As the astonished world mourns Michael Jackson the work of two pastoral writers and a bit of Freudian analysis can help to understand the complexities of an extraordinary talent and how the manner of his early death was in a way the final articulation of a highly celebratory but curiously tragic life. Millions mourn him by playing and celebrating his popular music, which is among the best of the late twentieth century, while at the same time wondering why such an artistic genius was such a psychologically mixed-up individual.
Michael Jackson shook the earth. Even if not on the same level as the walk on the moon which inspired his performance, he was one of the achievements of the century. At any rate, so memorable is his own impact that if the moonwalk is mentioned it is Jackson that will first strike popular consciousness. He reached excellence, great success in music and performance, with remarkable originality, artistry in dance and the refined quality of his compositions, including many lyrics of a poetic quality. But competing with these was the paradox of his several eccentricities and phobias, including a fear of being black and a fear of growing up.
There are strange contrasts and contradictions. These include the power, assuredness and dominance of his art versus the insecurities and foolishness in his personal life. Hailed as ‘the king of pop,’ he was a monarch in performance; an all-conquering dancer, singer, innovator and, in performance on stage, almost a sex symbol. All put together he outdid the great Elvis Presley, whose daughter he pursued (and married). But this contradicted his private life – soft-spoken, child-like projection, frightened voice and a seemingly willful asexuality.
Brief reflection on the works of e e cummings and JM Barrie can help to demystify the Jackson personality. The American poet cummings wrote
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame balloon man
whistles far and wee . . .
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and it’s
far and wee
This poem, sometimes referred to as Chanson Innocence (song of innocence) is both pastoral and anti-pastoral since it speaks of eternal youth and the blissful world of play free of care at the same time as it defines that world as temporal. It contradicts the thought that this evergreen state will last forever with the sinister presence of the “goat-footed” balloon man. He is an attraction to the children but is also, among other things, time, age and experience. He represents Pan the god of the shepherds of Greek mythology who leads the satyrs as part of the Arcadian pastoral world of eternal happiness. Pan is also a god of music and the satyrs are musicians, but in both Greek and Roman myth they are symbols of fertility and sexuality. They are archetypes of those who sing of the timelessness of the pastoral existence but have, as well, that element of the destruction of innocence.
These images are relevant to Jackson’s life and its contradictions because of the mythical quality of that life, the striving after an existence of myth and eternal youth against the larger-than-life legend that Jackson was in the real world. Its ability to explain Jackson’s issues is relevant particularly when linked to the works of English writer J M Barrie.
Barrie was the creator of the mythical Peter Pan, popular figure of eternal youth. Peter Pan appears first in the novel The Little White Bird in 1902, then is the legendary hero of the play Peter Pan, the Boy who would not grow up in 1904 and reappears in the book wrought from the play, Peter Pan and Wendy in 1911. Out of children, circumstances and a family that he knew personally, Barrie wrote the adventures of Peter who lives secluded on an island called Neverland with other children, fairies and other characters. He lives a charmed life helped by the magical creatures, but he has his own magical and heroic powers and what makes him most legendary is his quality of eternal youth. He never grows up and in fact, has a fear of growing up coupled with a fear of women. Although his friend Wendy, the fairy Tinkerbelle, Tiger Lily and practically every girl with whom he associates are in love with him, he shrinks from sexuality almost as if that will end his chosen permanent state of boyhood.
Ironically, Wendy’s brother’s name is Michael, and Barrie took his characters and names from the children he knew. One of Peter Pan’s missions is the rescue of “the lost boys” whom he takes from Kensington in London to a more happy and fulfilled life on Neverland. Again, the Kensington boys existed in Barrie’s experience. But the name Michael is an incidental irony, and not the main reason these works can explain Michael Jackson.
The answer may be found in that singer’s huge success. One may continue to name his achievements. He had unprecedented and still unmatched multi-million record sales and the 51 concerts for which he was rehearsing, planned for 2009-2010 were all sold out already. More than any other entertainer, he broke down the race barrier in pop music and has a world-wide following of all races. But primarily, he broke into the white music market as no other black singer has done. This cross-over success might well have influenced his strange behaviour.
To continue, his was a remarkably precocious talent. He achieved all this while still quite young and, in fact, by the time he was nine years old he was the leader of the famous Jackson Five. By eleven or twelve he was a solo superstar. After Thriller in the early 1980s when he had broken all the records and was among the largest mega-stars the industry had ever known, he was still not yet thirty.
It is interesting to consider the irony that his very success in the appeal of his music and character to white audiences might well have partly diminished him as an individual. To what extent did an interest in maintaining and maximising record sales and concert audiences in the white market influence or motivate Jackson’s bizarre desire to look white? One will not sell multi-millions, achieve Platinum Records and sell out 51 concerts a year in advance if one depends on a Black American audience alone. Jackson went to great lengths to change his appearance, remove his blackness, his identity; was it to identify with whiteness and increase his appeal to the world market?
(To be continued)