically a middle-schooler at the time.  I also love that while his singing voice was very mature,  it was still noticeably a kid’s voice, that is, it sounded unsullied.  I think that’s why we all love coming back to this MJ, because it allows us to revel in what he was like before fame (and Joe Jackson) destroyed him–beautiful, innocent, and astoundingly talented. And maybe we wish that we had the power to freeze time and keep him that way.

Next, is the Michael Jackson that I am wholly devoted to– Off the Wall era Michael. I am not  joking when I say that I would have married this man. Why? First, after some awkward teenage years, Michael had settled into young adulthood nicely,  and he was just so resplendent and handsome. Second, Off the Wall is pure genius. Michael was as bubblegum pop as you could get, but you can’t listen to that album and not be impressed by how musically sophisticated it is (props to Quincy). His  falsetto was at its best, and all the songs on that album celebrate the intense, immeasurable pleasure of being young.  I sincerely hope that Michael was  feeling a little of that joy himself, after leaving the Jackson 5 and escaping the control of Motown and Joe to start fresh on his own. Whenever I watch the music video for what is quite possibly my favorite song in the world, it’s hard not to get the sense that Michael felt free and happy:

This brings us to Thriller era Michael, the superstar.  Obviously, he’s a close second for my affection, given the uncontested genius of that album (Besides the obvious tracks, “Human Nature” is particularly amazing). The one thing that keeps me from being down with this guy is that at this point in his life, you start to see signs of how damaged he is.  The racial anguish that would torment him for the rest of his life was already beginning to present itself in nose job #1 and the slightly lighter skin, and his glorious afro had been replaced with an oily Jheri curl (that’s really more of the fault of the ’80s).  Not only that, but he was beginning to do weird stuff like surrounding himself with exotic animals, a foreshadowing of the full-blown creepiness that was to come in later years. My last quibble about this guy is that he became too much of a pro, which in my view, made him less of a joy to behold. His dancing was more tightly choreographed, and his singing more disciplined. Of course, those things led to some really brilliant results (particularly in his dancing), but I feel like a little bit of that unbridled magic from his previous work was lost. Plus, we now know that the intense scrutiny that followed  in the wake of Thriller was ultimately his undoing, so this album is a little bittersweet for me.

By the time  Bad/Dangerous era Michael came around, things were very weird. For some reason, Michael decided that he needed to reinvent himself as a super macho guy, the kind who gets into gang fights and inappropriately grabs himself all the time.  This was really misguided, given that what always made Michael Michael was his androgyny, particularly his ability to make femininity cool, even attractive, in men. So the whole tough guy thing was wholly unconvincing and unappealing to me.  I also thought that the quality of his work declined under this new persona, because it caused him to abandon his stunning falsetto in favor of a throaty growl. Moreover, at this point, Micheal was knee-deep in plastic surgery, going from looking vaguely biracial during Bad to looking very white by the time Dangerous came out. But, given that this is the Michael Jackson who was around when I was growing up, I can’t kick him to the curb altogether.  He made “Bad!” And “Black or White!” And “Remember the Time!” These are the songs that my siblings and I danced to, and this is the time when I thought that there was this incredible dancer in America who could literally defy gravity:

The last Michael Jackson I’m going to call Post-History Michael. And I’m not gonna lie to you, I can’t stand this dude. He was just so angry all the time, and intent on playing the victim when the reality was that it was his questionable behavior which was fueling all of the criticism.  The songs about going out to the disco and dancing his heart out were gone, now all of his music was about how no one understood him and how persecuted he was. This was bad enough, but he also insisted on virtually spitting out each lyric, which gave his music a decidedly caustic vibe. What disappoints me most about Michael at this point is that his behavior was so juvenile, perhaps a reflection of his lifelong desire to reclaim the childhood that Mean Old Joe stole from him. I have a lot of sympathy for that, but he took it too far, and became a joyless whiner for the rest of his life. The definitive “I’m a victim” anthem was “They Don’t Care About Us,” which included such embarrassingly self-indulgent lyrics as:

Beat me, bash me
You can never trash me
Hit me, kick me
You can never get me

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be

Negro, please. You know you’re arrogant when you think that your personal problems amount to an egregious violation of rights that Martin Luther King would have been disturbed by. As a rule, once you start name-checking MLK, Gandhi or Mandela in reference to your own crisis, it’s time to quit. But Michael continued on this road, blaming the bad sales of Invincible in 2001 on his record company, describing the head, Tommy Mottola, as “a racist” and “the devil.” It’s actually sort of funny when you think about the fact that once Michael stopped resembling a black man entirely, he began to act like the crudest stereotype of one.

In the end, the self-mutilation was too painful to observe, as Michael Jackson finally rid himself of everything that had initially made him such a breathtaking sight to behold. I stopped listening to his music after History, because it simply wasn’t fun anymore. Given what we now know about his drug use and personal life, it is evident that it was an equally joyless experience for him to make his final albums as it was for us to listen to them.  Still, when I stumbled on this track from his 2001 album, it was good to know that no matter what he did to himself, even he couldn’t completely extinguish his prodigious talent.

\”Butterflies\” by Michael Jackson

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2 Responses to “Being a Michael Jackson Fan Means Always Having to Feel Sorry (For Him)”

  1. Marie Therese May 6, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    I love Butterflies. I even tattooed the butterflies logo (search for it if you don’t know) on my back. It’s a really cool picture, + the song is so wonderful too.

    I don’t know “which” Michael I would marry lol. I got to “know” him when I was 8 and saw his Pepsi commercial, Bad era. I was completely in love, and quoting my mother “the most beautiful man I have ever seen.”

    I’m a massive fan, so I like all his looks, but of course, the way he looked during Off The Wall, were very fine. A real heartbreaker, and if I was a teenager back then, I would be very much in love!!

    His talent, he or no one else, could never take that away, no matter what happened.

  2. Khary June 6, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    Your blog is awesome and I have bookmarked it.

    Oh, and my personal favorite is the “Bad” era Michael. I was always a fan when I was growing up, but when I saw that lean in the “Smooth Criminal” video I wanted to be Michael Jackson.

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