Michael Jackson at the top of his powers, 1984.
By HAP MANSFIELD
It is almost impossible to watch the passing of a pop icon and cultural phenomenon without saying a few words about his life. especially in the wake of so much media frenzy and heated myspace, facebook, Twitter and YouTube outpourings of grief and scattered arguments.
Indeed, wherever one looks on the web to find news of Michael Jackson’s death or videos of his life one finds the inevitable smattering of user comments lamenting his loss and descrying his perversions and eccentricities.
Then you go around town a little. Old women are talking about Michael Jackson at Walgreen’s. Little boys with tears in their eyes read of his passing in the newspaper. Everyone with a memory weighs in with some measure of remorse or surprise.
Jackson’s life reads like a pop music Citizen Kane, and, in the midst of all this, stand a couple of generations who don’t even understand what all the fuss is about.
To those who are confused by the groundswell of grief for a man who seems, to them anyway, to be a pop star with an addiction to plastic surgery, scandal-laden perversion and tastes that would generously be labeled idiosyncratic, we have to take them back a ways.
Back to 1969 to the Ed Sullivan Show, the show that gave middle America the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Back to the band of five Jackson brothers, the Jackson 5, one of whom, clad in an oversized purple hat, sang and danced with so much vigor. This was not your normal singing and dancing kid. The ten-year-old had a voice of musical spun honey and sunshine. The song seemed to fill him up and when he shared it with the audience, they felt his joy in every note.
The Jackson brothers were no slouch as a back-up group for this wunderkind. The four other Jacksons could have made a living for a long time without Michael. But the kid was, to use an overused word in our day and age, special. As the group careered from hit to hit to yet another hit, Jackson became an accomplished dancer, singer and song stylist.
His solo albums were broke new ground in eras when everyone else was putting out New Wave or Punk. He beguiled even the most cynical hipster with rhythm and joy. If Michael Jackson wore a military jacket, it was cool when safety pins and torn tees were the haute couturier of the era. He had what is now known as personal style, but is really more akin to élan. He had a confident vigor mixed in with his style.
He transitioned almost seamlessly from the disco 1970’s to the punk/alternative 1980’s without changing a note of his music. For all the new wave surrounding him, he became the culture. He did not bend to it.
Michael Jackson, so shy in his ways, kissed no ass and asked for no favors. Unlike so many more masculine types in popular music, he didn’t pander. It was always his show, his rhythm and blues. It’s hard to think of any performers now who bend to only their own will against the media tsunami called popularity. He did this to his dying day.
He danced because he could express himself that way, he sang for the joy of it and he was often breathtakingly adept. This is why musicians from Sting to Slash to Britney and back again all wanted to work with him.
He made the music video into an event. Try to think of another artist who could command network television to premier a video in a prime time slot with such ease. No matter how good Britney or Justin are, no matter what Taylor Swift can do, no matter how popular Hannah Montana is, none of them could do that.
And how the controversy swelled around Jackson no matter what he did. All the while he still he produced music full of whatever he was feeling, whether it was anger or joy. We all watched him, spellbound. When is he gonna fall? And isn’t that a great tune? And can that guy dance or what?
Some would say his fall happened not too many years after Thriller, the single best selling album of all time, 70 million copies and still counting. Some would say it started with the endless plastic surgeries that mystified most everyone and that seemed as though he were trying to get as far away from Michael Jackson and Joe Jackson, his father, as possible. He didn’t want to look in the mirror and ever see those two guys again.
Some might say his fall took place after he purchased Neverland Ranch and filled it with odd treasures.
Some might cite the sad allegations of child molestation as his downfall.
All these cloud over the one attribute that made Jackson worth bothering with in the first place — the elation he shot through every listener when he sang. The mouth-dropping special effects of his concerts are nothing compared to just hearing Jackson sing a cappella or seeing him dance with no music.
He brought the rhythm and the music with him. It wasn’t a backdrop for his iconographic status. It was with him, in him, was him. The music elated him and he elated us with it.
All those horrible sad things, his father’s alleged abuse, his lack of a childhood, his complete mistrust of adults, his alleged perverse behaviors, slowly leaked through his life as he burst out of the cocoon of self-imposed surgeries to reveal a man who seemed as scary as he was scared,
If you grew up in a time of the declining Jackson, you saw a strange man made into an icon because he had a few hit songs and was rich enough to indulge his freakish whims. You saw a guy who was easy fodder for comedians and easily parodied by Weird Al Yankovic (who, by the way, held him in very high esteem).
You didn’t grow up watching that boy sing the way a bird does, with beauty and meaning, because it has to. You didn’t see the dancer whose chops even Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly openly admired. You didn’t feel that sunshine when it first came pouring out of that talented little boy who grew into such a remarkable singing man.
He wasn’t an icon because of the way he looked. He was an icon because he gave us happy moments of sheer bliss with his vigor and music. He let the music do his talking.
Now, hopefully, after the dust settles, that is all that will remain to mark his life: the ecstasy of making music and dancing. Whatever his considerable and glaring flaws may have been, his heart was the purest when the music moved through him.
And he was a conduit for musical joy unlike any other person on earth.Email | Print