What an alarmingly strange human being Michael Jackson was. I must wonder whether it is possible to separate his freakish qualities from his musical talent, and to find in the distinction an affirmation of his skill despite his personal weirdness. Surely, even here, there is a difference between the artist and his art?
It would be foolish to argue that the man was as great as some claim, or as it seems he himself came to believe. He was not like Les Paul, who changed the sound of recorded music forever. He was not like the Beatles, whose presence in music history operates like a seismic shift. All the same, it would be equally as foolish to claim that Michael Jackson did not change music, particularly when it comes to modern music’s inextricable marriage to the visual arts. His music, at its best, was excellent; his dancing superlative; the spectacle onstage dominant. His art ought to be lauded and remembered for these things, and not his own strangeness. But his music was always built on a persona – this is what made him a phenomenon – and near the end of his life it became impossible to separate his strangeness from his musical ability.
I have claimed that there is a distance between art and the artist, by which I mean there is a disproportionate relationship between the two: the artist intends and shapes the art, but does not fully determine the art. We must avoid both undue objectivism, as if the artist has nothing to do with the work once it is complete, and undue subjectivism, as if the artist’s intentions completely restricted the meaning of the work. Does George Lucas, to note another pop culture giant, control the interpretation of Star Wars? Yes and no, no matter how many digital revisits he makes to the original series. (Han shot first.) Musicians and actors, who frequent the most base and destructive elements human life has to offer, do not possess absolute provenance over their respective arts. We should be grateful, else we would be forced to endorse broken families and hard drugs. We should be careful, as we in some way still do.
In the case of Michael Jackson, the problem becomes both vexing and befuddling. While he remained massively popular globally, the latter stage of his career saw his popularity in the US plummet. As far as most were concerned, the man was a criminal. Not to mention that, criminal or no, he was – to put it lightly – weird as hell: from the marriages, to Neverland Ranch, to his family, to the interviews. How is one to appreciate the music of a man who mangled his own face?
I mean to explore this question in various degrees, though I would like to clarify at this point that the focus is on how Michael Jackson serves as an excellent example of the distance between art and artist, and the collapse of that distance. This is not an essay about why he must be appreciated; it is an essay as to how that might be possible. Even then the possibility of his appreciation serves a higher conceptual purpose.
Let us begin with the man’s objective talent, of which there was a great deal from a young age. The Jackson 5 were nothing without him, and everyone (save his brothers) knew it. Observe, for example, the audition tape that got the Jackson 5 into Motown in 1968, when Michael was 10 years old. Performing James Brown’s “I Got the Feeling,” the kid does an impressive imitation of Brown’s singing and dancing. The Godfather of Soul was no slouch when it comes to dancing, and neither was Michael. Fred Astaire, himself no slouch, called Michael Jackson the greatest dancer of the century. (For his part, Michael adored Fred Astaire and dedicated his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, to Astaire.) A posthumous review of Michael Jackson as a dancer published in the New Yorker assesses him as “already an A-list dancer at the age of eleven.”
The kid could sing, too. One of his more famous performances, done a year later on the Ed Sullivan Show – premiering the Jackson 5, and perpetuating Motown’s manufactured claim that Diana Ross had discovered the group – shows him singing and dancing to “I Want You Back”:
The thorough unity of singing and dancing, of performance, is one of the major continuous threads in Michael Jackson’s career. He was a performer first and last, and indeed preferred dancing to singing. On the stage he could unite the two, and I doubt there is any possible comprehension of Michael Jackson the artist without accounting for performance – a theory that suitably links his albums, world tours, and music videos (“feature films”). All were bent around performance, born from a mind that favored a stage.
Michael, a child, led one of the most popular groups of the 1970s – well, at least as far as the popularity of bubblegum pop went (rivaled by The Osmonds). The Jackson 5 were legitimately successful as part of Motown’s “assembly line” of musical groups, and Michael experienced mediocre success in his solo albums from that time. Still, it is important to remember: he was still essentially the head of a boy band.
If we recall that simple fact, then it is surprising that a bubble gum pop kid became a triumphant solo musical performer. He first established real success with 1979’s Off the Wall, an incredible hit that blended R&B, funk, and disco sounds guided by producer Quincy Jones . The album, significantly, possesses effective song contributions from Michael Jackson himself. The work is still considered a classic among critics, and Michael’s own “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” is frequently reviewed as the most durable song from the album. Here was Michael Jackson, a legitimate success and songwriter.
That legitimate success was followed by bewildering, unprecedented success in the form of Thriller (1982, also guided by Quincy Jones), still the best selling album ever depending on how the math is done, and – more pertinently – still considered a near-perfect album. 7 of Thriller’s 9 tracks hit #1 on the charts, and Michael’s popularity skyrocketed. 1987’s Bad album followed his success, though not with the same transcendence. He dominated the 1980’s. Moreover, he dominated a new entertainment genre: music videos, an art form that he creatively invigorated with videos such as “Billie Jean” (which broke MTV’s color barrier), “Thriller,” and “Beat It.” All three are from Thriller, and all three feature the integration of dance, song, and – to greater and lesser degrees – story. The music video was a performance.
Even then, there were rumors about his strangeness. Rumors that haunted him from childhood: the soft-spoken, impossibly shy kid with the incredible talent. As he aged, he was asked constant questions about why he didn’t date. Everyone noticed as his skin lightened: according to legend, the famous white glove on one hand developed to hide blotches of white skin along his fingers as a rare disease (vitiligo) slowly sapped him of pigmentation. And, of course, there was the obvious plastic surgery to his face. He also developed dependence on pain medication in the 1980’s, after he was badly burned in the filming of a Pepsi commercial. The dependence would eventually kill him.
There were more rumors, items I will not review, and I want to note that the artist was still capable of creatively responding to his personal predicament. His music video for “Leave Me Alone” (from Bad) is a clever review of many popular stories about Michael Jackson, and the rumors are presented as elements of a theme park ride that – ultimately – turns out to be Michael Jackson himself, who breaks out of the absurd vision at the very end. The video is a humorous assessment of his image in the news media, and the message is rather simple: you have made me into a ridiculous entertainment attraction. That he could still smile at that would become more and more rare, with anger replacing amusement. As he himself became increasingly ridiculous, his songs about it became dark and furious: “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” (Dangerous, 1991), “Tabloid Junkie” (HIStory, 1995), “Privacy” (Invincible, 2001), etc.
The 1990’s did not treat Michael Jackson well, despite the release of successful albums: Dangerous, which was another mammoth hit; HIStory, which is the best-selling double-disc album by a solo artist. He became so very strange, especially after the trial (settled out of court, which in the minds of many condemned him). So angry. The rage is there in his music, shadowed and rough. There was darkness in “Bille Jean,” but also resplendent creativity. His later music does not reflect this. Michael Jackson the man spiraled, and so did his artistic work. Only the melancholic “Stranger in Moscow” (from HIStory) serves as a touching response to his loneliness, a bright moment of interesting creativity, one with lyrics open to more than his experience alone. The rest of his music, particularly his responses to the media, became derivative and angry.
He never outdid Thriller, and perhaps never could have. That he became reclusive and furious made reaching the joys of Thriller absolutely impossible. Fred Astaire had said that he and Michael Jackson danced from the same place, a place of anger. The remarks ring oddly haunting in retrospect. And it is no mistake that his final work – This Is It, unfinished, arranged now in a ghostly movie – was to be a performance. That this is how he desired to reach out to the world again.
But he died. Tragically. Worn away by drugs and delusion.
Michael Jackson began to use his art to defend himself and his odd sensibilities, and over time the line between himself and his work collapsed. I do not consider it a mistake that his work suffered for it. He was too wounded a man, and when the thin membrane between who he was and what he did tore apart – we are left with wounded music from a wounded man. Art can become a testimony to the tragedy of the artist. This can make art brilliant – or damage it irreparably. The distance between brilliance and damage is found in whether the artist has left room for others in his art, or left room only for himself.
To read more on Michael Jackson from this blog, see my reviews of his music videos: