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Dance of Death

The brief transit, and long descent, of the King of Pop.

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By JAY WEISER
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The crowd had drifted away from the first-anniversary Michael Jackson memorial in his Gary, Indiana, boyhood home. The deindustrialized city had hoped for some Elvis-in-Graceland-style tourism, but 2,500 attendees might not cut it. This Is It, a movie of spliced-together rehearsal tapes from the death-defying, bankruptcy-deferring comeback concert marathon that never began, has come and gone. It turned out not to be it: As the Jackson estate rises from insolvency, it plots yet more exhumations from the vaults. Jackson himself, having largely stopped recording and performing in the two decades before his death, funded his high-spending professional afterlife through endless reissue compilations. The zombie Michael Jackson of his “Thriller” video, technically adept but mechanical, disconnected, and voracious, was the real thing.

Dance of Death

Michael Jackson in London, 1974

Anwar Hussein / Wire Image

All the world loves a self-destructing entertainer, so the continuing fascination with Jackson follows the path smoothed by Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, and Kurt Cobain. Unlike them, Jackson’s bizarre life had become more famous than his music. (Whole libraries have been filled with Jackson pathographies, so I will steer clear except as they affected his work, without endorsing jaw implants, retro-Byzantine detachable noses, Bubbles the Chimp, hyperbaric chambers, private Ferris wheels, or reckless leveraging of the Beatles’ catalogue.) In death, the faded star was recast as a pop revolutionary; in life, Jackson, too, had pumped the myth of transcendence, but he never delivered.

Jackson matured (if that is the word) in an America of millenarian, but contradictory, aspirations. With the early sixties surge of integrationist and first-wave feminism, true believers abandoned pluralism for the belief that we were all alike under the skin, and that when the shackles of discrimination were lifted, Americans would be as one. No sooner had the integrationist wave crested with civil rights legislation than Black Power and second-wave feminist radicals proclaimed exactly the opposite: Racial and gender differences were essential and unbridgeable, the System inherently oppressed Afrikans and womyn, and separatism was the answer.

Into this world came 10-year-old Michael Jackson, the child star of Motown’s last major hit act, the Jackson Five. He turned out to be uniquely unsuited for either messianic dream, whether as a lab specimen for racial blending through skin lightening and plastic surgery, or as a low-testosterone Britney Spears, dressed in comic-opera military outfits while posturing as a crotch-grabbing black thug. As his lyric went in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” (1982):

It’s too high to get over
Too low to get under
You’re stuck in the middle

In the Dreamgirls myth, Motown was an inauthentic sellout; the true artists were dark-skinned and soul-oriented. In fact, Motown was at the hybrid heart of American popular music, its African-American performers performing for audiences of all races. The Motown sound fused African-derived rhythms, dense arrangements based on European harmonies, and love lyrics descended from the Great American Songbook. Its in-house choreographer, Cholly Atkins, had been part of a successful Swing Era “class act,” specializing in a refined, tuxedo-clad tap (itself a blend of Irish clog dancing and African rhythms and structures). That, of course, was also stock-in-trade for Fred Astaire, who lived near Jackson and was friendly with him in the last decade of the older dancer’s life.

After Jackson broke away as a solo act, he shed the harmonic lushness in favor of a lighter version of James Brown’s polyrhythmic funk. While exponentially layering the rhythm, Brown collapsed the already simplified lyrics of rock into a series of sexual tag lines and guttural grunts, shouts, and moans. Jackson’s breathier version employed whispers, shrieks, and omnipresent hiccups in suggestively titled songs like “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (1979) and “Rock With You” (1979). Despite the occasional overwrought ballad—“She’s Out of My Life” (1979)—and unlike Brown and “hot” performers going back to Sophie Tucker, Jackson downplayed the sex. At most, he obliquely declared forbidden yearnings, such as “In the Closet” (1991) and the searching, forgiveness-seeking “Human Nature” (1982), perhaps his best vocal performance.

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