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Ann Powers: Being a Michael Jackson fan wasn’t easy, but the music was worth it

June 26, 2009 |  6:30 pm

For fans, he was a boy prodigy or a troubled adult.


The song that popped into your head the minute you heard Michael Jackson was dead reveals something about you. If it was a Jackson 5 song -- "Never Can Say Goodbye," for example -- you're probably over 40. You have memories of Jackson as a little black boy in an apple cap, and believe that the kind of "real" soul music he made then can heal wrongs. You're kind of a hippie, maybe, or at least a believer in the rootsy and the pure.

If you thought of "Thriller," you're probably younger. Your Michael wears the white glove and has paler skin. You grew up in the age of hip-hop and global pop -- music, for you, is rooted in the glittery artifice of videos and the unexpected juxtapositions sampling made possible. You don't care about purity, but do hold stock in velvet revolutions: in border-crossing culture as a source of better human understanding, if not real social change.

But what if you thought of "Childhood," that saccharine yet baldly confessional ballad in which Jackson coos about loving "elementary things" because he was robbed of his own youth? Or "In the Closet," a tough dance track that runs on the fumes of sexual repression and rage?

Are there people out there who got misty while humming the creepy "They Don't Care About Us," in which Jackson uses language many thought was anti-Semitic to conflate his feelings of persecution with hate crimes?

A listener can find troubling material within every phase of Jackson's musical career. The early stuff, sweet and breezy as it can be, gained some of its frisson from its seductiveness, so startling from a child. 

"He had a knowingness about him that was incredible," said Motown founder Berry Gordy in a statement issued yesterday. "When I first heard him sing Smokey [Robinson]'s song 'Who's Lovin' You' at 10 years old, it felt like he had lived the song for 50 years."

Jackson wasn't the first child to be made into a product and a sex object, however chaste. Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and his friend Elizabeth Taylor knew that road. But when Jackson grew up, he carried that inner disruption with him, and it marked his greatest work, as well as his failures.

Some kind of violence within him added energy to songs like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " (in which he compares himself to a buffet, there to be fed on) or "Black or White" (a cry for universal understanding whose original video included a startling dance sequence in which Jackson, morphing from a black panther into himself, laid waste to a hotel facade and a car).

The cotton-candy lightness of a ballad like "Remember the Time" soothes and charms, but there's always an undertow of longing for an innocence that Jackson not only can't retrieve, but can't even think of as real.

Jackson meant to promote a vision of the world in which divisions, especially over race, no longer existed. His whitewashed utopia was alienating to critics who saw racial betrayal in Jackson's altered body, even as his music claimed the front of the pop bus for African Americans.

"Oh, the Pyrrhic victories of the disenfranchised," wrote the culture critic Greg Tate, reviewing Jackson's "Thriller" follow-up, "Bad," in the Village Voice. "Who would have thought this culture hero would be cut down to culture heel, with a scalpel?"

Naysayers found more reasons to condemn Jackson, and the faithful had to figure out how to endure. The problems were in the music, as well as in his life. The eccentricities and compulsions affected his work; his lyrics became angrier and more paranoid, and more desperately wide-eyed. Later hits like "Scream" (a duet with his ever-protective little sister, Janet) and "Blood on the Dance Floor" are jittery, disjointed. They crackle like a chemical fire.

Jackson's work never stopped being interesting, even when it became hard to absorb. The public recoiled at the semi-nude video he made with his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley to promote the ballad "You Are Not Alone," but the song itself (written by Jackson's fellow problem star R. Kelly) uncovers the depths of loss, and lostness, behind Jackson's attempts to be tender. "You are not alone," he moans, utterly alone. It's beautiful, if you can take the pain.

Being a lifelong Michael Jackson fan required a tolerance for pain, confusion and sometimes self-delusion -- though in the end his art is richer when considered in light of his life's ugliness, as well as its achievements.

Critic Rachel Devitt put it well on the Rhapsody music service blog: "In large part, [Jackson's] ability to remain beloved, despite his quirks and idiosyncrasies and even potential criminality, has everything to do with his incredible, undeniable talent," she wrote. "But I also think that something about his apparent alien-ness, his simultaneous ability to appeal to the whole world and inability to relate to it in a conventional way, made him more human to us."

Michael Jackson was just human, after all, and humans aren't perfect. In fact, humans are often very hard to love. Believing in the worth of Michael Jackson, to the end, taught us that. 

--Ann Powers

Photo credit: AP