Friday, February 3, 2012

Facing Michael Jackson

A bike messenger walked in grinning like the cat that just ate the canary. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye as I examined the menu board above the salad bar. The plastic fans in Bonobos, the now defunct New York restaurant, whirled on its axis cooling the few customers who were having a late lunch. An unremarkable June 9th afternoon in New York City.

The messenger stormed up front the counter.

"You're never going to guess what?"

He had caught the Bonobos worker in mid nori-roll preparation who responded by parroting the last word he heard like a well-trained boyfriend.


"No, you're never going to guess what happened?"

I didn't know if I was supposed to be eavesdropping at this point or whether I was just being naturally rude. But I wanted the messenger to just spit it out so he could stop distracting the food prep guy. 

"Michael Jackson is dead."

We, the few Bonobos customers and late lunchers, looked up from our bubble. We made eye contact with each other as if to establish a semblance of community when hearing history. Disbelieving laughter punctured the silence. 

"It's true. Got a friend in LA who-"

The bike messenger began validating his information. He either attributed it to a friend who worked in the ambulance or someone he knew at TMZ. I can't remember because I had re-submerged in my own thoughts. But the messenger swore he had the inside information. This pop cultural earthquake on the other side of the country and he decided to walk into a half-empty raw food restaurant and announce it. I imagine there must have been an enormous amount of pride in Ancient Greece with being the messenger. Even if it's bad news, there's a certain glee in telling. I can attest to this because the few times I have dispensed shocking and tragic news to the unsuspecting, I feel enormously powerful and even some sense of exhilaration. 

I could feel the tragic excitement spreading. I wondered if doctors ever have to cover that 'gloating glow' when they tell a patient that the dizziness is a tumor or night tremors are some horribly rare and incurable genetic disease that would have gone unnoticed if it wasn't for their keen medical mind (yes, isn't it wonderful that I discovered this information early on so that instead of dying suddenly in the midst of living your life, you can now meditate for months or years on the inevitable). 

Of course a practiced messenger of medical, emotional or historical tragedy must have a cover. To ensure that the messenger isn't killed or detested, they should cloak that immense satisfaction in 'telling' with stern, practiced mask of condolence. There was no mask in this moment because Michael Jackson was not personal. He was a walking circus whose every mishap delivered a new ride, a new thrill, a new game for spectators to play. There were so many wonderful games in the Michael Jackson circus, from his asexually odd behavior, a grown man having boys sleep over, to his surgically destroyed face, to his mysterious secrecy behind fleets of bodyguards and handlers. Now there was a new act added to the circus: the is he or isn't he Dead game? Let's play!

Customers rushed to their phones and pulled up news, texts, and tweets. We looked around, confirming from one person to the next with satisfaction. No, Michael Jackson isn't dead. But what a fun game this has become. New Yorkers talking to each other again, chatting and sharing. We were undertaking our own smart phone detective work with relish. 

The messenger departed and several patrons shook their heads. What a crazy rumor. That was fun. A few other picked up their phones and called their friends to share. I sat down with my meal and texted my sister and called my Mom. 

"Is Michael Jackson dead?"

"No, you're thinking of Farah Fawcett."

"Thanks but I think I know the difference." I asked her if she could turn on a TV. She flipped to CNN and waited. No, no news. I laughed and informed her that some messenger came in spreading a rumor that Michael was dead.

My sister rang on the other line and switched over. She was in the doctor's lounge, taking a break from her rounds. I asked her if Michael Jackson was dead. She flipped around to the different news channels.    She asked if I was referring to Farah Fawcett. 

I hung up the phone and went back to finishing my lunch when a text flashed over my phone. CNN reporting that ambulance at Michael Jackson estate. At that moment I knew that the messenger was, in fact, true. The mainstream media was doing a 'slow leak' just to confirm its sources but also to give a steady feed of information that would keep people watching. If the messenger gets an ebullient joy from dropping sudden tragic news, TV stations seem to want this 'narcotic high' to last as long as possible in stretching out the information and dressing it nicely.The breaking news was being prepped and prepared by producers and the graphic department. I still remember the morning of September 11th when on-air reporters were so unable to process on-site information in real time that they attributed seeing a giant jet airliner fly directly into the tallest building in the world as an error or weather problems and said it might have been a small propeller plane. They were so caught off-guard without producer prompting that they couldn't even process the information in front of their face. If cable news were around at the time of World War II, on-site reporters and anchors would have reported Pearl Harbor as a 'possible yachting mishap' in the first half hour and told the viewers to stay tuned after a commercial break; all while graphic designers furiously worked on their logos and finding the right theme music. 

A few minutes later my Mom said that CNN was reporting Jackson taken to hospital. Then the reports stated he had a heart attack. And finally what the messenger first said was confirmed. Michael Jackson went from being 'rumored dead' to 'possibly dead' and then 'finally dead' in the time it took me to order and eat my lunch. 

I hadn't thought about Michael Jackson in years. He fell under the category of washed-up American superstar living in exile. After the trials, the money problems, and bad press MJ seemed constantly on the go. Perhaps he figured a moving target was more difficult to hit than a standing one. He'd pop up in Dubai and then re-appear months later in a lawsuit claiming he owed back pay to his Neverland employees, and then reconfigure himself in London talking about his next album. There was always a next album, next tour, next concert waiting to happen with Michael. And these project were greeted with mild curiosity and sadness.

When the media prefaced his name with the title 'King of Pop' they might as well have been announcing him as the 'Emperor of Ethiopia' or the 'Pharaoh of Phoenix.' The crown seemed more ironic with each passing year and stalled project. Even stand-up comedians moved on to riper targets, as pedophile jokes at the King of Pop received more sighs and boos than laughter in his last few years. The audience was saying 'we've had enough. Leave this poor, crippled, plastic disaster to his own garbage heap. He's been kicked enough. Toss a penny of thought into the King's hat when he tells you his next album is coming along nicely.  Smile, quickly wave goodbye, and avoid eye contact with the fallen monarch.'

There was the added tragedy of Michael avoiding Blackness. Black was clearly not beautiful in his family. Although the Jackson were African American in music and culture, they seemed to want nothing to do with Blackness cosmetically. The ugliness and fear of Negritude played very prominently into his dress, his look, his skin. He just didn't want to run to Whiteness. He was running  into outer space. The image trajectory went from rebel teen and into some totalitarian dystopia where he was both the 'Great Leader' with storm troopers and statues, but also the ageless Messiah of the poor. He was Jesus and Caesar, crucified victim and ruthless victor. Jackson played both extremes in his characters and his skin.

Growing up I would flip through JET magazine and see the ads for 'lightening' your skin or balancing out the tone. I imagined there must have been a big market for these products. My sister remarked repeatedly that I had come out of the womb very dark. This remark was not meant in a positive way, but was always intoned as if I came out with a deformed hand or club foot that miraculously healed. My birth 'error' corrected itself Relatives would visit from other states and comment on how beautiful I was, mainly because of my fair shade. 'Stay out of the sun' was their main beauty tip as my parents looked on clearly embarrassed. I took this information to heart. Darkening my skin would be like giving away my inheritance.

I remember being a young child running in from the hotel pool one blistering hot summer day and being stunned when I passed by a mirror. My skin had become mocha brown, an almost Indian shade. I didn't know it was a temporary effect that chlorine has on tanned skin. I wept. This was going to be the beginning of an uglier me, and all because I spent too much time in that damn swimming pool. My parents looked at me confused, not knowing why their happy son had suddenly burst into tears. But my sister knew. She assured me that it was a temporary effect and that my reaction was disgusting. We were all fed the same message of beauty, believed it on some deep psychic level, but any reaction against this was considered traitorous to Blackness. Fear of darkness had to be known, but not expressed. My hysterical reaction to this fear was shameful and disgusting to my family. We never spoke about this issue ever again.

When I became a teenager and started playing tennis and football, I tried to make up for lost time. Ashamed at my childhood fears, I stayed out in the sun excessively. I welcomed the opportunity to darken. I wanted to be African Black, a midnight deep. I wanted to be an unmistaken color so far gone that I looked like what would happen if Wesley Snipes and a bottle of Ritz grape soda had a baby. I wanted to be in the purple. But it was too late. My skin tone had been set. No matter how much I stayed out in the sun, I could only get light tan. My skin would go from yellow to caramel and then completely skip over Brown-ess and go into darker shades of red as if I was Native American. I wonder if the fear instilled in me as a child was so great that it genetically shifted the makeup of my skin. Is it possible that the same thing happened to Michael Jackson? As crazy as it sounds I've seen people bring on diseases, ailments, and other physical abnormalities just through the persistent meditation on a fear or worry. Our skin is the largest organ in the body. If we are so worried about our shade, why wouldn't our thoughts be able to shift or alter pigmentation in some significant physical way?

The Jackson circus may have kept him in the spotlight longer than he deserved, but it also distracted away from his true genius: music and dance. I don't there's been a more influential performer and entertainer. In American pop culture Michael is in the league of the one-name superstars: Elvis, Madonna, Prince. But internationally there is no one even close who could muster the raving-mad adoration and lust. This was no idle fad. His shrieking fans have been around for as long as I've been alive. He had a knack for combining and shaping songs into mini-symphonies. His dance moves combined street jazz and ballet with raw teenage angst.  But the fandom and worship goes much further than music appreciation.

Michael instilled religious ecstasy in millions and he had to have been affected in some severe way by this worship. I can't imagine an alternative reality where my entrance into a room causes other's to cry, faint, and scream my name until they go hoarse. In the age of celebrity-obsession, most people have some secret desire to be famous. There are obvious perks to this status: you get money for speaking, you get awards for just showing your face, your words are treated as gospel to be interpreted, and every space you travel in is prepped and fitted to your liking. In general, celebrities can live in a world in which ugliness and gross pain have been discretely removed through cosmetics and wealth. Disaster and strife is something to be whispered off to the side between assistants and handlers who coordinate to soften the shock of reality. Yes, being a celebrity can be very nice. But being celebrity worshipped can be frightening and deluding.

Michael Jackson is a cautionary tale. He's our Icarus who wouldn't listen to the warnings because he was so far above his family, his protectors, the record labels. He just couldn't hear the screams as he soared into the light.  When the wings of his fame began melting, his fans didn't take caution.
They just saw it as a daredevil act, an Evil Knievel stunt where he would pull up out of the tailspin at the last moment. So we cheered even louder as he fell. We watched his trials, his flops, and his glory getting stripped away. We watched as spectators waiting for the last-act comeback. But there was no comeback. We watched him die and then when the inevitable was announced, we didn't believe. The messenger walked in and delivered the news and we laughed. No, this is a stunt. Okay, we'll play along. You got our attention again, tell us about your next album, you can have a penny of my time.

One of my favorite songs of all time is "Dirty Diana" which is off "Bad," Michael's last 'good boy gone bad.' It was 1988 and the last time I watched and cared about Jackson's music. The video chartered up to Number 1. On a Saturday morning music video countdown show the slow ominous guitar notes slinked through the TV.  When I saw that the number 1 video was Michael Jackson's, I was shocked. I didn't even know he was still releasing singles from that album.

While the first and titular single "Bad" received massive advertisement and a 8pm major network premiere that interrupted "The Cosby Show," his last single locked like an afterthought. "Dirty Diana" was shot on stage at a faux rock concert. "Bad" was a mini-movie musical much like "Thriller." Millions were poured into it and weeks were spent getting everything just right. was something an expert music video director could pump out in a 1 or 2 day shoot. "Dirty Diana" is set in a future music dystopia of mohawks, ripped curtains rustling in the wind, and old Chevrolets.

Dirty Diana is embodied in a long-legged woman in a mini-skirt. She's exiting out of the backseat of a car. The camera cuts her off at the torso, fetishizing her legs and high heels as she struts in slow motion through the broken concrete and puddles of a back alley. The visual clearly reads Diana as a prostitute and the song's lyrics falls under the 'suck my dick' genre of late 80s rock music. But instead of the frivolous and fun songs like "Cherry Pie," Diana is not a good time, easy-loving girl. Michael was clearly anguished, disgusted, and drawn to Diana. The camera came in for a close-up and I noticed the white tape wrapped around his fingers. Against the ripped and rustling linen curtains, Michael looked like some wounded and scarred victim, who had been bandaged and patched together.  The whole song felt like a giant wound.

Michael is moaning 'oooh no,' as he's crouched over on stage.

You'll Never Make Me Stay
So Take Your Weight Off Of Me
I Know Your Every Move
So Won't You Just Let Me Be
I've Been Here Times Before
But I Was Too Blind To See
That You Seduce Every Man
This Time You Won't Seduce Me.

I remember my adolescent brain trying to figure out why Diana was so evil. She must have AIDS. This was 1988 and if you were slutty women being portrayed as dangerous for another man, that's where my mind automatically went. It also fit with Michael's asexual, teenage boy angst that he would be drawn to a dangerous and very distant woman who never appeared in the same shot as him. Then I thought she must be evil because of her aggressive sexuality, and THAT is why she probably has AIDS. I started thinking about our neighborhood prostitute.

On our block we had our own Diana who would walk around, stand in front of the corner store, and was cussed out by other women. Diana wasn't a long-leg, mini-skirt wearing, seductive Russian model turning tricks in the back of Camaro's. Our Diana was a short, nappy Afro'ed, spandex short-wearing crack prostitute. Occasionally she would pop up at our house and my parents would give her a few dollars here. She would thank them profusely and make some vague promise about 'turning it around' and disappear. One time I was home by myself when Diana rang the doorbell. I looked through the peephole and saw her standing on our porch. I opened the door and informed her that my parents weren't home. She asked if I had any money. I went to the change jar and gave her a few dollars in quarters and dimes. And then she sulked off the porch and continued walking down the street. She had stretch marks on her arms and legs. Her teeth were crooked and their were black blotches on her face. This wasn't exactly the fearful and dangerous prostitute. This was a sad and desperate woman. As I handed her the money I remember thinking 'she must not be a very good prostitute' if she has to beg for change. I only saw Diana one more time. It was a few years later and she had shrunk into a raisin. Her face was ravaged and her teeth protruded from her mouth. Somehow she still had an ample and round butt, but her legs were toothpicks. I assumed she had AIDS, like many people in the neighborhood who were dying at the time. Her hoarse voice perked up when she saw me. I handed her all the money I had in my pockets. I was a teenager so it probably wasn't enough. But it was all I had. She smiled and thanked me. As she walked away, I noticed tears were falling down my face.

If this was the Diana, Michael was referring to then I saw no reason to fear her. I began siding with the headless female torso in the music video and resenting Michael's misogyny. But that interpretation still didn't explain Michael's bandaged hand and tattered looks. He was going for a heroin chic look that was 10 years ahead of its time. He was in pain. "Dirty Diana" wasn't a woman. It was something else, but I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to be watching.

She's Saying That's Ok
Hey Baby Do What You Please
I Have The Stuff That You Want
I Am The Thing That You Need
She Looked Me Deep In The Eyes
She's Touchin' Me So To Start
She Says There's No Turnin' Back
She Trapped Me In Her Heart.

The guitar soared with Michael's voice as he jumped into the chorus while spinning around and flashing his taped fingers at the audience. Even as a 9-year-old boy I eventually picked up on the symbolism. Diana wasn't a prostitute. Diana was this thing that was destroying Michael. This insidious disease that had caused this wasteland and his destroyed body.

She Said He's Not Coming
Because He's Sleeping With

Diana was death. Disguised as a seductive woman of lust and ambition, but it was still a finality that Michael embodied as pumped his chest with the pounding bass. This was death by fiery consumption and then sleep. This was a death he was first introduced to when he was badly burned in the Pepsi commercial. As his hair and head caught the spark from the lights,  Michael was oblivious. He was such a performer that he launched into his dance routine unaware that he was on fire.  He had to be wrestled to the ground to save his life. 

Back in the age of the Pepsi fire, fans were really concerned. Michael Jackson was a superstar but he was still a person. His tragedy was meet with sincere grief and an outpouring of condolences. After that moment in pop culture history, he became a completely different being. His post-fire songs reflected seclusion, escape, and death. It would be three years before he released "Bad" and there was a cataclysmic shift in his tone. He was screaming "leave me alone" and singing about being gunned down on the dance floor by smooth criminals. Granted he was also seeking hope. "Man in the Mirror" is also on "Bad" and it's one of the greatest songs ever made and focuses on personal responsibility and turning one's life around. But that song's hope was based on the promise of positive change, not the actual results. 

The tragedy of Michael is that he had more promise as a singer, dancer, and ambassador to the world than any superstar in my life. My missionary friends in Nigeria wrote to me and said his name is graffiti'ed on the walls and shacks in the country. My friends who taught English in Japan reported that his music was still emulated and stolen. When a Michael Jackson song comes on in the Miami clubs, even after all the plight and scandal associated with his name, people explode on to the dance floor. He made billions of people feel hopeful on this promise of what was to come. These people sang, danced, and worshipped. But this promise was never fulfilled.  At the end,  we were left with rumor, gossip, and the ghost of a murdered king.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, this has to be the best article or blog entry or whatever you call it about Michael Jackson I've ever read.