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.
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.
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.
As his popularity slid, Jackson’s hostility became more overt. The “Bad” video (1987) played off African-American meanings for the word as both sociopathic and admirable, looking back to the Stagger Lee ballads of the early 20th century about a destructive, reckless, admirable black outlaw. But despite Jackson’s endless assertions that “I’m bad,” his megalomania (“And the whole world has to answer right now just to tell you once again who’s bad”), and graffiti-spraying, garbage-can-tossing backup dancers on location in a Brooklyn subway station, Jackson isn’t convincingly bad in any sense. By this point, notwithstanding his black leather outfit and handcuffs-and-chains belt, Jackson’s radical plastic surgery and skin-lightening (tastefully highlighted with eyeshadow) signaled Diana Ross rather than thugdom.
“Bad” is Jackson’s most coherent dance. He creates a syncopated line based on head pops and angular arm movements over the funk polyrhythms. Where Fred Astaire’s dancing had blended ballroom/ballet smoothness with tap’s rhythmic displacements, “Bad” is built on short, abrupt movements on the backbeat or its subdivisions, loosened with swing-based rhythms in the bridge. The thug chorus moves in lockstep with Jackson in each segment, creating tension, until he bursts through the crowd, generating a counter-rhythm or taking a solo break as they freeze. Where Motown groups like the Temptations used dance to communicate ease and sexual availability—and the less sexualized Gene Kelly and Nicholas Brothers communicated an acrobatic ebullience—“Bad” is about tight control relieved by destructive explosions.
And apart from “Bad,” the music videos have surprisingly little dancing. Jackson more or less created the music video genre, using new technology to develop a visual poetry, but he couldn’t always knit it together. In “Black or White,” the dancing fragments reveal that Jackson had stopped developing. They are scattered among quick camera cuts, including a mini-family story, headshots of smiling, hair-shaking multiracial models, lip-syncing child rappers in an urban street scene, and black and blond babies sitting on top of the earth. Jackson is often concealed behind backup dancers in colorful ethnic costumes set in wildly shifting world locales. Where Astaire limited his technical razzle-dazzle, saying that “either the camera will dance or I will,” Jackson preferred spectacle and set out on a destructive quest to top himself.
MTV played the music videos free to promote CDs and concerts. Jackson’s high production values could only be justified by massive sales, yet he became more extravagant as his popularity waned. Where Thriller (1982) had domestic sales of 20 million albums by 1984, Bad (1987) and HIStory (1995) sold a successful, but comparatively tiny, 6 million albums each. (As Carl Bialik has noted in the Wall Street Journal, claims that Jackson sold 750 million albums during his lifetime are exaggerated by several hundred million albums.) Yet Jackson spent an estimated $1 million on the “Bad” video and tens of millions on mid-1990s video projects. To market the mostly recycled HIStory (1995), Jackson shot a video in Hungary, using marching local soldiers as backup “dancers.”
Indeed, apart from “Bad,” Jackson’s only major dance video was “Thriller,” a homage to classic movie musicals, complete with a boy-girl mini-plot and title sequence crediting Jackson as coproducer, cowriter, and co-choreographer. At 13 minutes, “Thriller” is almost as long as Gene Kelly’s climactic American in Paris ballet. It was the 25-year-old entertainer’s apotheosis—and his Rosebud. Nominally a horror movie spoof, it is an essay on the abyss behind the celebrity façade. It opens with a movie-within-a-video, a 1950s-style horror scene where Jackson asks a girl to go steady, and immediately after she accepts, becomes a werewolf who tries to slash her to death (“I’m not like other guys,” he explains). As she screams, the video cuts back to a theater where normal Michael Jackson—well, almost normal considering his early-stage facial alterations and red leather neo-sci-fi getup with Joan Crawford shoulder pads—and the unnamed girlfriend are sitting. She’s frightened; he explains that it’s only a movie. Leaving the theater, they hold hands. But he’s no Rock Hudson: They seem to have pumped Jackson with Xanax to force the vapid, presumably flirtatious, dialogue out of his mouth. As Jackson and Anonymous Female Romantic Interest leave the theater, Jackson launches into the song. In the walk sequence that follows, Jackson does his best sustained dancing on video, effortlessly moving around her with all kinds of rhythmic displacements and arm movements, including a witty, stiff-legged backwards monster walk.
It’s charming. They reach a cemetery, where they are confronted by zombies (“demons closing in on every side”), and with no transition, Jackson himself is suddenly revealed as one with goggling white eyes. Zombie Michael, unlike Normal Michael, is engaged enough to lead a production number. The zombie chorus’s makeup and costumes are elaborate, but they dance in grinding lockstep with Jackson, almost exclusively on the beat and its subdivisions, with few of the contrasts of the later “Bad.” It turns out to be a dream. Normal Michael—still spaced out—reappears to comfort the girl; but in the last shot, his eyes change from normal back to werewolf Michael’s cat eyes: He is a monster.
Jackson’s identity in “Thriller” is wildly unstable, switching between normal and demon five times. The multiple identities may have been influenced by Astaire’s satire on his own image, “Puttin’ On the Ritz” from Blue Skies. There, Astaire’s smoothness is disrupted by a menacing multiple mini-Astaire chorus line, far upstage, who pull him into a jerking, frenetic production number that suddenly stops with hostile glares from the lead and mini-Astaires.
“Thriller” lacked this subtlety: It shared neither Blacula’s Black Power revenge fantasy nor Night of the Living Dead’s integrationist dream, with its virtuous African-American hero organizing the citizenry against the undead. “Thriller” inverts Night of the Living Dead: Jackson, it implies, really was a zombie all along.
Jay Weiser is associate professor of law at Baruch College.