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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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Although lyrics returned to American popular music with a vengeance as rap emerged in the 1980s, Jackson’s lyrics (for which he was often credited as author) were rarely coherent. Instead, the lines were hooks with a sharp point, filled with predatory women who were falsely claiming paternity—“Billie Jean” (1982) repeats that “the kid is not my son”—or sex-crazed groupies—“Dirty Diana” (1987)—or, simply, “Dangerous” (1991). Like many American musicians, he worked in a variety of styles, but was most devoted to musically barking “Leave Me Alone” (1987) at his perceived exploiters.

These feelings of exploitation justified Jackson’s ever-growing entitlement, whether stiffing merchants on shopping sprees, calling a Sony executive racist in a record-promotion dispute, or pursuing underaged bedmates. Rousseau may have been the first to believe that artists and intellectuals were simultaneously outside society’s moral bounds and holy keepers of Truth; Jackson, part of this lineage, sought apotheosis as a childlike, proto-Obama unifier, taking the integrationist dream one step beyond. In the “Beat It” (1982) video, Jackson’s community organizer phase, the mere presence of his enlightened being brought peace to warring street gangs. The troubles of black urban America resolved, he used rock (an idiom lifted by whites from black artists almost intact) for utopian integrationism, proclaiming, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white” (“Black or White,” 1991). “Heal the World” (1991) anticipated Barack Obama’s 2008 St. Paul postprimaries speech, its soaring folk-rock chords backing a megalomaniacal message: “There’s a place in your heart and I know that it is love.” Sincerity was the only thing needed to save the dying little children of the song.

Jackson’s absolute humorlessness departed from the double-edged essence of American popular music, which mocked ardor as it limned it, from Bessie Smith’s blues, to Lorenz Hart’s cynical love songs, to Ruth Brown’s “girl with a tear in her voice,” to the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda,” to country’s cheating songs, to hip hop’s parodies of male hypersexuality. Lacking the emotional capacity, Jackson couldn’t access this work. Instead, there were ever-more-expansive claims about Jackson as the pathbreaking racial crossover pop star, which would have surprised James Reese Europe (the African-American orchestra leader for white dancers Vernon and Irene Castle in the early 1900s), Ethel Waters, and Johnny Mathis, among many others.

Without an adult emotional life, but believing in his transformative destiny, Jackson turned to the more earnest American tradition arising out of Protestant hymns and their Africanized descendants, 20th-century gospel songs. This earnest tone had infiltrated secular music starting in the 1930s: Alan Lomax, affiliated with the Popular Front, sought utopia in “primitive” traditions, untainted by commerce, such as Appalachian music. In fact, Appalachian and African-American strains had always mingled: Louis Armstrong played obbligato behind Jimmie Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9” (1930), Ray Charles did a classic country album, and New Yorkers passing through the Times Square subway station on Thursday mornings can often hear the Ebony Hillbillies playing bluegrass, an improvised music with jazz roots.

The Popular Fronters, however, would not brook musical miscegenation. Sincere-sounding Stalinist folkies like Pete Seeger appropriated Appalachian angst for protest songs about the impurities of American society in the 1940s. They were followed in the 1960s by folk icons like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Like Seeger’s, Jackson’s faux-purity masked menace: In his early vocal for the title tune of Ben (1972), Jackson sings with genuine, childlike feeling that his friend is misunderstood but the singer will stick with him no matter what. In the film, a lonely, bullied boy befriends the eponymous rat, who leads an army of killer rats that attack humanity. In their deranged way, both the song and movie lament the failed integrationist dream—why can’t humans and rats all just get along?—and justify the seventies’ separatist violence.

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