For decades, there have been two Michael Jacksons: the whirling-dervish pop genius and the mysterious, childlike, obsessive, tormented, at times freakish private soul. In the weeks since he died, both dimensions of Michael — the artist and the man — have been paraded and discussed to an exhaustive degree. You could argue that each side has been raised to the level of mythology. Yet what isn’t so often talked about is the inseverable connection between the two. From the outset of Michael Jackson’s career, his extreme and heightened distance from the “normal” world has been one of the cornerstones of his art. Below are some of the ways that Michael’s “weirdness” was, in fact, always right at the soul of his musical and cultural power.
The Young Michael’s Vocal Phrasings. At the memorial service last Tuesday, Smokey Robinson, recalling his reaction to the first time he heard the 10-year-old Michael sing a version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” that outdid Smokey’s, acknowledged the dizzyingly precocious, almost nature-defying quality of Michael’s ability to sing lyrics rooted in the experience of adulthood and to interpret those lyrics exactly as an adult would sing them. For me, the line that has always made the prepubescent Michael sound most bizarrely mature comes in “I Want You Back,” when he sings: “Oh, darlin’, I was blind to let you go!” He delivers those last four words like a wise old soul-sister diva tempering her ardor with worldly grace. The question Smokey Robinson raised, and didn’t quite answer, is: How did the young Michael do it? Did he feel those feelings? I would say that he did and he didn’t — that what his boy-virtuoso vocal-emotional mimicry expressed was a personality so empathic that it was as if he could consume, through art, other people’s experiences, and therefore felt no need to live those experiences himself. In that sense, Jackson’s “childlike” nature emerged out of the paradox that he didn’t have to grow up because he was always, in his imagination, a super-adult.
Singing to Strange Love Objects, Part I. Michael first declared his independence from his brothers with his early solo albums, the second of which was Ben (1972), the title song of which was a melancholy love ballad…sung to a rat. Whoever came up with the masterstroke concept of getting the teenage Michael, with his yearning, crystalline soprano, to croon the theme song of the sequel to Willard was on to something profound: The song testified to Michael’s angelic quality (who but an angel could love a rat?), but it also hinted, years ahead of time, at his dark side — his attraction to monsters, and the loneliness that would make the biggest superstar in the world feel too isolated and lost to be loved by anyone human. Twenty years later, Michael did another movie theme song — “Will You Be There,” his mash note to the killer whale of Free Willy — and though the gorgeous, gospel-inflected number is heavenly to listen to, the underlying Michael message remains the same: animals are glorious, far more so than people.
Why the Plastic Surgery Mattered, Part I. Before he went off the deep end of facial reconstruction, carving away at the features God gave him as if they were marble (or Silly Putty) and he was his own Michelangelo, Jackson’s resculpting of his facial image was an essential dynamic of his pop magic. Amid all the standard psychosexual/racial analysis of how he wanted to be white, look like Diana Ross, etc., much has been made of how, and why, Michael loathed his adolescent face: the acne, the prominent nose that brought out a suggestion of the father he despised. In the 2003 Martin Bashir TV special, Michael himself recalls a painful incident in which a fan in the mid-’70s came up to the Jacksons looking for “little Michael,” and when she saw what little Michael had grown up into, she went “Ugh!”
The key to Michael’s first foray into plastic surgery, cued to the release of Off the Wall (1979), is that it tapered his face into a grown-up facsimile of the little Michael that he had lost. In doing so, he launched, in effect, his second childhood. I think that, as much as the hooks and the burbling disco-soul rhythms, is what accounts for the incandescent joy that radiates out of him in the great videos from that album: “Rock With You” and, especially, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” In those charmingly low-tech early music vids, he’s finally on his own, trying out a first-draft version of his electro-marionette dance moves, and yes, the music is divine, but more than anything else, it is that face — transformed and transfigured — that liberates Michael to look more relaxed and real, more purely blissed-out in his art than he ever looked before or since.
The Real Meaning of “Billie Jean.” From that opening up/down drum beat and snaky bass walk, it is, and always will be, Michael’s greatest song — his signature statement in the form of a demonic dance-floor epiphany. His legendary performance of it on the 1983 Motown 25th Anniversary special was the moment he moonwalked from superstar into cosmic Elvis/Beatles strato-stardom. Yet what is it about “Billie Jean” that makes it Michael’s anthem of anthems? It’s the angry power of the song’s hidden message. On the surface, Michael tells a woman who has accused him of fathering her child that he did no such thing: “The kid is not my son.” But what the fury of his performance tells you is that he’s not just rejecting the scandal, the false accusation — he’s rejecting the possibility of such an accusation. He’s spitting on the temptation of sexuality itself. The line “BillieJean is not my lover!” is Michael’s defiant declaration that he, and he alone, will not be lured into a world of sin. And that’s the weird, even scary Michael: the man-child who could transform sexual energy into volcanic dance theater, but who, in life, viewed the erotic as a debasement (or maybe as something that needed to be done in the basement).
Why the Plastic Surgery Mattered, Part II. In a special all-Michael edition of People magazine that came out near the end of 1984 (just after the Victory tour), the pop culture writer Albert Goldman contributed an essay that remains the single greatest analysis of Michael Jackson ever written. In it, he described the deep meaning of what Michael did to his face in order to launch, and enter, the Thriller era. Goldman hailed Jackson’s “Pygmalion operation” as “a stroke of genius” that transformed a “face you could have found in any high school yearbook” into that of a “prince who is also a swami, with those haunting eyes that appear to be seeing things that we can’t see.” Goldman went on: “To have fashioned this extraordinary face out of such ordinary materials is the sign of an artist who is guided by a vision. What Michael Jackson got from his audacious act of self-authorship was a face that matched his soul and thus enabled him to become all soul.”
By the late ’80s, of course, Jackson’s obsession with plastic surgery had become an addiction, with the star perpetually “evolving” as he made his face sleeker, lighter, cleftier, pointier, girlier… But before all that, at the height of Michael-mania (1983-1985), Jackson used his doe-eyed spectral model’s visage in a unique and heightened way: At a time when masculinity in rock was becoming brawnier, cruder, and ever more cliché, Michael fashioned himself into an androgynous beauty mask so that off stage he seemed not masculine at all, but in performance, on stage or in his videos, that delicacy gave way to a seething, snarling fury (just think of his scowling fever in “Beat It”) that could express more potent aggression than that of the most “dangerous” rockers. That, more than anything, was the real leap from Off the Wall to Thriller: the outing, and stylized presentation of, Michael Jackson’s inner wrath.
His Identification With Ghouls. In the famous video for “Thriller,” Michael showcased his special kinship with horror movies in the form of a corny, neo-1950s, back-to-the-future letter-sweater fantasy of beasts run wild. With Jackson himself cast as a teenage werewolf who’s “not like other guys,” the 14-minute John Landis super-production had a deliberate — and, to me, instantly dated – faux-Lucas/Spielberg cardboard “innocence.” (It was also the beginning of Jackson’s over-reliance on Broadway-style choreography, which tended to diminish the zigzag singularity of his own live-wire moves.) Yet one aspect of the “Thriller” video is far more haunting now than it was then: When Michael, in living-dead makeup, leads a chorus line of zombies, he seems to be anticipating, by 15 years, the ghostly monsterization of his own face. At the time, it seemed hip that he could play at being a ghoul. The video now looks like a dry run for the way he’d gradually turn himself into one.
The Dark Glory of “Smooth Criminal.” When Bad was released in 1987, it contained a song that was hailed as the “sequel” to “Billie Jean.” Unfortunately, that song was the lugubrious, sluggish, and schematic “Dirty Diana,” one of the worst tracks of Jackson’s career. Bad, however, really did contain the sequel to “Billie Jean,” and it’s a song that remains, after more than 20 years, Michael’s single most under-celebrated masterpiece: the gorgeously, ominously intoxicating “Smooth Criminal.” One listen to its two-step heartbeat, its percolating syncopated bass line, and you can hear that it’s “Billie Jean” shot through with more anxiety. What’s finally haunting about “Smooth Criminal,” though, is the way that its lyrics offer a veiled, almost coded response to the earlier song’s puritanical outrage.
Singing in a percussive stutter, so that he sounds not just stormy but possessed, Michael unfurls fragmentary images of a woman’s bloody murder: He came in through the window, he left bloodstains on the carpet; “she was struck down, it was her doom;” and, finally, the singer’s soaring plea for the victim (“Annie are you okay, will you tell us, that you’re okay?”). A song of intense violence…and compassion. But if you watch its brilliant long-form video, in which Michael, appearing as a natty white-suited period gangster, does some of his most slashingly visionary dance moves, a deeper meaning emerges. It’s that Michael, the song’s agonized and divided conscience, isn’t just crying with compassion — he’s also the criminal. “Smooth Criminal” mourns the death of Annie, but at the same time the song is a violent rock & roll fantasia in which the innocent Annie must die to atone for Billie Jean’s sin. It’s a song that glistens like a dagger in the night, because it reflects the ecstatic anger in Michael Jackson’s soul.
Singing to Strange Love Objects, Part II. Who did Michael Jackson love? There’s an eerie abstraction to nearly every one of his romantic songs (Who’s out of his life? Who’s the pretty young thing?), because in reality he always seemed isolated, never more so than behind the facade of his very public marriages. To me, the last transcendently great song he ever recorded — it’s off of HIStory (1995) — is “You Are Not Alone,” a rapturous melancholy ballad that, if you listen to it closely, takes on the quality of a confession. (The song was written by — don’t laugh — R. Kelly.) Michael is singing to a lover who, for reasons that are never explained, was forced to part from him. “Did you have to go,” he asks, “and leave my world so cold?” But even in his heartbreak, a voice whispers in Michael’s ear and says:
You are not alone, I am here with you
Though you’re far away, I am here to stay.
That voice is Michael talking to himself, soothing his loneliness. Yet as his own voice rises, slowly and majestically, building toward a tremulous croon that is shockingly passionate even for Michael (in the video, he sings it with his shirt wide open — as close as he ever got to naked in a performance), it’s also clear that he’s addressing the mystery lover, saying: You are not alone. The song takes on a delicately omniscient, almost soft-stalker vibe. But who is Michael Jackson really singing to? Who is it that left him alone, and that he’ll always be bonded to in his heart? “You Are Not Alone” is Michael’s haunting testament to a love denied, and maybe even forbidden, by fate. It’s a song about why Michael Jackson could never find love on this earth.