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23 May 2018updated 30 Mar 2023 4:02pm

Lost boy: the meanings and motivations of Michael Jackson

Jackson wanted his career to be “the greatest show on earth”, but he paid for it with his childhood.

By Tom Gatti

Michael Jackson and David Bowie were, as far as we know, not friends, but they were photographed together a couple of times. In 1974 they are pictured at a party, leaning forward in conversation, a teenage superstar with a globular afro and a gaunt performance artist heading for a crack-up. A magazine report of what seems to be the same night describes Jackson and Al Green on the dance floor teaching Bowie how to do the robot. A decade later they are backstage at a Bowie show in LA, standing eye to eye, a seriousness hanging between them; Bowie, a pale vision in white shirt, blond hair and braces, was touring his blackest album, Let’s Dance; Jackson, in aviator shades and a rich blue military jacket, had the previous year released his whitest yet, Thriller (they vied for Album of the Year at the Grammys; Jackson won).

Jackson and Bowie shared a slippery ribbon of pop-star DNA. They were both shape-shifting artists who turned their bodies into instruments; self-moulded men who played boldly and weirdly with gender, sexuality and race; who confused and captured their audiences. They were extraterrestrials; moonwalking, searching for life on Mars. Fans talk of Bowie’s “Starman” on Top of the Pops in 1972 and Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on the 1983 Motown 25 TV special in the same tone: as moments of epiphany, of witnessing the truly new.

Since the death of Bowie two years ago he has been the subject of at least three serious books. Nine years after Jackson’s death, we’re still waiting for one. The best we can do is to return to Margo Jefferson’s slim 2006 study, now published for the first time in the UK, with a poignant new introduction. Luckily On Michael Jackson is as rich and perceptive a piece of cultural criticism as one could hope for. Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of a memoir, Negroland, is not interested so much in Jackson’s musical talent as his being; his motives and his meaning.

Although Jefferson doesn’t mention Bowie, she does, in a comparison with another global megastar, go some way to explaining the disparity in legacies. While Madonna, like Bowie, presented herself as “an impresario, the architect of every performance”, Jackson maintained a dreamy persona, unwilling or unable to claim credit for his own cultural daring. Madonna’s authority read as rational and masculine, Jackson’s as emotional and feminine: “she embodied white intellectual creativity; he embodied black instinctual creativity.”

But Jackson was an impresario: he was, as Jefferson writes, “the impresario of himself”. Obsessed with PT Barnum, he gave copies of the 19th-century American showman’s autobiography to all of his staff, telling them, “I want my career to be the greatest show on earth.” The 1989 video to “Leave Me Alone” presents his life as a wild amusement-park ride: here he is dancing with the bones of the Elephant Man (which he tried to buy from the British Museum), here he is singing in the hyperbaric chamber that would let him live to 150. This “Wacko Jacko” stuff is satirised to rebuke the tabloids, but at the same time the video revels in its freakishness; a contradiction that seems even more knowing when you learn that the stories were publicity stunts conceived by Jackson and spread by his promoter Frank DiLeo. Jackson did shape his own narrative, though in ways that often seem strangely self-destructive.

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John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, and, as Jefferson writes, Jackson found a way to be bigger than the Beatles. He bought their catalogue in 1985, outbidding his old singing partner Paul McCartney (amazing to think that the first single from Thriller was the limp and slightly creepy McCartney duet “The Girl is Mine”, which the record executives guessed would get guaranteed play on “white” radio). Jackson’s buyout was a neat twist on the “old money, power and race equation that had white performers outselling black ones with cover versions of black hits”. 

White America made Elvis King of Rock’n’Roll; Jackson crowned himself King of Pop. In 1991, an internal memorandum was circulated to MTV staff: a condition of the network getting the video of “Black or White” was that Jackson must be referred to as the king of pop “at least twice a week”. Later he began to paint himself as a Christ-like global healer, something that annoyed Jarvis Cocker so much at the 1996 Brit Awards that he invaded the stage. (I had always found this an admirable moment of British pomposity-pricking until Tracey Thorn pointed out last year that there was a “whiff of boorishness” to the fact that Cocker had insulted the only black artist performing that night.)

By that stage, of course, Jackson’s skin was no longer black. He was also no longer demonstrably male, his face having become, through surgery, something mythological: “a ceremonial mask, gorgon-like”. Was it through self-hatred or a quest for perfection? Jefferson finds a Keith Haring diary entry from 1987 that expresses respect “for Michael’s attempts to take creation in his own hands and invent a non-black, non-white, non-male, non-female creature… A little scary, maybe, but nonetheless remarkable”.

Like a daemon in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, a familiar whose form remains unfixed until its owner hits puberty, Jackson was in a state of constant transformation. In the 14-minute film of “Thriller”, he is a Fifties sweetheart, a monstrous werecat, an Eighties cool kid, a dancing zombie. In the film Moonwalker, he mutates into a sports car, a giant robot, a claymation rabbit. In the disturbingly odd coda to the full-length video of “Black or White” – directed, like “Thriller”, by John Landis – a black panther morphs into Jackson, who dances as if possessed through an alleyway, performing his trademark “crotch clutch” in such an intense and rhythmic way as to turn him back into a panther. Jefferson wonders if this is Jackson’s desperate take on black masculinity.

She sees his Mr Hyde double gradually taking over in the 1990s. As “his music and dance were mattering less and less”, his looks, masked children (Prince, Paris and later Blanket, whose mothers gave up their parental rights) and sexual abuse allegations became his identity.

As a child star, Jackson himself was a sex object, regularly mobbed by screaming girls. Jefferson notes that in “ABC”, when Jackson shouts “Get up girl! Show me what you can do!” he does so with “total sexual conviction” – at the age of 11. He had already spent hours studying James Brown, who shared stages with the Jackson Five in the Sixties. On those early tours the band would often play strip clubs: Jackson later recalled being “blown away” by a gorgeous girl who at the end of her routine removed the oranges from her bra and revealed that under the make-up was “a hard-faced guy”. Jackson’s sister Rebbie told a family friend that when Michael was a teenager, “someone he trusted” had him “worked over” by three prostitutes.

“Have you seen my childhood?” Jackson sang in 1995. In one sense, we have. Or at least we are familiar with what John Jeremiah Sullivan – in his GQ essay “Back in the day” – calls the “miniseries childhood” of the father’s brutal practice regime at their crowded home (ten kids in a two-bedroom house) in Gary, Indiana. In his memoir, Jermaine Jackson remembers the children being made to carry 100 heavy cinderblock bricks from one side of the house to the other, and back. “Every brick had to be flush… we moved them from right to left till we had it just right.” Jermaine claims this taught them discipline and perfection, though to us it might sound more like a punishment dreamed up by a sadistic Greek god. Unlike his brothers, Michael never dreamed of child stardom, as Sullivan points out: “By the time he achieves something like self-awareness, he is a child star.”

The price for being a child star is one’s childhood, and so Jackson is left, later in life, searching for it: in the video to “Childhood” he sits on a tree stump as a boy floats up to join a fleet of sky-boats, full of children, heading for the moon. Jackson is a Benjamin Button figure, ageing in reverse. “He married, had children and moved away from adulthood,” writes Jefferson. In the 2003 documentary that led to Jackson’s second trial, Martin Bashir hangs out on the singer’s 3,000-acre Neverland Ranch in California. Jackson, then 45, utterly candid and trusting, says that his favourite things are water-balloon fights and climbing trees. When Bashir asks him if he identifies with Peter Pan, the reply is instant and unequivocal. “Totally. I am Peter Pan.” We think of him as an enigma, but on this Jackson was utterly clear.

As for the sleepovers, both Jefferson and Sullivan speculate that Jackson may have had some form of erotic interest in children, but it was in practice nonsexual. In one of the many portraits he commissioned from the painter David Nordahl, Jackson is a figure reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David, dressed only in a loincloth, surrounded by naked cherubs. Nordahl later said that he felt Jackson conceived these images as a deliberate dig at his critics. “It is a given of Michael Jackson’s life,” writes Jefferson, “that he cannot really connect to anyone but children.” In which case it’s unsurprising that he surrounded himself with them.

It’s also unsurprising that I loved Jackson most between the ages of six and ten. Especially in the late 1980s his songs and videos come pre-filtered through a child’s imagination: the video to “Smooth Criminal”, coolly cartoonish, is framed with three children (one of them John Lennon’s son Sean, a regular visitor to Neverland) witnessing the action and mimicking the movement, just as I did at home in front of the mirror with my dad’s fedora.

Part of Jackson’s genius was his mimicability. He developed an unmistakable vocal grammar and punctuation: the shamones, owws, tee-hees and gulped breaths (listen to the a cappella demo of “Beat It” to understand how multivalent an instrument his voice really was). And anyone could dance like him: even a child. As Zadie Smith wrote in a recent essay, every move he made was legible, “like a meme before the word existed”. He “stuck his neck forward if he was moving backwards. Cut his trousers short so you could read his ankles. Grabbed his groin so you could better understand its gyrations. Gloved one hand so you might attend to its rhythmic genius, the way it punctuated everything, like an exclamation mark.” Michael Jackson’s dancing is where art and marketing meet.

In June the National Portrait Gallery will host an exhibition exploring Jackson’s influence on contemporary artists including Andy Warhol and David LaChapelle. Perhaps others will follow suit, but it’s hard to imagine Jackson getting a reappraisal as weighty as the V&A’s 2013 blockbuster show “David Bowie Is”. I wonder, had they been closer, if Bowie could have advised him; helped him give some shape to his legacy. At the very least he could have encouraged Jackson to follow him in issuing “Bowie bonds” – pioneered by Bowie in the 1990s and since adopted by many others – which allow stars to capitalise on their future earnings. The $670m that Jackson’s estate made in the 12 months after his death was of no comfort to the singer, who died of a prescription drugs overdose, up to $500m in debt, his “curtain call” concerts unrealised.

In 1974 Michael Jackson took part in Free to Be… You and Me, a wonderfully right-on children’s music project that aimed to promote gender equality, freedom of expression and what we’d now call body positivity. Though plenty of his own songs have accrued greater meaning since his death, it’s his performance on this TV special that I keep coming back to. The song, “When We Grow Up”, is a duet with Roberta Flack: the two singers, dressed like pre-schoolers, skip around a cut-out nursery set, playing make-believe. Michael is 15 years old, 11 albums into his career and five years away from his first plastic surgery, but he’s acting his five-year-old self, who is in turn thinking about what it means to be an adult. “I like what you look like, and you’re nice small,” they sing to each other: “We don’t have to change at all.” 

On Michael Jackson
Margo Jefferson
Granta, 160pp, £9.99

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This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman