Michael Jackson: The Man Who Wasn't There

by John McWhorter | June 25, 2009

I have been telling friends for fifteen years that Michael Jackson would not live past fifty, although I didn't expect to be so precisely on the mark. An overdose, a botched medical procedure, or maybe just something as fortuitous as a car accident.

That is, I sensed nothing as mundane as a death wish or as common as self-destructive tendencies. It just always seemed to me that there was something unreachably and definitively absent about the man. For all of the eclat, there seemed to be nothing actually there - surely, before long he would just blow away.

I was no more immune than anyone else to feeling a loss oddly incommensurate with the fundamental evanescence. I grew up hearing the boy-child version of Michael crooning the Jackson Five's hits in that creamy falsetto, and in college, he helped me cope with the drudgery of my dining hall job as one cut after another from Thriller became a hit and played endlessly on the P.A. system. Almost every song on that album had the precious quality of bearing hundreds of listens - to this day, who in America doesn't jump to the dance floor upon hearing the opening vamp of "Billie Jean"?

Apparently even Iraqis do: the New Yorker told us recently that Michael Jackson is preferred music among Iraqi prisoners. How many other American pop songs of 1983 get them moving? People not born in 1983 can do snippets of the dance Michael did in the marvelous Thriller video. Ever try to do a moonwalk? Even if you got kind of good at it, Michael Jackson doing it can still take your breath away.

In the early eighties there was a good deal of talk about him as the world's greatest entertainer - and it was a rare instance where the hype was more than that. People used to say it about Al Jolson - but the modern viewer is baffled as to what all the fuss was about. They said it about Sammy Davis, Jr. too - and while he holds up better than Jolson, nothing he did makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. With Michael, there was The Voice, The Moves, and a whole somehow greater than the sum of the parts.

The problem was that as he got older, parts seemed to be all there was; the whole became increasingly difficult to perceive. The skin bleaching was strange enough - and his telling Oprah that it was vitiligo and expecting to be believed even stranger. Here was a black man - and one who was a megastar -- actually using the kinds of products that look so peculiar and degrading in ancient black newspaper advertisements today. And then the facial surgery, which made him look not only whiter but more feminine.

The question, which he never even ventured an answer to, was why. Who was this personnage supposed to be? White? Gay? Perhaps we were to allow that he was just being "him." But leaving unanswered just who that "him" was supposed to be was, most charitably interpreted, too far ahead of our times. It left him a faintly gruesome cipher.

Or, why the high voice? As males mature their voices deepen: "High Talkers" of the kind depicted in the Seinfeld episode are vanishingly rare. Michael's castrato-style vocal tone was an affectation, more alteration, as it were, although likely one that became so much a habit for him that it was, in essence, him. How many men do you know who talk in a light falsetto 24/7?

One cannot help noticing a possible connection with Jackson's vaunted identification with children and his desire to inhabit the realm of childhood as an adult. And plenty of us are kids at heart - but most of us don't talk like them.

Here we will recall certain unsavory allegations as to how concretely and in what fashion Jackson was interested in connecting with children, especially non-female ones. It is unnecessary to dwell on the issue at this juncture, but what we did know is that he went through decades of adulthood without any outwardly apparent normal romantic relationship with anyone.

His relationships with his wives were rather oddly formal and brief - when Lisa-Marie Presley made sure we knew that their relationship included sexual relations, what was key was that she would feel the need to let us know that.

Never did we see Jackson with her or the other wife cavorting and consorting in the fashion of Brangelina or, in better days, Jon and Kate. These were "wives," not wives - recalling in Michael's earlier days his purportedly "dating" Brooke Shields. Today having become real to us with her memoir of postpartum depression, Shields back then was a rather saliently blank model and sort-of actress - for him, a kind of paper doll, i.e. "date."

Who did Michael Jackson really connect with? He was not one for hanging out with men or women of his age group, for example. Ask most people who Michael Jackson's best friend was and the answer would be Elizabeth Taylor. However, open up your laptop and start with a blank page. Your job is to script a scene between Jackson and Liz Taylor. How would you begin? What in the world did they ever say to each other?

During an interview with Barbara Walters, holding hands with then-wife Presley, Jackson mentioned that his father had sometimes scared him so badly that he regurgitated into his mouth. The childhood was horrific, in a way that would have left most people scarred. Jackson's response was apparently to seek a childhood he never had - but doing so as a grown man can only mean spending your life playing a part, even if you no longer know you're doing it.

It was sad to see. The essence of Michael Jackson as an actual human being was so elusive that it was especially flabbergasting to hear him, when making a public cri de coeur against his prosecution for child molestation, actually referring to something as immediate as an examination of his penis. More typical was his appearance on an early episode of the Simpsons - in the guise of an obese white man -- and uncredited. Concealment as always, not really there or of this world, albeit in the world spotlight.

This quality of his was such that his career was likely over long ago. Thriller was perhaps the last moment when hit pop music for people beyond tween-age could be so basically innocent and unprobing of the individual soul. Even back then, part of the charm was the arrangement - his vocal skills acknowledged, Jackson didn't write or orchestrate that opening vamp to "Billie Jean" nor did he create the dense festival of sonic joys under "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),"which are certainly part of the reason I have now purchased Thriller three times.

But even by Bad in 1987, Michael's crotch-grabbing in the video of the title song was a "bad" move indeed. It was fake - looking more like Diana Ross every year, he looked about as plausible taking a page from increasingly popular rappers as Bonnie Raitt would have. It wasn't him - at a time when pop was more and more about exploring the self. As time went by the hit singles were fewer and farther between. "Scream" from the HIStory album in 1995 was the last song of his that got around in any real way.

Six years later when Invincible never really rang the bell in the old way, Jackson interestingly cried racism (against Tommy Mottola). But if anything, the problem was that by then the question as to his own blackness was decidedly abstract. Or at least, he wasn't "real" as it was put by then. By 2001 black rappers were all over the pop charts with cuts about themselves, in da club, in da car, in da hood, in da honeez, all up in dat bizness, whatever - rap is all about the "I" as some more literary-minded aficionados have it.

But "I" is exactly what Michael Jackson never wanted us to see, if he even knew what it was himself. Interestingly, a Michael Jackson circa 1980 would be a smash on American Idol today - but would likely fail to get much of anywhere afterward like Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard. Winning over a cross-section spectrum of American call-in voters today requires a certain faceless, generic quality that does not translate into stardom in the real-world market of niches and attitude. Jackson was on his way to becoming a nostalgia act.

Michael Jackson's was an entirely constructed self. The temptation to call this "quintessentially American" in the vein of the story of our President's quest for self-definition must be resisted. The self that Michael Jackson constructed was a mask. Fittingly, Jackson was last officially sighted in public through the window of his van, wearing, as apparently was his custom, a veil over his mouth - i.e. a mask over the mask.

Michelangelo said that when he sculpted the David statue, David was already inside the block of marble and his job was just to take away what was not David. Jackson worked against nature's endowment just as diligently, but surely the pale wraith he became was not something that had been waiting to see the light of day. Rather, what Jackson seemed to find was a negation, a mangling of personhood - what else can we say of someone attending a court date for child molestation in his pajamas? The irony is that despite this man's towering stature as a keystone of American popular music's history, there is surely a part of all of us that sees the man as more fortunate resting in peace.

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