Probably because it’s the biggest celebrity death of my adult life, for some reason I feel the need to write something about Michael Jackson. Unless you count his jeri-curled influence on the look of 1980’s NFL players, Jackson’s one NFL connection was his halftime show performance at Super Bowl XXVII. I personally found it to be underwhelming—ultra-choreographed, over-rehearsed, lip-synched, and “show-bizzy”—though it was probably the kind of show Jackson fans expected at that point. Ironically, he didn’t know it then but playing that halftime show proved to be good timing because the allegations of child abuse that surfaced shortly thereafter undoubtedly would have put an end to the NFL’s interest in him. The stigma of that plus his ever-changing face and skin color, odd marriages, bizarre behavior and changing musical tastes soon turned him from King of Pop into America’s most well-known freak show. The public turned on him for good. Like I said, I wanted to write something about Michael Jackson but the only two observations I have to offer about the man are pretty mundane: (1) He was as talented an all-around performer as anyone we’ve ever seen; and (2) He was an incredibly sick man in every possible sense of that word.
In all the media talk following his death, the performance clip shown and talked about more than any other was Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean” from that Motown 25th Anniversary Special. That performance proved to be the second-to-last step in his ascent to Elvis/Beatles level mega-stardom (The Path: (1) Off The Wall album; (2) Thriller album; (3) “Billie Jean” video breaks MTV’s black artist blacklist; (4) Motown Special; (5) “Thriller” video). The Motown Special clip unwrapped Jackson’s post-Thriller onstage self for the general public for the first time. It’s all there (except for the crotch tugging)--the dramatic pauses and gestures, the hat business, the Moonwalk. But to my mind this live performance clip from a 1977 episode of the Jackson’s Variety Show posted on You Tube impresses more.
Here, with his brothers, Jackson sings their old Jackson 5 hit “The Love You Save”. As a full-grown man Jackson can no longer hit the impossibly high notes he did as a 12-year old boy so he now sings it in his lower register and gives a tough, gritty vocal performance (a la the bridge on “Billie Jean”). Remember, in the Motown Special clip (as at the Super Bowl) he lip-synchs so you get no sense of his live vocal ability. In this clip you hear him singing great while dancing flat-out at the same time. And not with the precision Vegas-style moves of the Motown 25th or Super Bowl performances. Instead he’s all over the stage, propelling himself James Brown-like in all directions with a whole series of spins, slides and shuffles. His feet never stop moving. It sure looks spontaneous. Marlon and Jackie are up there with him and sometimes Michael joins their choreographed dance moves and sometimes he doesn’t (Marlon spectacularly blows whatever they rehearsed at the start anyway). He’s all up in their camera shots even when it’s Marlon’s turn to sing. But it doesn’t matter. It all works because Michael’s feeling it! He’s a force of nature. He’s getting pumped up with the music and doing whatever it takes to get the audience pumped up too. Michael’s not playing the part of the master showman here, he’s simply giving it everything he’s got because he can’t stand the thought that even one person in that whole damn audience might leave disappointed. It may not be the cultural watershed the Motown Special was but it’s a far purer demonstration of his talent. Just compare it to this (early 90’s) concert clip of him singing “The Love You Save”. Whether due to Jackson’s notorious perfectionism, his preference for spectacle and showmanship, or the simple loss of youthful energy, all the juice is sadly drained out of the song.
In the end, all the unanswered questions about Michael Jackson complicate feelings about his passing. Better to remember him as he was before his pathologies manifested themselves in plastic surgeries and twisted behavior. While simple chronology made discussion of the unsavory aspects of his life unavoidable, for the most part what coverage I saw mainly adhered to the “never speak ill of the dead” credo. Yet a classic awkward moment came when Larry King Live presented us with an “exclusive, inside look” at the interior of Jackson’s now stripped bare home at Neverland. After exciting descriptions of artwork and furniture that we unfortunately could no longer see, we got a look at a massive upstairs closet with a “secret” area in the corner of it. No doubt many viewers wondered exactly what kind of activities might have taken place in that secret space.
For once the media got something right in comparing Jackson’s popularity to that of Elvis Presley and the Beatles (and hence coverage of his death also prompted comparisons to Lennon’s and Presley’s). For most of the 1980’s Jackson’s music and image were seemingly everywhere, penetrating the public consciousness deeply and inescapably. The quality of the music’s a matter of taste but given that he crossed racial and cultural boundaries in a way the Beatles or Elvis never could, you could well argue Michael Jackson achieved a kind of universality unrivalled by any entertainer ever.