News of Michael Jackson’s passing threw me for a loop, though according to friends, it shouldn’t have. He was a medical mess, a man who literally tried to put a wall of money between him and having a normal biological body. Of course his body gave out—god only knows how many drugs a plastic surgery addict and pedophile must take to escape the reality of himself. I think it shook me because I mentally chose to believe that the Michael Jackson that I loved died within minutes of releasing “Smooth Criminal”. (I try to ignore the rest of the aptly titled Bad.)
But even if you plug your ears and try to pretend that there was only one Michael Jackson—the Michael of the Jackson 5, of Off The Wall, of Thriller—it’s hard. His earlier music that displayed his practically supernatural talent is impossible to listen to without occasionally hearing portends of the child molesting freak show shell of a human he was to become. One of my favorite all-time tracks, in no small part because it tickles my morbid senses, is the Jackson 5’s version of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.
I love this version because it really shows off the unbelievably beautiful voice Jackson had in his youth—it gives me gooseflesh, it’s so good. But it’s also more than a little fucked up, since this song was written by Bill Withers for his own mature, earthy way of singing. It’s a man’s song, and it’s not right that a kid can bring anything to it. But somehow, Jackson does, and it’s both gorgeous and eerie.
The tragedy of Michael Jackson happened decades ago, though of course there will never be an answer to when exactly he turned from someone who should have had a charmed life as a pop genius to our American version of the royal vampire, the person whose wealth and entitlement shields them from ever having to face punishment for their outrageous cruelty and whose warped view of the world from on top of their empire turns them mad. He appeared to have no understanding of the world outside of the funhouse of celebrity, even marrying Elvis Presley’s daughter, as if pop stardom was some new monarchy and this was an alliance he had to create. (It was even semi-consumated for the subjects, as if we’re living in a primitive monarchy.) Michael Jackson should have been a well-respected pop/R&B star who made his money but lived a fairly normal life of fading from the pop scene and into the vaults of those cherished by pop music amateur historians. Instead, he became a grotesque figure of how much fame can destroy a person. Like Cintra Wilson said in her book A Massive Swelling: “And who has provided us with more evidence that Big Fame will fuck you, fuck you, fuck you in the head until there’s nothing between your ears but a sour, translucent jelly?”
Unfortunately, the Michael Jackson who should have been died a long time ago. He was probably on the wrong trajectory long before Thriller came out, but after that, though most people couldn’t see it at the time, he was a dead man.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve watched his performance at the 25th anniversary for Motown, well, it really is worth watching again, and not just in the small clips they’ll show on TV.