The memorial service for Michael Jackson is being broadcast on television here in the United States today and, not surprisingly, there is mixed reaction from talking heads and the public. There is no denying that Michael Jackson will go down in history as the archetype of a "pop icon," nor that he was an almost-unrivaled musical genius... but, as we all painfully know, his life after leaving the Jackson 5 became more and more strange, more and more tragic, more and more sad over the years. For a lot of us, myself included, MJ's music was the soundtrack of our childhood and adolescence (and beyond). Thriller was the first album I ever bought, and the poster of MJ that came with it was (to my memory, at least) the only poster of a musician I ever had on my wall as a young girl. Still, like most everyone today, I'm having a hard time classifying and deciding where to file away my memory of Michael Jackson, as there are so many contradictory images and personae competing for the place.
Michael Jackson was a trangressor in all the good and all the bad ways, often at the same time. His music and his dancing were groundbreaking, idiosyncratic, revolutionary. There are sounds ("G'on girl!") and moves (moonwalk, crotch-grab) that are and will always be unmistakably "Michael." But like his music and his dance, much else about his life exceeded the categories of our understanding. He was soft-spoken, fey, curiously-dressed, troubling everything that we think we know about gender and sexuality. He upset our racial categories without meaning to-- or maybe he did mean to-- making himself the butt of many uncomfortable jokes. He never belonged to a proper family, or never belonged to one properly. The Brits dubbed him "Wacko Jacko," the Americans called him a freak, and one can't help but think that Nature herself often looked upon poor Michael with frustration and confusion. And, of course, he was an actual "transgressor" too, perhaps even a criminal, though the complicated machinations of out-of-court settlements will never allow us to know for sure.
Michael, you were a mystery.
If the very worst stories of Michael Jackson are true, no one can be his apologist for those transgressions. But even if they are all true, his is still a story that ought to inspire compassion. Blessed with remarkable talent, MJ was dragged into the spotlight before he could have possibly known better, before he could have possibly known that the "normal" world of Gary, Indiana was a world he was leaving forever. Even in the most circus-like and abnormal periods of his life, I often wondered how fair it was for us to criticize him for not abiding by the conventions of the "normal" world to which he never belonged because his family, his handlers, his fans, his haters, and Michael himself kept him out of it. Social mores are conditioned into us over time, reinforced and corrected by the world that seeks to maintain them, and Michael had precious little interaction with that collective sense of normality. He was an imperfect human being in an imperfect world, like all of us... but not with all of us.
So, I'm posting the video below because this is how I want to remember Michael Jackson. He's on stage, alone, rehearsing his song "Human Nature." This is where he is at home, where he is normal. He is clearly imagining the rest of us there, but we're not there. There's a moment during the rehearsal when Michael gets to the chorus and yells "Everybody!", stretching his arms out to the absent audience, inviting them to sing along... but, in our absence, there is silence. He's just there, dancing and singing by himself to a great song, probably like many of us did in our bedrooms, alone, imagining him there with us. Here is an enormous stage, simultaneously too big and too small for this one man. Just Michael and his music... and, of course, this story:
And they say, "Why? Why?"
Tell them that it's human nature.
"Why? Why does he do me that way?"
They say, "Why? Why?"
Tell them that it's human nature
"Why? Why does he do me this way?"