Arts on Sunday
(Continued from last week)
Michael Jackson rocketed into a celebrity kingship and deified empire as an impressionable youth. Before becoming a teenager he was a demi-god, leading a life of stardom with punishing work hours in the studio and on tour, in performance and on stage as a public figure. He had little chance to grow up normally.
How far did this make him a real-life Peter Pan, who would or could never grow up? To what extent were his creation of his own Neverland Ranch, his companionship of children, his cultivated childlike voice, a desperate plea by the confident, dominant superstar to capture and preserve forever a childhood he never had? To what extent was his also cultivated asexuality a reaction against his early life touring with his older brothers in a life of fame with groupie girls flinging free sex at them?
One of his hit songs is a plea to Heal the World. His eccentricities could well have been his reaction to a cruel world and a plea to “save Michael.” Like Peter Pan he flew off to Neverland to escape the real harsh world and its own contradictions, avoid growing up as an adult who would have to join it. He coupled this with a mission to rescue the “lost boys” and save them from that fate.
Thriller, another of his great hits, is a fantasy that ventures into an unreal nether world of horror.
It’s close to midnight
Something evil’s lurking in the dark
Under the moonlight
You see a sight that almost stops your heart
You try to scream
But terror takes the sound before you make it
. . . As horror looks you right between the eyes.
. . . And no one’s gonna save you
From the beast about to strike
The song includes a rap for which Jackson employed Vincent Price, Hollywood’s king of horror, which goes back to an ancient crypt of unimaginable terror. In a way, this entry into the grotesque and into fantasy continues a fascination with the unreal and the thrill of something mythical.
The songs that get accepted for Jackson to sing had to pass thorough screening and somehow most of them match his style or he manages to convert them into expressions of his own personality. Another of the several with high poetic quality is one written by Jackson himself, one of the very biggest hits about the fictional Billie Jean. Among the remarkable things about this mega-hit is the sound quality of its composition both in the lyrics and the music. His artistic skill is exhibited in the way he converts a true story into art, since the girl he named Billie Jean was a fan of unsound mind who kept insisting Jackson was the father of her child. In the song she is metamorphosed into a sexy dancing queen and brought to life in Jackson’s own performance space. Secondly, he is reported to have said that in recreating her he remembered the several girls who fawned on The Jackson Five wherever they went to perform. This is more evidence of the way those experiences with the endless supply of groupies and sex left impressions on his mind, imposed on his childhood and evoked psychological reactions from him.
Yet another hit, Human Nature, is among the most poetic. It is philosophical, asking questions of humanity, and its composition is complete in the way the words “why, why…” are interwoven in the lines and left hanging at the end. It illustrates the way, quite contrary to Jackson being compared to a black Elvis Presley, he was no copy of his predecessor on the throne of pop; he was very much original. He created his own image, established his own signature, setting trends with his one white glove and crotch-grabbing dance sequences.
These are contrasting pictures to the barely articulate, small-voiced, reclusive, introverted, helpless-looking, culturally lost and ethnically confused creature into which he had shrunk. The weight of the world in which he (never) grew up took a heavy psychological toll on his psyche and private personality.
At best this personality was divided, and he developed alter-egos, because Jackson the performing artist was almost the opposite. He was superlatively talented, energetic, extroverted, professional, poetic and artistically articulate in the songs he did write. It took intelligence to turn experience, even emotionally significant experience and things that might have been psychologically oppressive into creativity. On the other hand, some of his creations are possibly unconscious reflections of his mind and mentality.
His innovation produced a bold, distinctly identified, influential trend-setter who led the white world, quite in contrast to his other image which saw him as an imitator of whiteness. This unfamiliar picture of businesslike professionalism is borne out by reports of the way his records were produced, the meticulous work with producer Quincy Jones, the mixers and screened song-writers, and how Billie Jean was re-done 90 times before he was satisfied with it!
So, while Michael Jackson might be remembered by the scandals, rumours, eccentricity and the grotesque, his real quality will be judged by time.
Already he has passed that judgement since his performance videos and songs have not faded a decibel since their zenith in the 1980s. Millions will still celebrate him by playing those recordings, and it suits him because it keeps him as evergreen as he wished to be as the incarnation of Peter Pan in Neverland.