Trying To Get To You

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Ecstasy Of Michael Jackson

I’ve struggled the last few days with how to address the death of Michael Jackson. I wasn’t particularly moved or surprised when I heard the news – the sadness in the Michael Jackson story has been slowly playing out for the past 25 years. On first hearing of his death, my thoughts were that this was, unfortunately, a somewhat unsurprising and pathetic conclusion to his story.

Michael Jackson was always someone who I admired from afar, but could never relate to, unlike all of my musical heroes. Even during the Thriller era, before the disfiguring plastic surgeries, the off-putting crotch grabbing, the accusations of pedophilia and the draining of joy from his music, he seemed almost like an alien to me; an insanely talented star whose gifts for singing, melody, songwriting and especially dancing were phenomenal, but who seemed as though he had been dropped in from another planet. (It always made sense to me that he identified so intensely with E.T.) The fact that he was the first black artist to be recognized as the biggest artist in the world meant little to me - it was a reach for me to view him the same heroic context with which I view Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali. But I’m a white boy. (King Of Pop? Why on earth would anyone want to be the King Of Pop?)

Of course, he was a genius. He was touched at birth – his parents knew it, his brothers and sisters knew it, and he knew it. And he busted his ass to develop himself as an artist. As a boy playing on the chitlin' circuit with the Jackson 5 before they signed to Motown, Michael keenly observed the soul stars of the day, soaking them all up and absorbing the best of their music and routines. Years after the fact, Jackson could describe Sam & Dave’s show at the Apollo – how they danced, what they wore – as though he had seen it the day before. With every great artist he encountered, no matter the medium or genre, the young Michael would pester them with questions – How did they get their sound? How did they prepare themselves to perform? How did they do what they did? It was the behavior of a master continually in the inquiry of his own work. He wasn't just blessed with talent. He worked harder than everyone else, too.

ec⋅sta⋅sy   /ˈɛkstəsi/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [ek-stuh-see] Show Use ecstasy in a Sentence –noun, plural -sies. 1. rapturous delight. 2. an overpowering emotion or exaltation; a state of sudden, intense feeling. 3. the frenzy of poetic inspiration. 4. mental transport or rapture from the contemplation of divine things.

To be in ecstasy is to be out of oneself. It’s a concept and experience that Michael Jackson, during his golden age, was obsessed with. It informed the best of his music and it was a mystery that he sought answers for. When interviewed upon Thriller's release in late 1982 by writer (and soul maven) Gerri Hershey, he inquired of Hershey if she knew how to get the famous footage of James Brown performing at the T.A.M.I. show in 1964. “He gets so out of himself,” Michael said worshipfully of James. “There are things I need to know about how I do what I do.”

Michael had a lot of reasons why he wanted to get out of himself. He had a father who beat and terrorized him and his family. His family depended on him for their livelihood for as long as he could remember. He had no childhood. As an idol, millions wanted a piece of him (“Being mobbed hurts,” he once exclaimed), and it’s likely he had no idea who he could trust. Most people terrified him. When he looked in the mirror, he clearly saw much he did not like.

But in the best of his music – most of Off The Wall and Thriller, and his early hits with the Jackson 5, all of that baggage was transformed, and it became a non-entity. The joy of his music and performance carried him out of the pain of his identity and what you saw and heard was a master singer and showman, filled with self-assuredness, confidence and power. The reason why he became so enormous is that he provided that same ecstasy through his music – the experience of being out of oneself – for millions, regardless of boundaries of race, nationality, age or any other consideration.

Somewhere along the line – my sense it was sometime in 1984, when his hair caught on fire at a shoot for Pepsi and the Jackson’s Victory Tour became far less than the triumph it was designed to be – Michael’s access to that ecstasy diminished. His music turned inward – filled with empty bragging (“Bad”), paeans to his own victimhood (“Leave Me Alone,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Childhood”), or expressions of an unseemly anger (“Scream,” the closing video segment of "Black & White"). The music stopped being communal – instead, it simply reflected Jackson’s increasing isolation and his distance from reality.

Instead of getting out of himself through his music, Michael tried to do it through changing his face, recreating his childhood by vicariously experiencing it through sleepovers with children, and of course, drugs. Naturally, it didn’t work. He thought he was Peter Pan, and maybe he thought with enough record sales, money and adulation, he really could be Peter Pan. Not seeing that that was an impossibility is what killed him.

Michael Jackson’s ecstasy became present for me while at a party on Saturday night. There were about 100 or so people there, milling about, and “Billie Jean” came on. The room lit up. People started dancing and smiling at each other. Everyone’s self-consciousness melted away; everyone sang those lyrics, whether they experienced them the first time around or not. For five minutes, people got caught up in each other, the beauty of the others around them, the joy of music, an experience of what’s possible for humanity, with all of our flaws, to create. It was then that his death hit me for real. And I was flooded with sadness and compassion for him. For what he gave to the world, he deserved better than what he got.

But as sad as his story may be, it is the ecstasy of his greatest music and performances that will endure. That ecstasy is present somewhere around the world at practically every moment - on dance floors and cars and bedrooms on every continent. That's Michael Jackson's true legacy - and the only one that really matters.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is the best essay I've ever read about Michael Jackson. Thank you.

Keith said...

Such a great post. I always liked his music. I liked the Jackson 5 classic stuff. I did grow up with his Thriller and Bad albums. They were other sings I liked better, such as Prince.

Lena Distractia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lena Distractia said...

He was a timing genius. The vocal sounds he made- little hics and breaths at precisely the right moment. The way he moved. No one that I can think of no other triple (dance/sing/write) threat like him. Even the timing of his writing. He wrote songs years in advance- had them ready when needed.

His accomplishments won't be replicated by one artist simply because the way the music industry is set up. It's so hard to get noticed for all the noise going on.

King of pop- yah EW. He was creepy, lonely and obviously mentally ill. It's surprising he lived this long.

He did one cool thing, though. He saved unreleased songs- supposedly good stuff (if you're a M.J. fan), to be released posthumously- Proceeds are to be for the children he claimed as his.

I'm sad he's gone. It hit me right away. Growing up in Detroit area - Motown is huge to me- I still remember learning the dance to Rockin Robin.

Nice post Ban.

Sandra said...

other than failing to mention his huge commitment as a humanitarian and how he wanted to make a difference in the world by helping those less fortunate .. you couldn't have said it any better or with more truth -- you have incredible insight. Thank you for sharing this.

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