Ann Powers on Michael Jackson: A performer who kept transcending boundaries
Michael Jackson was not of this world. He always seemed to defy gravity, as a dancer whose signature move was so incomprehensibly graceful that it earned the extraterrestrial title "the Moonwalk," a singer whose tenor was high but strong, a rhythmic instrument that went as sweet and tender as a clarinet on the long notes -- and as a man whose physical presence was first androgynous and then seemingly cyborgian, forcing his astounded public to puzzle over their assumptions about race, gender and age.
He was the boy who knew too much, bursting upon the pop scene in the 1970s as the neon-bright center of his family group the Jackson 5, singing songs that communicated emotions that should have been beyond the grasp of a prepubescent boy. For the cameras, he danced in a newsboy cap to childlike rhymes -- A,B,C, simple as 1,2,3 -- but the children and teens who were his primary audience loved him because his voice went beyond the guilelessness of playground games.
The fidelity he communicated in "I'll Be There," the brokenheartedness in "Maybe Tomorrow," the longing in "Never Can Say Goodbye" -- these were emotions children weren't supposed to have, but did, and Jackson gave them voice.
Then he became a man, and the biggest star in the pop universe. He kept transcending. The sound he developed with producer Quincy Jones was based in funk and old-school soul but added elements of jazz, disco and Beatle-esque rock in a smooth mix that created new possibilities for crossover pop.
It took shape with 1979's "Off the Wall," but was fully formed on "Thriller," the 1982 masterwork that utterly changed mainstream pop, breaking down the lines between black and white music, fluff and serious art, sounds meant for the dance floor and for the headphones.
Baby boomers have "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Pet Sounds," but for many younger than that, "Thriller" remains pop's ultimate artistic endeavor. Jackson not only crafted a sound that is still being imitated by every young star who wants to claim territory in rhythmic Top 40, a genre "Thriller" invented; he also explored serious themes -- obsessive love in "Billie Jean," street violence in the "West Side Story" homage "Beat It," the scourge of gossip in "Wanna Be Startin' Something."
Even the title track, an old-fashioned horror tale seemingly meant for kids, held something more ominous. In the groundbreaking video, director John Landis transformed Jackson into a monster, an early metaphor for the struggles with identity that would later dominate the singer's life.
For Jackson was also completely of this world, his often tragic life and complicated art formed by the phenomenon of global celebrity in the age of late capitalism. What Marilyn Monroe's life and death said about Hollywood, and what Elvis Presley's said about the rise of rock 'n' roll, Jackson's says about pop in the time of media saturation, when our stars became truly global and omnipresent, across genres and media platforms.
In one way, Jackson's stardom was very old-fashioned. He was born in a trunk, like the vaudevillians of yesteryear, driven to perform by a classic unrelenting stage father. Possessing multiple skills, including a good sense of comic timing, he seemed like a character more than a person.
I remember the inner sleeve of the Jackson 5's 1971 release "Maybe Tomorrow," one of the very first vinyl records I ever purchased. It was full of pictures of the brothers, their Afros shaped into hearts, their boyhood turned into a charm suitable for sticking onto a schoolgirl's notebook. In reality, Jackson was a black steel-mill operator's son from Indiana, no one a white accountant's daughter from Seattle would have ever met. The teen idol machine turned him into a dream friend that any girl or boy could have.
Jackson's pioneering video work, created in collaboration with a range of directors, allowed him to elaborate on his self-construction as a fantasy figure, scaling human limits. His superstardom was linked to the rise of music videos via the MTV network; this was another way in which he was both a classic star and a groundbreaking one.
In the wake of the unkempt "real life" stars of classic rock, Jackson and his partner in glamour, Madonna, brought back the razzle-dazzle of show biz. (Both artists borrowed from disco, which never gave up on glitz.) Using the new form of music videos to plunder images from throughout the history of entertainment -- from minstrelsy to space operas -- Jackson created an archive of our pop subconscious.
The zombie game of "Thriller" was only the beginning. People laughed when he pretended to take on street gangs in "Beat It" and "Bad" -- in his neatly pressed clothes, he seemed too delicate, too fey to wield a switchblade. But his dance moves did seem fierce enough to quell violence. He became a ghost trailing light in "Billie Jean," a genie in "Remember the Time," a spaceship inhabitant in his duet with his sister Janet, "Scream." His dancing in the "Smooth Criminal" mini-film seemed to stop time.
Throughout his career, Jackson never let go of the mandate -- and privilege -- to transform. It became the great source of his art, and his biggest burden. "Magic is easy if you put your heart into it," he told Sylvie Simmons in Creem magazine in 1983. But magic, the delusion of illusion, also might be what destroyed him.
As he grew more famous, Jackson began altering his own appearance, going further into an image that appeared to be androgynous, beyond racial categorization and the bounds of age. As a performer, he was never not sexual -- after all, he was famous for hip thrusts and crotch-grabbing -- but instead of maturing, he underwent a different kind of evolution.
The songs and the videos Jackson made as his trajectory peaked and started downward, like "Black or White" and "In the Closet," simmered with anger and fear about outside forces -- the media, the listening public -- who wanted to pin down his identity. But their power lies more in their expression of the inner torment Jackson seemed to be suffering as his attempt to elude definition turned into a tragedy of arrested development.
Childhood was the adult Jackson's notorious fascination. His preoccupation with it sometimes made for beautiful music and imagery, but also led to the scandals that wreaked havoc on his career. At first, his actions simply seemed eccentric: He kept exotic pets like the chimp Bubbles, befriended child stars and built an elaborate amusement park on his California estate, Neverland.
But then allegations arose that he had abused young boys; though never legally proved, these accusations, along with his alleged prescription drug abuse, ill health and increasing isolation, destroyed his career.
Jackson had said the comeback he was planning to stage this summer, with 50 concert dates at London's O2 Arena, was partly motivated by his desire to finally share his artistic legacy with his own three school-age children. That he died while pursuing this paternal goal is just one tragic turn in an almost unfathomably complicated life.
Those of us who grew up with Jackson's music and the glow of his fame in its prime may choose to remember him in the way he seemed to want us to perceive him, as that magical child, never struck down by ordinary life, forever singing, "I'll be there."
-- Ann Powers
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