He's out of our lives: From the moonwalking feet to the nose, Michael Jackson is a compendium of weirdness. Giles Smith studies the complete figure

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At some point in the early 1980s, Michael Jackson realised he could moonwalk. That's the dance he does where he glides backwards without discernible effort, as if the floor were moving him. It's a great stunt. Jackson liked it so much, he turned it into a lifestyle.

Jackson does the moonwalk in his current stageshow. The video screens beside the stage want you to attend to his feet, but it's best to keep your eyes fixed on the whole figure, because the remarkable thing is just how fast he goes, just how smoothly he's got this motion down. It's unearthly, unnatural. Human beings are not meant to be able to move like that. And between Off the Wall (1979) and the current Dangerous tour, Michael Jackson has spent his time honing his public life to suit the moonwalk.

All celebrity cultivates the allure of distance, but no one has cultivated it so assiduously as Michael Jackson. He's attained a distance from us, and a distance from what he used to be. In photographs he lightens his skin. He has extensively re-modelled his face, narrowing his nose. And now the story circulates that the nose can't take it, that the whole experiment may yet turn out to have ghastly, B- movie consequences. Which would be ironic. For perhaps the racial implications of all this cosmetic work have been over-played: it's not that Jackson wants to look white so much as he wants to look like nothing on earth. He wants to look like a moonwalker.

This is what makes Elizabeth Taylor's hilarious introduction to Jackson's recent book of poems and musings (Dancing the Dream) especially ridiculous; 'He is so giving of himself that, at times, he leaves very little to protect that beautiful inner core that is the essence of him.' Tosh in every way: how many celebrities have given away quite so little about themselves as Jackson?

The brochure for the current Michael Jackson tour is unembarrassed about setting big glossy pictures of him as he was opposite big glossy pictures of him as he is. Most pop stars go in for this kind of thing at some stage, and the contrast is intended to be a cutesy one between 'Now' and 'Then'. With Jackson, though, you read the images as 'Before' and 'After' and there is no continuity. This is not really a denial of his past - because denial is too forceful an attitude to be associated with Michael Jackson - but rather an absolute removal from it. During the show he prefaces a brisk package of old Jackson 5 Motown favourites with the line 'we're going to do the old songs in the old way'. But even though the screens show Michael as a dancing tot, the feelings stirred are not of nostalgia so much as of difference, remoteness. That stuff is from another life, another world, a time before the moonwalk.

On stage, his entrance is designed with all this in mind. Jackson doesn't actually come on from anywhere - he just appears. Carmina Burana pounds away; signs come on reading 'Brace Yourself'; banks of white lighting start advancing from the back of the stage. And everyone is expecting some sort of descending pod or lift device, in the manner of Madonna or Prince. But instead, there's a sudden crack of fireworks, exploding up from the lip of the stage and down from the roof above and, boom, there he is, out of thin air, right at the front, frozen in a hunched pose, staring out across the audience.

There's no noise coming from the stage now, it's all coming from the audience. Jackson holds completely still for about 10 seconds, while everyone goes bananas and behind him a curtain of gold glitter showers down onto the stage. Then he flicks his head round and freezes again, which makes the screaming in the crowd double. Oddly, behind Jackson, in clear view, two members of the stage crew, armed with the sort of floor- brushes you see in airports, are making hasty passes across the stage to sweep off the glitter.

When they're finished, the music starts - 'Jamm' from Dangerous - and Jackson is off, whipping around in a sort of ruched leotard. The show uses material from across his four-album solo career: from 'She's Out of My Life' through 'Wanna Be Startin' Something' via 'Smooth Criminal' to 'Black and White'. Fireworks fly, skeletons dance, lights shine so bright you can feel the heat off them. It's immaculately controlled showbusiness - even if it does over-employ the device whereby a song seems to have come to a stop, but then launches off again. (To set the delicately pattering rhythm of 'Human Nature' going and then bring it to a false halt amounts almost to an act of violence.)

And at one point we slow up for the ballads. 'Can I come down there?' says Jackson to the front rows and a spotlight illuminates a staircase leading to the pit. Is Jackson really going to go down there, among people who would feel no compunction about ripping off a small piece of him to take home with them? Is he really going to venture near the audience? Is he hell. Up the staircase comes a girl handpicked - though not by Jackson - from the crowd. (And you wonder what that process of selection involved: did she have to produce a passport? Sign a clearance form? Was she frisked?) She reaches the stage and falls into Jackson's arms, winding him slightly as he tries to lean over her shoulder and continue singing. But there's a strange absence of mutuality about this clinch. It's like watching a child who has grown rather confusedly fond of one of those coin-in- the-slot automated animals they put outside supermarkets.

Except, in Jackson's case, the automation is beyond state-of-the-art. The most exhilarating moments of the show come when Jackson dances - when you see him as a shadow on a screen, throwing lean shapes, or when the stage raises him up high and a single spotlight hits him, while he alternately slouches and tautens in a Panama hat. But he never dances with anyone. Clearly, in those extended pieces of solo kinetics, when he flips up on to his toes, spins and kicks, locks back into position again, there is no one who could complement him, no one who could keep pace, no one who would not look like a lame adjunct to his display. But even in the unison troupe sequences, you're not watching someone who blends. It's partly because his movements are always just that fraction tighter than everyone else's, but also because, like so much of the show, these routines are designed to return you to Jackson's solitariness. He is not one of them, or one of us.

He is, though, the highest profile black person America has and many have said there are responsibilities involved in that which Jackson the Moonwalker neglects. But then, it's a guilt-ridden white attitude which says a black pop star is essentially making a political statement, rather than a musical one. Before 'Billie Jean', the MTV organisation, with its obligation to pander to the prejudices of middle America, was squeamish about screening videos with black people in them. After 'Billie Jean', they had no choice. But this, and similar victories are the side-effects of Jackson's work, and not necessarily its objectives.

In fact, when politics become the objective, then Jackson is at his most ridiculous. In the show he sings 'Heal the World', the ballad which has given him the catchphrase for his new, impossibly vague crusade, and which sounds like a Pepsi commercial. 'Make this a better place,' it says, 'for you and for me and the entire human race.' The stage rises and a giant globe inflates; enter a string of brightly-clothed children who join hands with Michael and slowly walk in a circle round the rubberised world. But how do you relate this to the closing scene in which Jackson (or a cleverly substituted double) straps on a jet-pack, rises 20 feet above the stage on and swoops out the side of the stadium?

It seems that Jackson is chafing slightly at his self-imposed retreat - that he wants to come among us again and be a healer. It makes him an absurd figure right now. What has the world got to do with the moonwalker? If he never visited another children's hospital, never published another poetry book, who could count that a loss? But if he never again got up on a stage and danced . . . When the concert finished, a voice announced, 'Ladies and Gentlemen - Michael Jackson has left the stadium.' Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Jackson was never really in the stadium.

(Photograph omitted)