Michael Jackson (1958-2009)


A couple of days ago I awoke early to hear the shock news that Michael Jackson had died of a heart attack at the age of 50. The Sun’s headline that day – “JACKO DEAD” – caught the ambiguities of moment. Jackson had attained royalty status as the ‘King of Pop’ yet he was also ‘Wacko Jacko’, the most eccentric celebrity and global icon of our time. Paul Morley squared this circle on BBC 2’s Newsnight Review by explaining that Jackson had culturally died, in effect, in the early 1990s, and his celebrity image – “remnants” as Morley put it – had been recycling in the media ever since.

Certainly, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a turning point in Michael Jackson’s long and fruitful career, or perhaps they were rather a point of inflection, like the middle of David Lynch’s strange narrative in ‘Lost Highway’: a time when a charmed prince turned into a disillusioned king. The reason was that Michael Jackson was essentially in between and could never be anywhere else. He was adolescent, between ages -boyhood, manhood and fatherhood never sat easy with him – but equally he was between races, genders and musical styles. Jackson was the man in the middle: empire builder of a hegemonic brand that fused song, dance and show business glamour.

By jazzing up exhuberant black disco-pop and blacking up easy listening ballards, there was a sense in which Jackson’s heyday post-Motown albums set the gold standard for both urban music and R’n’B slowjams. Yet as his image and stage show became more bombastic they seemed to be less and less meaningful, to the point where his ego sent a giant statue of himself floating down the Thames. By that time, his sales had gone down and coverage of his scandals gone up, leaving Jacko to disappear and focus on his process of personal reinvention: as an adolescent child-man, a young black woman (like Diana Ross or Beyonce) straightening his hair, singing like a girl and gradually getting whiter. Despite dancing opposite so many young models and frequently grabbing his twitching pelvis, somehow mature sensuality never seemed to enter his performance. He never really lasted with his wives and employed a surrogate, but those women gave him children that were half-white. In the Jackson family myth, it is his father that represented the hyper-masculine stereotype of blackness he sought to so obsessively to escape. When an increasingly white Jackson got his revenge, all his fights were choreographed. Upon his death, however, the black community reclaimed him and that was the mark of his abilities as a bridge-builder.What was that cultural centrality of Michael Jackson all about? In the last two decades, as his face changed and his skin lightened, his age seemed to settle at about 14 and his idealistic politics (at least expressed in music) remained equally universalist and utopian. Sometimes angry, sometimes happy, he seemed to oscillate around a kind of sexless, exhuberant universal centre point of identity. His personality was extremely introvert, but his performance style was extrordinarily extrovert. And in that Jackson was both the consumate performer and ultimate consumer, an American perfectionist believing that the world could be reshaped to his own desires by money – a masochist running from the pain of persecution he had himself created. Finally he disappeared into a kind of frail cyborg simulation of himself, with his children’s faces shrouded in veils of gothic mystery. His last incarnation left ‘Jacko’ as a dandy wrecklessly bouncing about the planet, like a balloon propelled by the gas wheezing out of it: out of control, occasionally flickering into the public eye but representing nothing more than showbiz insanity. Then came the annoucement that he was to stage a huge series of fairwell concerts: a final chance to display his perfect stagecraft.

After the news came of Michael Jackson’s sad demise it seemed obvious that his comeback tour would have put a huge strain on his frail psyche and aging body. What was perhaps more surprizing was the whole Elvisness of his death. There were the instantaneous outpourings of grief (now on Twitter) by friends, fans and celebrities, lurid news stories about Jackson’s addiction to prescription medication, retrospective re-evaluations of Michael’s contribution to popular music. A Times journalist hit the nail on the head by saying that nobody alive in the field of music had a bigger legend than Michael Jackson, but nobody had done more to get in the way of their own legend.

Now that the King of Pop has got out the way of his myth, I will take the opportunity to predict cultural cavalcade similar to that of Elvis:

  • Tacky newspaper insights into Jacksons private life and last days.
  • Bootlegs, box sets and other posthumous releases.
  • A few Jackson biopics.
  • An academic re-evaluation of Michael Jackson with PhDs, conferences, monographs, special journal editions and of course readers.
  • Michael Jackson’s estate emerging as a financial player in protecting and licensing the Jackson brand and cleaning up the Jackson image.
  • Tribute concerts and live-after-death video screen spectaculars.
  • Insider revelations in the form of books and documentaries from friends and family egged on by entertainment journalists (Uri Geller is probably already ghostwriting his).
  • Coffee table Michael Jackson photo-albums.
  • A new generation of fans who will cite June 2009 as the starting point of their interest in Michael.
  • Neverland opening as a pilgrimage site.
  • A national day and or stamp in America featuring Michael Jackson.
  • Jacksonian retrospectives and re-evaluations of various sorts.
  • Spooky Jackson-a-like sightings.
  • The rise of Michael Jackson impersonation as a spectator sport.
  • A vast cultural afterlife (think “Dead Elvis” by Greil Marcus).
  • Anniversary events, fan holidays and conventions.
  • An ambiguous separation between the two Michael’s: as ‘Wacko Jacko’ the potential paedophile and cultural joke (freighted with slights against emotional fandom and anti-Americanism), and as ‘Michael’ the gentle humanist and univeral musical legend.
  • Estranged pronouncements that his servile and misguided fanbase is forming a “religion”.

The King of Pop’s life has just ended, but his cultural career is only just beginning. He was weird, wired, unique, and the stage was his true home… I will finish, fittingly, with a recollection of reading Mixmag last year, on their 25th Anniversary edition, polling various DJs and musicans about what was their highlight in 25 years of dance music. Daft Punk said it was first seeing Michael Jackson first do his moonwalk at the Grammys in 1983. When I read that, I was unsure about whether the robotic duo were just joking. Seeing footage of the event again last night, I was sure they were not. Whoever Michael Jackson actually was – and we really don’t know – he contributed such passionate vocal stylings, well crafted beats and choreographed gestures to the would of pop culture that the rest is bound to pale.

For more commentaries on MJ click here, here and here. Also see this bibliography.