Part three of my list of 60 Michael Jackson’s best lesser-known songs, to celebrate what would’ve been his 60th birthday. Songs 41 - 60, 1991 - 2009.Read more
Part two of my list of 60 Michael Jackson’s best lesser-known songs, to celebrate what would’ve been his 60th birthday. Songs 21 - 40, 1982 - 1990.Read more
Came up with this far too late to place it elsewhere, so it's going on my blog instead. Today would have been (should have been) Michael's 60th birthday. It's crazy he's already been dead for almost 10 years.
So here’s a list of 60 of Michael Jackson’s best lesser-known songs, to celebrate. Part One covers songs 1 - 20 (1969 - 1982).Read more
First off: I’m not about to deny any of you have real emotions about Prince’s death, just because you didn’t know the man. In 2009 a man I’d met only once properly - Michael Jackson - died, and I was devastated. I still get upset about it, seven years on. And I realise how hypocritical this is, adding to the pile of words being written as we speak on the subject, by saying you should stop writing about him. What can I say? I’m a twat.
But, agh! I can’t take another one. What grates about these constant tributes and social media comments and solemn blog posts (hello!) isn’t that the emotion behind them isn’t real, but that it can apparently be summed up so succinctly in 140 characters.
When Michael died, I did tweet something. First I tweeted the noise I made when I first found out. I was at home, alone, and let out what I can only describe as a loud drawn-out moan (my neighbours still look at me weirdly). Then, on seeing the tributes rolling past my eyes for a man that once meant more to me than any boyfriend ever has, I had to say something, anything, so I tweeted again - some rubbish telling him to rest in peace, but mentioning my connection to him (that felt important) - and instantly regretted it. My tweet lined up with all the rest, rolled up and off my screen. Poofff. Gone. What a pointless exercise. If anything, it left me feeling more bereft.
But I’d felt this desperate need to say something - anything - because it felt like it was so much more important to me, that no-one tweeting or being interviewed on TV even loved him as much as I did, felt as much as I did, and soon the desire to be heard became so intense I gave in and spouted some nonsense to draw attention to myself.
So I’m guilty of it too. I don’t want this to sound all high and mighty. But that tweet and every subsequent post I’ve written on the subject that tried to put into words what I felt has failed, because what I felt (feel) is too great to put into words.
So what makes me suspicious of people’s motivations is when they can - hours after their idol has died - sum them up in a few words. I can’t sum Michael up seven years later. I certainly can’t explain why I love him so. Why do you love your mother? Why do you love your best friend? Being instantly able to pinpoint what it was about a person that moved you just smacks me of a desperation to be heard. Look at me! Look what they meant to me! Look how sophisticated and subtle a consumer of music I am! But music is not about words - it’s about feeling, about how it makes you feel, not thought and analysis.
I fucking love Prince. Do I love him cos he’s a great guitarist? No. Do I love him because he’s multi-talented? No. Do I love him because he broke the gender rules and made sex seem mutually fun? No. Do I love him because he gave back to his community, or because he was prolific and a visionary and "pushed the boundaries", or any of the other stuff people have been spouting in the last 24 hours? No.
All of those things are true and admirable, but they’re not why I love him.
I love him because his music makes me strut up and down the street (/slash my bedroom) like I’m king of the world. I love him for 'I Would Die 4 U' and the desperate, pleading desire that radiates off it in waves. I love him cos he’s fucking funny (even if he did compare my beloved Michael to Helen Keller). I love that he’s five foot two and still incredibly sexy; when he speaks at the end of 'If I Was Ur Girlfriend' I feel like he’s speaking directly to me. I do some of my best air guitar work to the first 55 seconds of the 12” extended mix of 'Raspberry Beret' - he actually makes me feel like I’m a guitar-playing superstar hero when I listen to that. I was bloody miles away from him in the O2 in 07 (ooh, get me) but I still swayed and hollered like a madman when he started playing 7. When he sings, “Kat - we need you to rap!” in 'Alphabet Street', I fully imagine he’s asking me to step in (and I do - on the bus, in front of my computer, anywhere - I know every word and my shoulders jiggle like you wouldn’t believe). And I actually still *blush* when I listen to 'Gett Off' - on my headphones, when no-one else can hear. (It’s not even the lyrics, the sound of that bass is enough to do it - how the hell does he make even that sound rude??)
I love him for how he made me feel. I love him despite him not knowing me from Adam.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps all these comments are just what I felt in 2009. The hurt then was so much I had to say something - anything. When I heard the news yesterday it felt so enormous I wanted to grab total strangers and tell them. But then those comments are followed by rafts of videos, and clips, and gifs, all accompanied by words carefully crafted to sound as if this isn’t the first time the person in question has seen them.
- "Reminded of how great the guitar work on this is" ("reminded")
- "One of the greatest Superbowl half-time performances of all time" (because you've watched them all and decided) (and anyway, it wasn't - Michael's was)
- "Er, yah, I got to see him in an intimate gig at Koko last year. #legend"
Get out of here. In the torrent of bollocks written about Michael Jackson in the days after his death, it was my friends who’d camped outside his hotel and queued all night with me to be first in line when the stadium gates opened who were notably silent. (Not to mention his actual family and true friends - but I'm not comparing their feelings here, just ours.)
So this isn’t a denial that you’re feeling something. You are. Prince was amazing. He was so great, a small part of us impervious to reason and vulnerable to the mockery of our peers thought maybe - just maybe - he'd cracked it, and he wouldn’t die, just like Michael or Whitney or David wouldn't.
Just be honest about it. You’re feeling something, a tiny feeling among all the other billions of people feeling something. Stop trying to make your voice heard by putting what he “meant” into words, as if he meant one thing to all of us, and you’re some genius for working out what it is, or what he meant to you is somehow better than what he meant to everyone else, or trying to explain why you’re so upset. Just be upset. It’s fine.
And if you must say something, how about trying instead to voice how he made you feel? If he really meant something to you, you might find you can’t.
Yup. Twenty years today. Twenty years since Jarvis Cocker got up on stage at the BRITs and waved his arse at Michael Jackson.
Ha ha ha, right? Hashtag legend. Hashtag LOL. Hashtag-
Nope. I’m still pissed off.
First up let me assure you I hesitated before posting this; I know it'll make me sound insane. Examples:
- I got teary on holiday a few years ago during an argument with a friend when I tried to defend my position. (I couldn’t.)
- I had a 90s theme party for my 30th birthday and almost threw my own little brother out because he came dressed as the Pulp frontman. (Invitations clearly said NO INDIE as the music code.)
- I have two Pulp songs on my iPod - 'Do You Remember the First Time?' and 'Babies', both undeniably great songs - and I feel a little pang of annoyance every time I hear them, while 'Common People’ sends me into a full-on rage (the utter, utter smugness of it! the snideness! A song trashing a girl he nevertheless fancies - ugh, fuck you Jarvis).
Let me explain:
Okay no, there’s no explanation. No non-crazy one anyway. Just hear me out, 'k?
Here’s my ticket from that night.
At the time it happened, my argument went something like this: ohmygodhowCOULDhepoormichaelhe’sdonenothingabsolutelynothingtodeservethis
...because I was 16 and an MJ FAN OF SOME STANDING and I had gone to the BRITs to watch Michael on stage, for the first time in London in four years.
My argument didn’t have the impact I’d hoped it would. Mainly because my audience, aka the 32 16-year-olds who made up 11CH who were at this moment clambering over each other and trying to fart on each other’s laps during morning registration, believed something more along the lines of:
“yaaarrggh, what a wanker.”
A wanker. Michael. But-bu-buh-buh-
All I can tell you is it felt like being bullied. Me/Michael - I was so much of a fan by then I could no longer tell. Michael had long been the butt of jokes, and had recently been the subject of a *police investigation*, which meant as a fan I spent most of the 90s burning with an anger that Michael - and, by extension, me - was being victimised.
For the most part I grew out of that fan way of thinking. Got some perspective, a mortgage, a life. I still don’t believe the really bad stuff (let’s not get into why - I’ll leave that for another blog post), but I learned to see the faults in my childhood hero, just as I got older and discovered my own.
I am now so grown-up I am willing to concede that Michael might - might - have had some work done.
But the name Jarvis Cocker or the sound of Pulp’s music never fails to make my blood boil.
Come on, Kat. Lighten up. One man waving his bum at another man is funny.
*stony Kat face*
This is insane, I know. I know! I can no longer tell if my dislike of Pulp is a genuine aesthetic response (...unlikely) or tied up with what Jarvis did (yep, that sounds more like it), or simply bound up with the frustration I felt at the tiresome, ironic and self-conscious Britpop that dominated the 1990s, the predominant tone of which appeared to be scorn, scorn at girls who pretended to be something they weren’t, scorn at small-town life, scorn at boys who like girls and girls who like boys - all sung by lead singers who cultivated a kind of bored air of contempt, though they deigned to answer the questions posed by Smash Hits nonetheless.
Don't get me wrong; Michael was nuts. I think a part of him *did* think he was Jesus (a tiny tiny part, deep down - and hey, there’s a tiny part of me that thinks so too, so fuck you), and in later years he was plagued by a damaging obsession not just to be, but to be acknowledged The Greatest of All Time. His behaviour got weirder and weirder, he got less and less apologetic, and speculation about his private life overshadowed his music as a result.
But, for all his faults, - and here’s why I love him - he never had a moment of scorn in his life.
His music contained fear, confusion, paranoia, hope, joy in abundance. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but it didn’t just sneer at social mores and class. All that stuff felt so small-minded, so fucking stiflingly British.
That’s what a lot of people prided themselves on - these were the Brit Awards, after all, one in the eye for an American superstar.
Except Michael wasn’t from America, he was from outer space. His talent at least was out of this world. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe some people seem touched by something godlike - genius, whatever you want to call it - and what’s more I believe acknowledging that and adoring someone - whomever it may be - can be a positive, life-affirming act.
Call me an idiot, why don’t you.
'Earth Song' is not my favourite. The performance of it that night was really corny (always the penultimate song he performed on tour, we spent the time it was on working out how best to make our exit). BUT I admire its chutzpah. I admire its grandiosity, its ambition. I believe it came from a genuine feeling Michael had (about - yes - elephants), and I believe, if you listen to it, and stop feeling so bloody self-conscious, stop sniggering, FFS, you might feel it too.
And that’s what Jarvis is to me: sniggering. Sticking your bum out at someone.
For me he’s forever the boys in 11CH, who liked Ocean Colour Scene and Oasis and that one song from ChumbaWumba, and crashed into you at the bar jumping up and down and gripping each other’s shoulders and jeering to the sound of the Year 2000, and laughed at anyone who didn’t wear kappa shirts and record bags and their hair in curtains. He’s people who believe music is about clever lyrics, not sound and passion. He’s bants.
I realise a lot of Pulp fans might be surprised to hear this, as to them he represents a sort of alternative to that culture - a sort of nerdy awkward outsider who shopped at C&A instead of buying Ben Sherman shirts. Maybe that’s where my anger comes from. Having been on the outside, and finally finding success, he took it out on an easy target like Michael Jackson. Michael was under fire for so much of what he did or didn’t do back then, and getting clobbered for everything. He was an easy target. A showbiz Whack-a-Mole.
So yeah, my argument is still basically still ohmygodhowCOULDhepoormichaelhe’sdonenothingabsolutelynothingtodeservethis
I can’t defend it much. There’s no reasoning behind it. It’s just how I feel. It’s a massive failure in my sense of humour: a man showed his bum to another man at a highly inappropriate moment? In all other circumstances, that is 100% funny. It should be funny. I should find that funny. But I don’t.
Laughter, bants - there is a line where it moves from being good-natured to being simply hurtful, and the victim and aggressor usually disagree where it lies.
And the grown up, non-crazy part of me can see Michael deserved it, or course he did. But puncturing other people’s bubbles can get so tiring. It really can. There’s a lot of joy to be had in inflating them.
He announced he was the King (sneer!), when white people had been very clear that it was Elvis, so he married his daughter (boo!). He sent a statue of himself on a barge down the Thames (cue contempt!). He got given the Artist of the Millennium Award, because he was an egomaniac of outrageous proportions, and not because it in any way benefitted the BPI to have him perform during their award show. And on stage at the Brits he portrayed himself, solemnly, and with much pomp, as someone who had the power to heal people.
Was he manic? Delusional? It's possible. Did he sincerely believe it? Maybe, though I doubt it. Did he deserve laughter? Perhaps. Did he deserve to be mocked? I dunno. Mockery might seem an appropriate response, but it's unedifying how much glee on the part of the person doing the mocking it involves.
And then there’s the possibility that it was Jarvis, not Michael, who took the whole thing too seriously.
When asked by US journalist Diane Sawyer about a video promo he’d made of him walking past cheering crowds that was being compared to Nazi propaganda, here’s what he had to say:
Diane Sawyer: The critics have said that it's the most "boldly vainglorious, self-deification a pop singer ever undertook with a straight face”. **Michael Jackson: Good! That's what I wanted.DS: For the controversy?MJ: Yeah!DS: And they...MJ: They fell into my trap. I wanted everybody's attention.
The engine of my interest (some might call it an obsession) in Michael Jackson remains the same as it was when I was 12: Is he for real? Or is it all an act?
There’s evidence on both sides: IMO he was a bona fide god-sprung genius, but he was egotistical, vain and manipulative too, with a fondness for sentimental lyrics and key changes. Friends say he was a sweetheart, but it’s clear he could also be a bit of a bastard. His music could be joyful masterful pop, but it could be dark, over-produced and difficult too. Sometimes he performed Earth Song, but we forgave him because then he performed Dangerous or an 11-minute extended version of Billie Jean with a mime act and dance breakdown.
That level of artistry is difficult to achieve when your image is ‘authenticity’ and your most potent act is to tear other people down.
So yeah, I’m still angry.
Jarvis was just part of the mob that took Michael at face value. Who didn’t see him as an entertainer, but a weirdo, a deranged fool. Who felt pride in puncturing pomposity, without acknowledging the joy they took in it too.
I still switch the radio off when his show comes on (a show called Sunday Service - OH, SPARE me the IRONY). And yeah - MAYBE I cover his book up when I see it in Waterstones. I'm sad I live in a world where there’s no Michael Jackson, and Jarvis Cocker does voiceovers for Sainsbury's.
And I’m not sorry.
** “straight face” - LOL
I’ve just finished Michael Jackson's Dangerous by Susan Fast. It’s a slim volume, the latest in the 33 1/3 series of music critics’ favourite albums, and dedicated to Dangerous, the album Michael Jackson released in 1991 and considered by some to be, as the first album he produced without Quincy Jones, the first of his decline. It’s my favourite. Ahaaaa. Typical fan move. Not Off the Wall or Thriller for me.
It wasn’t the first I heard; being born in 1980 meant my eyes and ears came of age in about 1988, when Bad was riding high. Everyone had that on tape, every dance class I went to played it, and every school disco too. But Dangerous is when I became a fan, so it has a special place in my heart for that reason. It was the first album I played back to back (literally - flipping it in the tape machine every half an hour), the first one I pored over the lyrics (so hard to understand, on some songs his vocals were so clipped and fast I still have no idea what he’s singing), the first I bought on CD.
Susan Fast reassesses the album, calling it (rightly, in my opinion) his coming of age album, one in which the former child star deals with race, politics and sex head-on for the first time, and noting the outrage and bitter reviews it attracted as a result, which, less than two years after its release, culminated in the first allegations of child sex abuse.
The book opens with the suggestion that by positing some “dangerous” views, Michael set himself up for being considered literally dangerous, and a danger to children first and foremost. The ensuing argument is one rooted firmly in race and gender politics, identifying the long-held taboos surrounding race, sex and gender he broke with his image, and attributing to his music a sense of ill ease that his newly minted moniker of "king of pop" did not cover.
All fascinating stuff.
What doesn’t sit so well is just how eloquently he expressed these things. I found myself flinching when she wrote with a straight face that in Jam, the album's opening track, Michael offers “a pithy but trenchant critique of neoliberalism as it emerged in the 1980s” or compares his work with Baudrillard and the classicist Winckelmann. Not because I don’t believe it does or that it should be - Fast is right to point out how critics continue to underestimate him as an artist - but because for me the heart of Michael's artistry is something that will always frustrate academic investigation and its desire to name and classify experience, and that is his lack of interest in eloquence.
That seems an odd thing to say for someone who writes and teaches English for a living.
Sure enough, in an onslaught of wilful misinterpretation, Michael's ineloquence could be extremely frustrating. He was not prone to talk about anything he did, let alone the intentions behind his music. He barely spoke, and when he did, what he said was either stupidly oversimplified ("I love you all"), an obvious lie (“I’ve only had two nose jobs”) or just a kludge that could and would be misinterpreted (his insistence it was “pure” and “loving” to share your bed with a child was the worst of these attempts - godammit, Michael).
His lyrics, unlike his one-time nemesis Jarvis Cocker’s, will never be published independently as a volume of poetry. (He did, in fact, publish a book of poetry and photographs in 1992; it’s called Dancing the Dream, and remains really the only testament to his artistic ambition, more so than his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk). But his lyrics are confused and muddled, deliberately so perhaps, and bent and distorted to fit the music. Often what’s printed in the album notes bears little resemblance to the sounds he is singing. Sometimes, you realise, he is not even singing words at all. Ask someone to impersonate Michael Jackson and they’ll invariably throw out an “ow!” or a “hee hee” before they sing a line of his songs.
These vocal tics are more than just habit, however; they are percussive, smacking up against the underlying rhythm in a burst of energy that is difficult to ignore. More often than not, they also represent an impatience with words and a subsequent decline in thought. We can't see him, but we feel somehow he's gone back to dancing, jerking his limbs and shuffling his feet (sometimes, as Fast points out when discussing the title track Dangerous, we can hear it too).
Consider the following lyrics, two thirds of the way into Leave Me Alone, track 11 of the Bad album, and one of his most underrated songs:
Don’t come beggin’ me / don’t come beggin’ / don’t come lovin’ me / don’t come beggin’ / I love you
- that last line soars briefly on the word “love” -
I don’t want it / I don’t / I don’t / I don’t... / I / I / I / Aaow! / Hee Hee!
Now to anyone simply dancing to this (and the groove in this song is almost unbearable), the ow! and hee hee! are as good spot as any to break out their best MJ moves. But to anyone listening carefully, his conviction breaks down into a stutter, that he breaks out of with an “Aow!”. The single tenet of this song - leave me alone, repeated in a layered harmonised refrain - is severely undermined. Does he want us to leave him alone? Does he love us? Or not?
“Ow!” is the sound of frustration, at the impossibility of ever expressing anything fully with words. There is more feeling in that one sound than a hundred of his lyrics. Sometimes his emotions meant he would crumple up words like paper. He returns again and again to the same adlibbed nonsense words - doggone, doggone lover, doggone brother, doggone this, doggone that - and is hemmed in, until all he can do is break out of it with a grunt or a shout.
Whether you listen to the lyrics or not, the confusion is clear.
Again and again the feelings he is experiencing cannot be expressed with words. Sometimes the music speaks for him, but they are most clear in his performances, where, taking his cue from James Brown, he sweats and breaks and dances until he falls to the ground and has to be lifted to his feet, or from images of Christ, when he lifts his arms to the side, face held aloft and closes his eyes. In those moments, we, watching him, left on our own in the cold stands of the stadium, or in the warmth of our sitting rooms, understand he is transported.
And that’s the core of his appeal. He was otherworldly. He had easy and direct access to whatever power generated the world. He was “touched by god”. As a child he was a prodigy, able to conjure up emotions way beyond his years, and as an adult he used tricks of gospel ministers and the chitlin’ circuit (not to mention the plastic surgeon’s knife) to develop that into a performance like no other, that made it believable that he might grow wings, or turn into a spaceship.
Watch this stonking 13-minute performance of Man in the Mirror from the Dangerous tour if you don’t believe me. I saw it live at Wembley, aged 12. It remains the only religious experience of my life (unless you count Oreo cookies and cream cheesecake).
First key change is at 03:19, after a pretty standard rendition of the song.
At about 04:55 Michael’s microphone switches on (he’s been lipsynching until then).
At 05:17 everything changes. The song is over, though the backing singers will continue to sing the refrain "make that change!" for another 8 minutes. Michael stretches out on his back on the floor, exhausted (this is the last song in a two-hour concert). When he gets up something is different. “I love you,” is all he can say.
He manages to name the members of the band, and then - then - the ad libs start at 07:58. Shouted, full of passion - but total, unexpurgated nonsense. At one point I think he sings “right nuh your daddy brutha”.
At 08:37, he sings “woo!” 17 times, the final one a croak, then SPINS EIGHT TIMES and falls to his knees, then, slowly, from his knees onto his front.
At 09:50 he starts climbing and grinding against the scaffolding.
10:30 onwards is good for watching someone having an out-of-body experience while simultaneously getting into a space suit.
By the end he straps on a jet pack, there is a countdown and he FLIES OVER THE CROWD’S HEADS and OUT OF THE STADIUM.
It's extraordinary. By the end of that performance, 12 years old, wearing a tie-blouse and denim shorts, standing in my seat in the back upper stalls, about as far away from Michael as it was physically able to be in that stadium, I burst into tears, causing the glitter on my face to course down my cheeks, simultaneously convinced that we could change the world and that Michael was never, ever, ever coming back.
Too bad Jarvis didn’t see it.
But how? Why? What? "Consciousness expresses itself through creation," Michael explains in a maddeningly simplistic, overwritten line in Dancing the Dream. In those moments when he dances, he goes on to write, he feels "my spirit soar" and becomes "one with everything that exists”. I’m not arguing this is good poetry. I think I tried to, once, in Cambridge - but thankfully for everyone involved in that seminar we ran out of time before we got to 'Children of the World'.
What I'm saying is eloquence was never his strong point; he doesn’t express with words what he is feeling well enough for anyone else to feel it. But the sentiment also doesn't strike me as false. I believe he felt it nonetheless. What makes me sad is that nowadays, I don’t.
I don’t doubt issues of politics and race and sex were important to him personally - since his death much has been uncovered about his attitude to his black heritage, for instance - but in his art, in his music, they came out deliberately muddied. On the one hand there is the notorious black panther dance; on the other, after the outrage it provoked among parents, there is his immediate retraction.
He wasn’t sure what to think.
As a result his lyrics are almost always contradictory, from the insistence that no-one can “take his blues away” that jars with the lush, light-footed melody of the first song he ever penned, to the final admission in Billie Jean that admits the “kid” who is “not his son”, actually does have “eyes just like mine”. Backed into a corner as he often was in interviews, he became impossible: sometimes lying, sometimes behaving like a child, or telling different versions of the same story.
More than being unsure what to think, however, he wasn't even interested in thinking, not in his music and dance anyway (outside of it, by all accounts, he was surprisingly well read and intelligent). "Thinking is the worst thing you can do when you dance," he told Martin Bashir. But, as anyone who saw him live or has felt the urge to leap to their feet at the sound of one of his songs knows, he sure knew how to feel.
The tracks on Dangerous takes this confusion and contradiction to another level, taking it as their theme and guiding light. I’ve always felt a religious and spiritual crisis was at the heart of these songs (Michael started recording this album having recently left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and been on a world tour, calling at countries he’d never played before). His commitment to innocence becomes stronger in this period too, it’s when he bought Neverland, and wrote the mindlessly saccharine Heal the World, which sits in the middle of the album, surrounded by songs about confusion and betrayal and secrecy.
As a kid I would fast forward through Heal the World to Black or White, the album’s biggest selling single, fearing the sound of even the first few notes might contaminate me with its sickly sweetness. Now, as an adult, I’ve grown to like the song, those simplistic lyrics and its vision of paradise on earth, because simplistic is all he could do. It’s the only way he could express what he felt when he danced, which is a oneness with everything and everybody. I felt it too, once.
But mostly I felt its absence, and that is what Dangerous is to me: an album full of fear and paranoia and confusion in the absence of love, or god, or oneness, or whichever other embarrassingly futile word we can bring to that feeling. It is the sound of a man who has lost faith. Someone who hears music in the sound of a car door slamming. It is Dover Beach. It’s Lear ranting at the storm. It's, it's - (Hang on a minute, what is it about Dover...?)
When Michael found it he was, to use his favourite word, magic. Rather embarrassingly, he cited Heal the World and Childhood, not Billie Jean or Don’t Stop or They Don’t Care About Us, as his favourites of the songs he’d penned. When asked who his favourite musician was, he replied Tchaichovsky. Songs like Smile or Yesterday or Climb Ev’ry Mountain were the ones he aspired to write.
Mostly however, especially in the final 10 or 15 years of his life, he was left searching for it - it, love, god, whatever - and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that search produced some of his best work.
Susan Fast throws up fascinating insights into the music of Dangerous, the latest in a long overdue reappraisal of Michael’s work and methods that has included analysis by Joseph Vogel and John Jeremiah Sullivan. But while Fast should be applauded for attempting to unpick some of what he’s trying to say, she should also be wary of relying on what he actually says; in doing so she straightens it out too much, using clear-headed academic interpretation to ascribe meaning and expression where there is only confusion, and giving credence to crotch grabs and yelps.
Of course writing about music is like “dancing about architecture”, but in Michael’s case the attempt is more futile than most.
Reading Fast's book, however, it started to become clear to me why Michael was so unwilling to explain his work and, eventually, his behaviour. He couldn’t. His art was wordless - in the limitless sounds of his voice and the charged gestures of his body.
Contemporary critics made much of what they saw as Michael's appropriation of current trends in music on Dangerous, but the album is as riddled with classical music as it is with hip hop and heavy metal guitars. Two whole minutes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony opens Will You Be There (cue that fast forward button again). And the Dangerous tour opened with footage of screaming fans over Carl Orff's Carmina Burana a full 15 years before X Factor nicked the idea.
Dangerous has been called a concept album. Well, if it is, the concept is contradiction: frustration and desire, despair and hope, even rage and peace; literally, in the case of some of his ad libs and strained vocals, the opposite of diction.
He can't maintain one emotion for long; even in Remember the Time, the album's best cut IMO, a straightforward mid-tempo R&B paean to a long-ago love that slowly gives way to frenzied ad libs about betrayal. He is either incapable of or uninterested in the more manageable and mundane emotions that great pop lyricists express, like the loss of love, or communion through sex and intimacy. The transcendence he is seeking cannot be put into words.
It makes him a bit of a dick sometimes too.
But if we simply listen and watch, suspending disbelief, reserving judgement, dispensing with words, keeping our bums to ourselves (I'm looking at you, Jarvis) (AND YOU, KIM), we might begin to understand some of what he was feeling.
And if we're really lucky, we might feel it too.
Shit. I mean, five. I was going to write about MJ as I have done on 25 June for the past three years and then I read my friend Leila's excellent post about how it's wrong to have heroes and, as usual, she is right - so I felt pretty silly starting to write a morbid post here about MY hero.
There isn't much to say, either. Better writers than me have done it already, like this by Tanner Colby. Loads of articles pop up every year on this day, covering stuff from MJ sightings to moonwalk tributes, and, of course, Uri fucking Geller still needs to eat.
I don't think Leila had pop heroes in mind when she was writing, and I am misrepresenting her blog post massively by including it here, but it got me thinking about what we mean by "hero". Also, remember when we used to blog about each other's blog posts? Those were the days.
So yeah, "hero". The idea that some people are better than others is pretty hardwired it seems. It's hard to shake. Really hard. But it doesn't have to be fixed. People fall off their pedestals all the time - in fact, I'd say we were more inclined towards the inevitable fall in the narrative of a hero, than their veneration. Lots of people have pointed out how we like to set 'em up, then knock 'em down. That's not a very pleasant habit, but it also shows how the act of hero worship is not a fixed relationship, but a constant reappraisal of ourselves in relation to others.
Sometimes we find we fall short, and sometimes - aha! - we are much better than they are. We can look down on them and say we would never have done anything like that. Sometimes what they say chimes exactly with something we have felt. Sometimes it makes us see the error of our ways. Sometimes they wear something we would NEVER be seen DEAD in. Sometimes we invest ourselves really really heavily in them and then someone else says they're a pedophile and we're like all, shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. And we spend ages researching the facts and worrying about it and putting 2 + 2 together and getting 4, 5, 108 until finally we look up and oh - no-one else cares.
What I'm saying is, having a hero should be a full-time business. It's not a kneejerk reaction. It's important who you choose, too - don't just go with the crowd. Assess, reassess, reassess.
Put the time in, because heroes are important. Unlike Leila, I think the need for them is everywhere, however much people want to deny it. How we treat those we venerate, I firmly believe, has an impact on how we treat those we love. If you treat people - even celebrities - as jokes, it might creep into how you treat the real people around you, and then finally the people closest to you. It's the only way I can understand how a journalist might justify hacking into a dead girl's mobile phone, for instance: he's done it loads of times before, but then - then - it was just some twat like Hugh Grant* or Prince Philip, then, so who cares.
Or Michael Jackson. Oh, I'm sorry Leila and all the other sensible people of the world, but I care! I care! This Is It was on last weekend and I cried, again, loads, unendingly, as if it was the saddest story ever told. Even sadder because we know now that film is mostly a lie.
What a prick, right? Typical fan. Tragic, really.
I'm not a very nice person most of the time. I regularly imagine murdering my fellow commuters. I can be wildly jealous of my friends. I think terrible thoughts about people who are only trying to help. But with Michael I get to care and venerate and ask for acceptance. I give him the benefit of the doubt, always, just as I should every person in my life, even that dick who swerved his bag into me on the Victoria Line this morning.
Being the sort of shitty person that I am, I could only be like that with someone who's dead or far away or non-existent.
Heroes. We should work at them, and make them work for our approbation.
I wrote approbation there but I meant love.
I just didn't want to say it because you'd think I was even crazier than I am.
* I actually quite like Hugh Grant. Prince Philip should probably do one but he's old, and I feel bad.
Many of my fellow MJ fans aren’t happy there’s a new album out. I won’t go into all the conspiracy theories and reasons why - they're too tiresome - but the new songs leave me feeling uncomfortable too. Not because Michael himself didn’t want them to be heard (I’ve always been frustrated with him for not releasing more music over the years), but because it feels part of a rebranding exercise that people (myself included) have wanted to enact since even before he died. I’ll try to explain.
First off, the zeitgeisty aim of Xscape is clear. Its cover art invokes last year’s Random Access Memories (which itself deliberately invoked Thriller). The lead single is a breezy soul classic of the kind those French robot guys have been trying to bring back to life, and that’s fine. It’s a good song. An advert for a jeep shows people listening to it with the wind in their hair.
"All right," Michael says at the end of the take, kept in the single for authenticity's sake. "That's fine."
The trouble is the idea that Michael Jackson was a breezy soul star is just not accurate.
It’s an idea that’s existed since the 90s, when indie took a stranglehold and MJ was deemed 'past his best’ by people who didn't listen to his music. IMO there's no better indication that someone has barely listened to his back catalogue than the assertion “Off the Wall was his best album”.
Michael Jackson fans are (in)famously hardcore, but we’re not hardcore because of songs like Love Never Felt So Good, or albums like Off the Wall. We'll defend him to our deaths because he meant something important to us. Michael Jackson was a misfit as misfitting as they come. He didn't stick to any of the categories he was supposed to: he was male but gentle, he was enormously gifted but troubled, he was black but not happy with being forever classed 'soul' and 'R&B'. He expressed a frustration with being boxed-in that resonated with a lot of misfits around the world, regardless of colour, sex, whatever.
Off the Wall is obviously a great album, but in many ways, despite the three stonkers Michael wrote and his joyful, almost zany, vocals, it's a Quincy Jones album. It doesn’t represent Michael Jackson as an artist, beyond representing a line in the sand between him working with his brothers and going his own way. The thread of angst-ridden music that began in his late teens in the mid-1970s is there in songs like Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Workin' Day and Night and She’s Out of My Life, but otherwise the songs swirl and rise to crescendoes with a joy and abandonment that didn’t come naturally to Michael.
Exhibit 1: Blues Away, the first song he penned at age 18, might sound breezy on first listen, but listen to the lyrics. His early disco songs like Shake Your Body nestle up against dark songs like That's What You Get For Being Polite (about a character called ‘Jack’ who’s frightened to take the first step in independence - I wonder if any of Jackie, Randy, Marlon or Tito took note), or This Place Hotel (just - WHOA), songs that found their apotheosis a few short years later in Billie Jean.
(Side note for OTW fans: seriously, check out Destiny and Triumph, the two albums he ostensibly made "with his brothers" either side of OTW's 1979 release, though one gets the impression they’re the albums Michael saw as his opportunity to cut his writing and production teeth on...)
By the time he came to Thriller he was recording demos that were ready to release: Quincy did little to Billie Jean except add some orchestration. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' was similarly advanced at demo stage, and is a masterpiece of paranoia, delusion and joy, all mixed together. The final version is catharsis in a pop song. Put it on right now. You’ll need a lie-down in seven minutes.
Leave Me Alone is, for me, the track that resonates the longest on 1987’s Bad album - an example of the kind of itchy groove Michael excelled at, one that exposed the song’s smooth melody for what it was. But by then, Michael and Quincy’s relationship was going in two different directions: some might argue Michael went in the direction that was detrimental, but I would say, at the height of his powers, he followed his, erm, nose and did what he wanted to do musically, to grow as an artist.
Via songs like Smooth Criminal (a song Quincy reportedly hated), Do You Know Where Your Children Are? (on the latest release, but recorded in 1989) and Abortion Papers (yup - a pro-life song that gets you up on your feet despite the lyrics), we end up at 1991’s Dangerous, a 14-track, 74-minute, CD-busting concept album released a couple of months after Nirvana’s Nevermind that fuses New Jack Swing with gospel and rock, managing to incorporate a lament for a 14-year-old boy (you heard) and a paean to world peace (you betcha) with grunts and groans and car-engine beats, and a sprinkling of hits that just about keep your pecker up (Black or White, Remember the Time, Who Is It).
HIStory (1995) was the first album that had more dross than good stuff - but the good stuff was solid gold. TDCAU, Stranger in Moscow are miracles in lean, sparse sonics. (Aside: he was in Moscow when news of the child sex abuse allegations first surfaced.)
Even Blood on the Dancefloor, a remix album with a few ‘new’ songs chucked in for good measure to keep us European fans interested while the HIStory tour ground its way round the continent, had a couple of songs that might be a hard listen, but are so individually weird and perplexing they’re worth it just to see the development of Michael's artistry. Throughout his career he worked hard to express something sonically that had never been heard, and a result he sometimes has more in common with sound artists than pop: Morphine, in particular, is surprisingly revealing and personal, sung in alternating bursts of anger and bliss, from the point-of-view of one of the drugs that would eventually go some way to killing him.
I'll say that again: from the point-of-view of one of the drugs that would kill him.
So when critics say he followed pop trends, I can't understand it. Have they listened to Dangerous? Have they heard Stranger in Moscow, TDCAU, Morphine, We've Had Enough? They might not like the later songs (Michael went strangely gothic in his later years, abandoning pop for an industrial version of R&B, with an angrier, overcrowded sound), but they can’t dismiss any of them as “following the crowd”.
The missteps came when he packed in too many sounds IN when others were anticipating the poor sound quality of mp3s and taking them OUT. Or when he relied too much on hot producers with a sound of their own, or tried to recapture old phrases and licks: those layered choruses that were so much his hallmark in the 80s sounded tired by the late 90s. But every one of the late albums hid gems like Unbreakable on 2001's underrated Invincible, which fans like me would listen to over and over again, and seemed to capture that directionless paranoiac anger and frustration that started way back in the 70s.
(And that's not even mentioning Butterflies on the same album, one of the best vocals he ever recorded, possibly one of the best songs he ever recorded, in which his voice escalates higher and higher at the thought of just touching a woman).
Which goes some way to explain why I’m not too keen on this 80s soul star rebrand. Despite what he sings in Off The Wall’s title track, Michael was never about throwing your cares away. He was about nursing them, shouting and shrieking and dancing them out.
As great as tracks like Rock With You or Love Never Felt So Good are, they do not tap into his essence or who he was as an artist. Love is never straightforward in his world - it’s thwarted, denied, or long gone. His vocals were as full of tics as they soared. Sometimes listening to his songs is like listening to someone with Tourette’s; he couldn’t even commit to the simple phrase “come on” without it morphing into “shamone”. And dancing is not easy - it’s jerky, individual, tense - though he carries it off with a slickness and lack of self-consciousness the impersonators can’t manage. Somehow I can’t imagine him just getting up and cutting a rug at a wedding, can you? Doing the running man? Nope.
I spent years wanting him to go back to his OTW days, where he danced and sang with abandonment, just as fans in that difficult mid-1970s period longed for Little Michael again; I wished he’d sung those Pharrell songs instead of Justin; I wished he’d cut his hair and looked more normal; I wished he’d released the hundreds of songs he worked on for each album and been as prolific as Prince; I wished he’d found happiness or love or peace. So part of me is ecstatic there’s an album worth of music on its way out. Hearing these new songs is great - they’re easy, simple songs that sell Jeeps and mobile phones. They remind everyone why “he was the best”, as the brains behind the project LA Reid insists.
But something sticks. We didn’t love him because he was the best. We didn’t even love him because he was the “King of Pop". We loved him because he was troubled, and angry, and didn’t know why, when there was so much to love in the world. He was neither morose nor ecstatic; he was both, sometimes at the same time. I dare say he gave voice to feelings a lot of us had growing up, not in his lyrics, but in those grunts and shrieks and sudden bursts of song.
I’ll be buying the new album, mostly on account of the tracks Chicago (recorded 1999) and Do You Know Where Your Children Are? (1989), which are about adultery and child sexual abuse respectively. Not the remixed versions, but Michael's original demos. BOTH of them make you want to dance - albeit weirdly, with funny jerky limb movements, at your desk, by yourself.
Ahh, he was the best. My eyes fill up thinking about him still.
Shamone, Michael, shamone.
PS If you're not convinced, or you don't know much of MJ's music beyond the triumvirate of Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, I've linked to all the songs you should listen to.
Interesting blog post by Charles Thomson. I would go further and say at some point in the mid-90s the narrative around Michael Jackson changed, and he could do no right. People who had never listened to his later albums denounced them as flops. People who never read beyond the headlines called him a paedophile, and called me a crazy fan for thinking otherwise. It was this backdrop that fuelled the crazy fandom of those days, which in many ways was more zealous and committed than in his heyday. Who was responsible? I hesitate to call it "the media", as who are they really, and whose demand are they responding to but our own? Besides, it gets uncomfortably close to a conspiracy theory.
I think collectively we decided it was over, and initiated a bizarre ritual that required a few crazies (hello) to witness him until the very end. The kind of thing Charles describes happened on a daily basis when I was a fan, and eventually it wore me down and I gave up. I avoided any news about him, because despite knowing it would be 90% untrue, I also knew it would be compelling, grotesque and difficult to disbelieve. Belief is funny like that. It doesn't replace knowledge, just sits alongside it, and works on your greatest fear.
When it was all over and the pesky real person at the centre of it all was finally dead and buried, everyone could call themselves fans and play zombie dress-up. As Lady Gaga recently said, the world killed him.
So why did we do it? It would be simple to say it was the first allegations of child abuse, which surfaced in August 1993, but I suspect they were a symptom rather than the cause. Stories citing him as the "self-proclaimed" King of Pop had been circulating for a while, his over-the-top plastic surgeries were the focus of cruel and subsequently-proved to be fabricated photo close-ups. There was the odd behaviour, once so beloved, and the changing colour of his skin, which, frustratingly, he found difficult to address (possibly, as his autopsy confirmed, because it was due to a skin disease that is often debilitating to its sufferers). There was his supposed lack of musical success: 1991's Dangerous "only" sold 20 million. A radical departure from the Quincy Jones produced pop of his heyday, it is, in my opinion, his most interesting album artistically. Imagine what he might have produced if we'd let him.
But something more important was at work, and I believe it was the tragic trajectory that is at the heart of every narrative. Fly too close to the sun, and your wings will get burnt. Anyone with a success must suffer the backlash. The good die young, blah blah blah.
It's easy to blame his eccentricities, but they are what made him the most famous person on the planet. Eventually they set in motion a narrative that inspired fanaticism and ignominy in equal part, and eventually required an early death.
Okay, end nutcase missive. Back to the book. Can you tell I'm having trouble with chapter three?
A type like Michael Jackson, in love with himself. Sterling image to the public. Schizo finally. He talks to himself as he dresses. He becomes two persons within himself. Friends are aware of this –-- but the boy is a money-maker.
This is a character note by writer Patricia Highsmith, written in 1984 at the height of the Thriller madness. Observant and prophetic. To my knowledge she didn't write a character such as this, though the connection with Tom Ripley and the Gatsby-esque characters in her works is clear.
The American film producer Peter Gruber describes a lesson in drama he received from Michael Jackson: "Michael had proven he knew everything there was to know about pop music, but movies were a different animal. He wanted to produce as well as act. That meant telling stories. Could he do it?
I didn't even have to ask the question. "In both films and music,” Michael said, “you have to know where the drama is and how to present it.” He gave me a long, intense stare and abruptly stood up. “Let me show you.”
He led me upstairs to the hallway outside his bedroom, where we stopped in front of a huge glass terrarium. “This,” he said, “is Muscles.”
Inside, a massive snake was coiled around a tree branch. His head was tracking something in the opposite corner of the terrarium.
Michael pointed with his finger at the object of Muscles’ obsession. A little white mouse was trying to hide behind a pile of wood shavings.
I said hopefully, “Are they friends?”
“Do they look it?”
“No. The mouse is trembling.”
Michael said, “We have to feed Muscles live mice, otherwise he won’t eat. Dead ones don’t get his attention.”
“So why doesn’t he just go ahead and eat it?”
He said, “Because he enjoys the game. First he uses fear to get the mouse’s attention, then he waits, building tension. Finally, when the mouse is so terrified it can’t move, Muscles will close in.”
That snake had the attention of that mouse, and that mouse had the attention of that snake -- and Michael Jackson had my attention.
“That’s drama,” he said.
“It sure is!” I said. “This story has everything -- stakes, suspense, power, death, good and evil, innocence and danger. I can’t stand it. And I can’t stop watching.”
“Exactly,” he said. “What’s going to happen next? Even if you know what it is, you don’t know how or when.”
“Maybe the mouse will escape.”
Michael let out one of his high, strange laughs. “Maybe.”"
- Peter Gruber, extract from Tell to Win
I have a framed copy of this photo in my bathroom, the room where people display their certificates and graduation photos, those proud moments they want their guests to see. It's high up by the toilet in the corner. You could easily miss it. I sometimes wonder if the eyes of male guests notice it while they stand at the loo. I have it there because it shows people what Michael Jackson means to me, it says that I am a fan.
It's a picture taken by Annie Leibovitz, in a series of snaps for Vanity Fair that tried to capture his essence as he dances up a storm. In this one he stares impassively forward as he balances on his toes, his whole body still like he's doing nothing special. What is he thinking? How can he stay so still? Does he know his nipple is showing? It doesn't matter: it's a picture taken of him in October 1989 at, as the caption on my copy says, "the peak of his career".
Being a fan involves demonstrating your devotion to others. It requires you to identify as a fan. I'm not sure it works without that. Learning by rote the release date of every record so you can dazzle (dazzle) your friends, or saying proudly, "I love that guy". We all walk about with our preferences visible: "I love NY", "Liverpool FC forever", a tattoo of our childrens' names, the Guardian tucked under our arm.
Our allegiances say something about us. I think, looking back, standing outside his hotel all those days, chanting his name, saving up money to see him in concert so many times, said something to me about my tenacity, my loyalty, my depth of love. I was 17. How else was I going to find out if I had those qualities? I lived in Surrey in England. I had to do well at school if I was going to go to university. I was going to have to do something pretty drastic for something interesting to happen.
Besides, he needed me. Fans were part of Michael's image: they amassed wherever he went, screamed his name, and fainted at his concerts. He filmed this adulation and edited it into concert footage, fans pounding the window of his car, slamming against the front barrier of a stadium before a concert, crying and screaming and praying as he leaps on stage. When I ran after him, got my place in the front row or peered through the blacked-out window of his car, I was one of those fans, a star of one of his videos.
The fan imagery continued in videos for his latest singles, culminating in one promo taking a cue from that ultimate director of frenzied fanaticism, Leni Riefenstahl. He even built statues of himself (okay, so they were more styrofoam than granite), and sent them round the world ahead of his tour dates. He needed adulation. His fame was based on it.
As the world turned against him, us fans were desperate to show we were still there. The press could never understand how, after years of bad publicity and bear baiting, people still stood and waited of their own free will for a glimpse of a man who'd seen better days. In time we were accused of being mercenaries, that we were fake, part of a huge publicity machine, paid or somehow inveigled to stand at the spot he'd be at and shout his name.
Now that he is gone, the people behind Michael Jackson™ continue to wring every dollar they can out of his name, including the recent video to Michael's sketchy and remastered rendition of 'Behind the Mask', an Eric Clapton hit he helped write in the early 80s, in the creative glow between Off the Wall and Thriller.
Never mind that YouTube is already full to the brim with better fan tributes (and oh my god you wouldn't believe how many bad ones). They've jumped on the bandwagon, creating a montage of fanmade videos that have been edited and sanctioned by his hated music company, Sony:
Their social media strategy is in full swing too, asking fans to send in their pics of them with Michael (cue the sound of thousands of copies of photoshop opening), tweeting daily "facts", hosting anodyne forums and shutting down fan sites that abuse their copyright. Apparently 36,678,468 people "like" michaeljackson.com. Like? Like? .com?
I used to run down Mayfair streets looking for his car, memorising numberplates, shouting to friends who didn't own mobiles which way to go so we could cut him off and catch a glimpse of his wide-open eyes behind the famous black silk surgical mask. We brought traffic to a halt, grinning at the drivers raising fists at us, and strutting a little as we tumbled down Oxford Street in a gang, people staring and getting out of our way as we whooped and punched the air, each clutching the hand that had touched him like it was no longer part of us, tingling with pins and needles, a stranger's body part. Now @michaeljackson tweets me every afternoon at 10:00 Pacific time.
Untrue as they were, there was something to those claims of "fake" fandom. We wanted to be part of a bigger thing, a phenomenon, and our presence denoted a greater significance, Michael's indisputable significance. Witnessing him meant that somehow we were important. We stood there to demonstrate our dedication, to ourselves, to everyone, to Michael.
Michael. In the end I didn't stay with him. My dedication was found wanting, and my tenacity and loyalty and depth of love only went so far. He went under, bobbing to the surface from time to time until the final wave. Today is two years since he died.
Some things haven't changed: there is new music, new footage, and everyone who ever met him has a version of him to sell. Fan forums buzz with beliefs and interpretations, new angles on old stories, that old fervour now focussed on new conspiracy theories, creating new factions.
A few days after he died, a friend and I remarked on how unchanged some fans were, that their behaviour hadn’t changed at all. Of course, he had hardly sat in their front room and had tea with them when he was alive - he may as well have been dead, living so far away in Los Angeles - but he was no more. We sat in a bar in Soho thumbing the stems of large glasses of red wine, grieving for someone who for a long time had ceased to exist so vividly in our imagination, and now no longer existed at all.
As a fan I used to wonder idly what he was doing on this earth we shared, where he was, who he was with, what time it was in LA. 10, 9, 9am? I supposed he was eating breakfast. Since he died I found myself asking it again, exploring how I felt when I told myself nothing, nowhere, midnight. Four o'clock. Seven thirty.
Time moves on and that first, arguably most significant, relationship in my life is broken, one half of it swinging in the wind, being dragged onto a Final Cut Pro timeline, graded, normalised and deinterlaced by a Sony video editor.
I can't help thinking those scenes of adulation miss something. Our vocal dedication hid another side, a side that's hard to explain, and impossible to replicate with footage of innumerable screaming fans and endless moonwalks: a close, intense personal feeling for another human being. One that thought wearing a gold leotard and white socks was a good look, but a human being nonetheless.
It wasn't one-sided either. I was one fan in a crowd below his bedroom window, through which we'd glimpse the brim of his hat or the flash of his sunglasses, and out of which he'd throw messages of love and neediness.
He made us feel like we weren't just a publicity vehicle to him. Knowing we were there, he assured us, made him happy, less restless, more contented. He had people come down and film us. When I met him in 2002, his photographer took a picture.
We - I - understood him, and by loving him, spotting and defending his qualities in the face of such hostility, we - I - distinguished myself from everyone else who just saw a freak. I felt special. I was involved in something important, and it started with loving another person intensely. I did it all for him. We loved him, and he loved us back. More.
My photo of Michael at his peak never fails to spark discussion. The plumber asked about it, my friends roll their eyes, and dinner party guests come out of the loo looking confused. It's my thing, see. Weird, huh? Bet you had me pegged.
What I really want though, is a portrait of him taken in 1980.
Here's one. I don't know what it is about this period that seems to sum up so much for me about my love for Michael Jackson. It's a time in his life when he was at his most prolific, his most creative, poised for greatness; he said himself it was when he was at his happiest. It also happens to be the year I was born.
Looking at this I feel his potential, and a dark smudge of sadness, the knowledge of what is to come, his fate. "Show me a hero," Fitzgerald wrote, "and I will write you a tragedy." Well there it is, in that photo. My hero. A glimpse like this is all I need to conjure up all kinds of notions about him, just as I used to wonder what he was doing in his hotel room all those years ago.
I find it curious that thinking about him generates an interest in me and makes me sad in a way nothing else does, nothing real, anyway. It's like his story is a portal into other feelings, real emotions that emanate from real people and events in my life.
He is 21. By now he has sacked his manager, his father Joe. That's Tito behind him.
He's just picked up his first Grammy award - he's probably holding it in his hand right there, out of shot - for Off the Wall. The award was for R&B male vocal performance, and he feels snubbed; disappointed that his album wasn't deemed suitable for Record of the Year. He has vowed his next one will be the biggest selling record of all time (it was Thriller). Perhaps he is doing it now, as he looks at the camera.
His Afro has been clipped short and his hair is now covered with the oil that will set alight during the filming of a commercial in four years' time and leave him with third degree burns and a dependency on painkillers. His skin is a smooth chocolate. His face is wide and handsome, with winged eyebrows framing deep, soulful eyes that look warily with a vulnerable determination. Soon that will flip to a determined vulnerability. His childish charm has given way to extraordinary good looks, and he does not see it. He hates his face so much he washes it in the dark. He has had one nose job.
The spell lasts as long as I look at the picture. I know in reality he experienced a lot of happiness that year: he won many awards, filmed a Disneyland special, welcomed the birth of two nephews, and in the year after that he went on the Triumph tour and wore this hat:
That is an awesome hat.
Clearly I can create a picture of him that is compelling, beautiful, but not the whole story. Being able to tell a single story, knowing him for what he really was, was crucial to me as a fan. I needed to know my version of him was accurate. Troubling accusations that risked my version of who he was sent me into hysteria, a terrified, lip-wobbling fury. I know now other people have different views of him, what he was like, what he was capable of. I know also that my view of him isn't necessarily accurate. No-one's is. His wasn't.
Today there are TV specials and articles about this anniversary, and I am as thrilled as anyone when I see him dance, watch those crowds of fans, and remember what it felt like to be in the front row of Wembley, reaching for an enigma that spun and moonwalked to avoid my grasp.
One of the best descriptions of fandom I've ever read is actually a definition of “aura”, by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin: he calls it "the unique phenomenon of distance, however close an object may be".
That idea of distance and closeness rings true with me. In the last two years Michael has become an icon, revered and distant, his reality as a human being forgotten or pushed under the carpet.
I want to remember that other side of being a fan, that closeness I felt to someone who isn't here anymore. That's hard to admit; it's much easier to describe it as fanaticism, dedication, a religious fervour. But love?
It was never true that we were paid to be fans. None of that was fake. Perhaps we were deluded; but I'd argue those delusions felt as real to us as anything else in our lives. And that's all we can ever really say about each other, isn't it?
"…we have undernourished our capacity for empathetic and magical participation in creation, we are both alienated and stunted by abstraction, removed from the profound and immediate apprehension, which is the hallmark of a whole person, of the dancing interpenetration of the physical and the psychic, their ultimate inseparability."
- Ian McEwan, The Child in Time (Picador, 1988), p.76
On holiday recently I got into an argument with a friend. It was a friend who didn’t know me a decade ago, and who made an off-hand comment about the pigment of Michael Jackson's skin. Mistake.
The discussion that ensued was polite, but drawn out and tense, as little by little I let my association with Michael Jackson show. One by one my other friends, who've all known me much, much longer, left the room.
When you're a fan, it's difficult to know where a normal person's interest in your subject of choice begins and ends. I'd bore friends shitless with the latest album news, and get into arguments believing they cared as much as I did. It infuriated me that, despite knowing comparitively little about the subject, they were certain of the facts. I'd watched every interview, read every account and could quote them all verbatim, but they had "read it in the paper". This is like a red rag to a Michael Jackson fan, and I charged it every time.
Take my friend's theme: Michael Jackson's skin has grown noticeably lighter, ergo he hates his race. It didn't matter that Michael himself had explained what the matter was. It didn't matter that it was difficult to imagine someone growing up black and thinking it reasonable or even attractive to lighten their skin to such an extent. It didn't matter that he repeatedly professed pride in his race, that he championed black and ethnic minority causes all his life –
...and, here I am. Getting worked up again, listing the reasons you should believe and love Michael. I can see your lip curling with amusement, your eyes widening with pity. Every argument I used to get into ended up like this: me, quivering with anger and indignation, and you, uncomprehending and bemused.
I don't know Mof Gimmers, Hecklerspray's editor, but I think we have some friends in common. His comment made me laugh:
"This is fun though isn't it? We like to poke fun at people and you like nothing better than defending Michael Jackson. We need each other for this angry embrace we’re currently riding out. Bless each and every one of you."
Other commenters are used to it:
We've got a reputation, us MJ fans. My social networks are filled with reminders for demos and pleas to sign petitions. We’re politicised, worked up. I watch fans hurry to messageboards, round up supporters and point the way to some offending article, flooding the comments with "ignorant!" and "haterz!". It’s like watching lemmings walk into a trap. But I can hear myself in those hysterical comments, and I remember what it was like.
Are we more vocal than other fans, is that it? I suspect not – just Google "Justin Bieber" and "who the fuck is". But there’s something more frenzied and loyal about the average Michael Jackson fan. There’s more to defend, certainly. There are more wrongs to right: almost every fan I knew back in the day talked about "justice" and the "truth" when it came to Michael. It hasn’t escaped my attention either that I was a fan at a low ebb in Michael’s career; not in the 80s, when he was riding high, but in the 90s, when dubious allegations and overblown behaviour set him against the tide of public opinion.
Defending him – poor, victimised Michael – was a big part of me being a fan. As fanclub press officer, I defended him on telly and radio. I built websites dedicated to him, and organised support groups for isolated fans. We were a minority. Being a fan was a mark of distinction when everyone else attacked him so viciously.
And yet what I didn't realise is that he wasn't a target, for that amorphous thing the "media", or anyone else for that matter. There wasn't a conspiracy to destroy him. There wasn't a vendetta. No, it was much worse: he was a figure of fun. He simply didn't mean much to most people.
Or perhaps he did. It always struck me how some of his detractors were as committed as his fans. Could it be that the nasty comments, the near-constant smears and innuendo were propelled by the same fascination that I felt?
My friend and I didn't come to blows, and the argument ended on good terms. But it reminded me of how I used to be, how I'd defend Michael at every turn, and shout and argue with friends who'd taunt me with accusations, but who really couldn't care less. It was a double blow: not only did they not care about him (and how couldn't they?), but they also didn't see how much it meant to me.
It's exhausting being a Michael Jackson fan. Shortly after meeting Michael in 2002, I made a conscious decision to step away from it all. There were other reasons, but not least was how much effort was involved; how at every turn, I felt compelled to defend him, whether the accusations were about his music ("he's not done anything good since Thriller"), his face ("he looks like a freak"), or worse. I'd get upset, and take it far too personally.
I've since learnt to disassociate myself from conversations like that. I argued calmly with my friend in Spain, determined not to get too wound up. After years of avoiding the subject, and after a year of sadness at the loss of Michael, I found myself repeating simply, "yes, but you don't know that. And neither do I. But I'm willing to bet he's not as weird as all that."
Give him the benefit of the doubt, I suppose is all I meant. Mof is right, this “angry embrace” is fun. But perhaps if we'd all relaxed a bit when he was alive, things would have turned out differently.
I recently found these badges in HMV. They appealed to me because I do indeed love MJ, and I absolutely love moonwalking. I felt a pang at the sight of them though, hanging on a carousel alongside badges for Robert Pattison, Justin Bieber and Muse. Being a fan of Michael Jackson was being sanctioned by a small merchandising company in Sheffield, confident in the knowledge that now, since his death, on-message teenagers proudly pin "King of Pop" to their lapels. A badge pack no less, four badges for four different outfits.
It wasn't always this way. Ten or fifteen years ago, the phrase “King of Pop” was derided by the press and most people as self-proclaimed and meaningless. We used it though, chanted it, painted it on bed sheets torn into banners, but back then we were crazed, in denial, blindly devoted to a paedophile.
You see, I was a fan of Michael Jackson. I don’t mean that I liked his music; I mean that, for a period in my life, he occupied my every thought. I was obsessed. I was so dedicated in fact, I worked for the British Michael Jackson Fan Club, building their first website, writing articles for the fanzine and taking phone calls from TV and radio crews whenever Michael was in the news. I saw him in concert over 12 times, travelling by coach to stadiums around Europe, and sleeping overnight outside the gates for a chance to be in the hallowed front row. I waited for hours with other fans outside his hotels, chanting his name, my eyes trained on a single open window, and screaming at the sight of a suddenly extended, thin, white arm. I wrote impassioned letters to newspapers complaining about the treatment he suffered at the hands of the vicious but intangible "media". I hung out with Michael Jackson impersonators. I met him twice.
So at 10.30 at night on Thursday 25 June 2009, my phone – the number unchanged since the mid '90s – blew up with calls from news outlets looking for my views, and friends checking I’d heard the news and was alright. People I hadn’t heard from in years left condolences on my Facebook page. An ex-boyfriend even wrote me an email. To all of them I said: I was fine.
But I wasn’t. It was strange, seeing him – the same clips I used to watch every day after school – and thinking of him no longer as my Michael, but as a figure who, if you believed the tributes, suddenly meant something to everyone. I felt a jolt, like the one you feel when the familiar face of someone you know appears on television, and yet I had to admit, sadly, that it was familiar because, well, as faces go it was pretty recognisable. My personal affinity with the most famous person in the world was being submerged by an outpouring of public sentiment that angered me: where were you in 1993? 2004?, I thought. Back then, watching people declare their respect and love for my idol was unimaginable; he was a laughing stock, an outcast, more readily associated with his mugshot than his moonwalk. It didn't matter that he was found innocent; the damage was done. And now, dead at the age of 50 after numbing the pain with hospital anaesthetic, he's an icon?
I bought the badges. I am a fan, I can’t help it (just like I couldn’t help buying this Limited Edition Thriller Michael Jackson bath duck). But I don’t wear them on my lapel, because everyone’s a fan nowadays.
I thought about this again when I read Leila’s post about the standardisation of what it is to be a geek. I really love what she and some of the commenters have to say about authenticity as a dividing factor between the ur-geek and the new common appropriation of the word. In the post, Leila attempts to write a definition for "geek", a term that has become as devalued through overuse as the term "fan":
“In my opinion, a geek is someone who's very very into something – someone who really understands something, or at the very least, loves it so much it doesn’t matter. But, without wishing to sound overly soppy, to love is to want to understand, I think.”
I really loved Michael Jackson. In some ways I was a geek: I know the full name and birthdate of every Jackson (there are over 40), and I can hear an MJ bassline at 20 yards, whether it’s next in the mix or playing in a shopping centre. I spent years poring over photos, reading accounts by people who knew him, and desperately trying to understand him. But more important than that, his music made me happy, his dancing made me ecstatic, and when I saw him perform live, I almost died from screaming. I loved that he was batshit crazy, sending statues of himself down the Thames, and, right up until he died, planning to build a 50-foot robot of himself in the Nevada desert that shot lasers from its eyes. And despite all that, I was certain he was more normal than people thought, and adamant that he was loveable.
This commitment marked me out, and it made me feel special. I felt special because I understood and defended someone no-one else would, and in turn that made me special in other people's eyes, because, frankly, that's kinda weird.
Looking at these badges, I realise it's not just Michael who's been commercialised, but my fandom too. And that makes me sad.