Thrills before the spills

Twenty years ago, Michael Jackson was the coolest man in the world. He is viewed very differently now. But we should not forget his legacy, says Charles Shaar Murray
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's that photo, the official police mugshot taken when Michael Jackson finally turned himself in to answer charges of child molestation, which looks so scary. It looks like a disguise Martians would design to enable themselves to mingle with humans undetected, or possibly a CGI character created by highly-paid computer-animation geeks for Andy Serkis to play in a sci-fi movie. It's not so much that Michael Jackson doesn't look black any more: it's that he barely looks human. Considering that he ended the 1970s as one of the handsomest, most attractive young African-American men in the world, the question inevitably arises: why would he do that to himself?

All the big questions about Michael Jackson start the same way. Why ... does he have so much difficulty understanding that, for most people, the idea of a 45-year-old man sharing his bed with other people's children seems at best bizarre and at worst actively sinister? Why ... did he give both of his sons the same name? Why ... did he dangle one of them over that notorious balcony? Even the late Frank Zappa got into the act, writing the song "Why Don't You Like Me?" about Jackson's eerie physical transformation - "He's white, Jim," says a voice mimicking Star Trek's Dr McCoy - and including the lyrics: "I hate my mother/ I hate my father/ I hate my sister/ and Jermaine is a negro!" And why ... do his records get worse and worse while taking progressively longer and longer to make and costing more and more money?

Michael Jackson, 20 years ago, was possibly the coolest man in the world. In fact, there was one specific night when he definitely was: 23 May 1983, when 50 million TV viewers watched Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, the silver-jubilee celebration of the great Detroit record label, on which Jackson, teamed with his brothers in the Jackson 5, first became world-famous. After completing the nostalgia portion of the show with his brothers, Jackson performed "Billie Jean", a song from his second solo album on his new label, Epic. And the performance was epic, with or without the capital E: he sang the taut, tense masterpiece of sexual paranoia whilst unveiling state-of-the-art dance moves: some borrowed from young street dancers but all customised to his own spectacular skills. And then he did the "moonwalk": moving forward while seeming to move backwards. The audience in the hall erupted, seated at home in front of their TVs, so did the viewing public. Jackson's previous solo album, 1979's Off The Wall, had done very well indeed, but the new one Thriller, which included "Billie Jean" and Jackson's follow-up hit "Beat It", went through the roof and broke through to an entirely new roof that even the most avaricious record-company accountants could not have dreamed was there. It sold and it kept on selling: during one month in 1984 Thriller was selling a million copies a week.

It's not as if Jackson had been a stranger to success before Thriller. As the centrepiece of the Jackson 5, he'd been one of America's most beloved entertainers before his age reached double figures. With their funky exuberant string of hits, kicking off with 1969's irresistible "I Want You Back" he became white America's first black pre-teen sex symbol, with the older members of "the 5" trailing in the distance. They were endlessly cute, like five adorable mini Jimi Hendrixes in their huge puffball Afros, bright shirts and waistcoats and billowing flares.

Indeed, young Michael was such an adept young singer and dancer that when, in their earliest pre-Motown training period, they worked the midwestern clubs and bars in the environs of their hometown area in Gary, Indiana, disgruntled fellow performers whom they routinely thrashed in the talent contests would be convinced Michael wasn't really a kid but a gifted and highly experienced midget. As a pre-teen, he'd played in some of the raunchiest clubs in America, watching strippers from the wings while waiting to go on, performing a routine which included looking up the skirts of women seated in the front rows and - once the Jackson 5 had become seriously successful - sharing hotel rooms with older brothers who'd be having enthusiastic sex with young female admirers.

At the same time, he'd endured his ex-musician father's hardnosed version of stage school, which involved frequent beatings when a song or a dance set were messed up in rehearsal; practising his craft while his young contemporaries were enjoying carefree play. Later on, puberty brought even more trauma than is customary for ordinary kids: when you're a star with concerts and TV shows as a regular part of your routine, an outbreak of spots is a professional as well as a personal disaster. Especially when your father/manager keeps telling you how ugly and stupid you are. It is not surprising that, as soon as he was able, Jackson cut himself loose from his father's management and struck out on his own. Nor is it surprising that Michael Jackson, like many child stars whose childhoods are composed almost entirely of experiences unknown to most children, grew up slightly strange. "Love" after all, became something abstract received from audiences: it didn't seem to be anything young Michael experienced close up at first hand. Yet even the Jackson 5's success was eclipsed by its former child star's catapulting to fame after Thriller's release in 1983. Jackson ascended to an Elvis or Beatle level, becoming one of the best-known and most instantly recognisable faces and voices on the planet.

And Thriller deserved its success. Independent as a writer/producer of both the closely-regimented Motown regime and his father's stormcloud presence, Jackson had teamed up with the veteran arranger/producer Quincy Jones to create a set of entirely new spins on the venerable pop/soul verities, setting his edgy, nervy falsetto against either itchy-twitchy dance beats using both seasoned session players and the latest electronic gubbins, or lush, almost cloying ballad backdrops. What Jackson and Jones invented, tentatively on Off The Wall and triumphantly on Thriller, was a new kind of pop: one which is still being enthusiastically mined by younger performers - hello, Justin Timberlake - and which effectively became the new mainstream. Topped off with a trilogy of expensive and innovative videos highlighting both his jawdropping dance moves and different facets of a strange and complex new persona, it seemed that, for one melting pop-cultural moment, Michael Jackson could do no wrong.

But then the questions started to bubble. What, people asked, was the deal with his face, already beginning to change both shape and hue? Was he trying to look like one of the Jacksons' early mentors, Diana Ross, herself no stranger to the surgeon's knife? No, others said, he doesn't want to grow up to look like his father. Yet stories circulated that he'd demanded that his chauffeur address him as "Miss Ross", that Ross had found him in her Vegas dressing room trying out her make-up and that he'd gone into a lengthy sulk when Ross - "my mother, my lover and my sister all combined in one amazing person" - got married.

Then there was the fixation with his menagerie of pets, the llamas at his Neverland ranch, Muscles the snake and, most famously, Bubbles the chimp; the hyperbaric chamber photo, the penchant for masks and that steadily mutating countenance. Bad, the follw-up album to Thriller, not only failed to match its predecessor's sales - no surprise there: successes on that scale come but rarely, if ever, for any artist - but the ludicrous outfit he wore on the cover and in the title-track's video, suggested that his street sense was seriously deserting him. His projects grew ever more grandiloquent: he demanded to be addressed as the "King Of Pop".

Now his Greatest Hits package, Number Ones - hello Beatles, hello Elvis - surfaces, only eight years since his previous Greatest Hits album History and, frankly, there hasn't exactly been a glut of megasmashes since then. History was packaged with gushing tributes from Elizabeth Taylor, Steven Spielberg, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and even Ronald Reagan, and its release was marked by the erection of massive statues of Jackson in various world capitals and a series of videos which seemed more like case studies in megalomania than anything else. Jackson not only wanted to save the world and, specifically, its children, but he seemed convinced that he already had. When Jarvis Cocker mooned him at the Brit Awards, millions cheered.

An extraordinary talent, extraordinary success, an extraordinary life; and it all seems to have gone extraordinarily wrong. The pop-soul superkid with the flashing feet, the thrilling voice, the cute features, the studio smarts and the megaplatinum songwriting chops is now the grotesque recluse, pursued by courts and the media while the lawsuits pile up, the enviable business empire - including, much to his former friend Paul McCartney's annoyance, the Beatles' songwriting catalogue - judders under the weight of increasing expenditure and flagging record sales, and his convoluted existence becomes a matter of mockery and speculation. Michael Jackson is a joke now - or rather, a series of bad-taste jokes - and his face as scary as anything you'll see until next Hallowe'en. Do the white socks contain feet of clay?

Villain, joke or tragic figure? Even those not in the habit of feeling compassion for megalomaniac multimillionaires should pause before condemning him too rapidly. Jackson is a damaged soul, which does not excuse or condone the collateral damage which may have resulted to others, but the implication is that his freakish exterior is, consciously or not, an expression of a freakish inner world: the result of his upbringing and his fame. I just wish he'd make a decent record once in a while: something to which listeners his own age can resonate, a record which makes sense of his inner world. But first, I guess, he'd have to make his inner world make sense to himself, and none of his public pronouncements suggest that this is likely to be the case any time soon. Poor Michael. All he ever wanted was to be loved. In "(Have You Seen My) Childhood" his theme song for the boy-meets-whale weepie Free Willie, he wrote, piteously: "Before you judge me, try hard to love me." But if he ever wonders why he isn't adored in quite the way that he used to be, he should recall a line from his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk: "When sex is used as an instrument of blackmail or power, it's a repugnant use of one of God's gifts."