Profile: Michael Jackson, Megastar First cyborg turns forty

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The Independent Culture
THE IDEA that Michael Jackson has reached the ripe old age of 40 seems shocking,more shocking, indeed, than the fact that Keith Richards and Iggy Pop have comfortably cruised past the half-century mark.

Why? Because Michael seemed ageless, a mutant archangel who - with a little assistance from the the plastic artists of Beverly Hills - would stay forever young. The idea of Jackson at 40, married with children, is more jolting than the idea of doo-wop child star Frankie Lymon (celebrated in the forthcoming movie Why Do Fools Fall In Love?) dying of a heroin overdose at the age of 25.On the other hand, so many things have gone so horribly wrong for Michael Jackson in the last ten years that it would be strange if he "hadn't" aged. Reality will do that to you.

The media's creation of "Wacko Jacko" was bad enough, but it was nothing next to the disgust inspired by allegations that a 33-year-old Jackson had molested a 13-year-old Beverly Hills brat named Jordan Chandler. There are some scandals you bounce back from in America: paedophilia, proved or unproved, is not one of them. Commercially, Jackson is now an outcast in his own homeland, of passing interest only to the insatiably prurient readers of The Globe and The National Enquirer.

What is saddening about Jackson's nightmarish Nineties' decline is that we've forgotten what an extraordinary entertainer he was. One is not just talking about Billie Jean and the famous moonwalk. It's footage of an eight-year-old Michael rehearsing a blues song with his brothers in which the tiny dynamo's sheer chutzpah takes the breath away. Or there are the memories of the Jackson 5 yelping and twirling their way through I Want You Back on Top of the Pops. The kid was mesmerising.

But perhaps that is part of the problem. If you've been groomed to simulate adult passion and eroticism at such a tender age, how do you cope when those feelings actually show up in adolescence and hormones start coursing through your confused, elongating body? And what do you do when, 20 years later, those feelings haven't gone away?

It doesn't help coming from a family ruled by a despotic father, a man intent only on turning his children into successful entertainers. Of course, we teeny-bopping fans knew nothing of the violence behind the happy Motown smiles when the famous 5 went through the expertly-choreographed motions of ABC and The Love You Save. In the Seventies, nobody knew (or admitted) that dysfunctional families existed.

Years later, when black-sheep sister LaToya spilled all the beans, and even Michael confessed to having been beaten by his father, we shook our heads and said we'd always known there was something a bit iffy about the Jackson family. But we didn't know. We were just happy someone showed the Osmonds how to do it right.

The brothers were one of the last homegrown Motown successes, a product of the conveyor-belt system bluntly christened "The Corporation". When the legendary label began to go off the boil in the mid-Seventies, the group exited Berry Gordy's empire and made so-so dance records (Enjoy Yourself, Show You The Way To Go) for Epic. By 1977, Michael was chafing at the bit, wanting out but trapped by loyalty to his less talented siblings. Delivering him from this quandary was the movie version of Broadway musical The Wiz, in which he played the scarecrow. It was on the set of this flick that Jackson first bonded with jazz/soundtrack veteran Quincy Jones, The Wiz's musical director.

When the furiously exciting, Jones-produced Don't Stop ('Til You Get Enough) first burst on to the radio in the late summer of 1979, it was obvious that Michael Jackson was going to be a star, and probably a superstar.

This was a new Michael Jackson, a Michael who wasn't going to fade out like all the other child stars, a Michael who knew he could make it up there with the great movie idols. Hell, maybe he'd even be as big as Mickey Mouse.

The first solo album, Off The Wall, swung cleverly between smooth dance- pop (Rock With You, Off The Wall) and fragile, saccharine balladry (especially She's Out of My Life, with its are-they-real-or-are-they-fake tears). Released at the tail-end of disco, it took the Motown crossover principle into a new era: the Eighties, a decade in which black rhythms and plastic soul mannerisms would boss the sound of American pop. Challenged only by Madonna (and maybe Prince and Springsteen), Michael Jackson would rule that decade.

Late 1982 saw the release of Thriller, the biggest-selling album in pop history. Never has a single album so dramatically catapulted an entertainer into the stratosphere. Good or lightweight, Thriller would never have been the pop Godzilla it was without the crucial performance Jackson gave on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV show in May 1993.

Here, before an audience of millions, he sang Billie Jean and unveiled his incredible moonwalk dance. A spectacle of pure narcissistic grace, it captivated the pop universe. Rolling Stone writer John Swenson once made the point that Jackson's dancing wasn't - like James Brown's - physical. It was "metaphysical", "a graceful illusion".

Jackson's creepy, extra-terrestrial appearance (and habits) were the key to both his success and his undoing. When we, as a global pop culture, made him a megastar, it was partly because he looked and moved like a beautiful android, or at least a boy-god ET. Thanks to the repeated scrapings of expensive scalpels, his features were neither negroid nor Caucasian. If anything, he began to resemble one of those asexual uber-teens in Japanese Manga comics - which for Michael may be the next best thing to looking like Diana Ross, his mama-mentor in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Surgery aside, there was the whole side issue of Jackson's dramatic skin whitening, leading to rumours that he'd bleached it. From being a lanky black beanpole with a spongy Afro and a downy moustache, he was slowly turning into a pale geisha girl with a button nose and silky ringlets.

Inevitably this was seen as a betrayal of his blackness, even of his masculinity. When he later sang "It don't matter if you're black or white", it sounded like a cop-out: post-Rodney King, it unavoidably "did" matter.

In fact, Jackson almost certainly suffers from some form of vitiligo, a condition which leads to loss of skin pigment. Indeed, he first met Debbie Rowe - his wife and the mother of his children - when she worked as a dermatology nurse and treated him in the early Eighties. What remains unclear is whether Michael, in an effort to make the pallor of his skin uniform, used the bleaching agent Benoquin on the areas of his body "not" affected by vitiligo. On most sufferers, the effects of the disease look much patchier.

Should it matter? Doesn't the man have a right to look the way he wants? Well, yes. It's only that in the Nineties the terrain of black American pop culture has been so fraught with issues of racial credibility. At a time when hip hop was busy confronting the harsh reality of African- American life, Jackson's white skin symbolised his drift away from that reality. As rap gave birth to a suburban hinterland of "nouveau" White Negroes, Michael became the ultimate Black Honky.

All this - the skin-blanching, the oxygen chambers, the chimpanzee companions - would mean nothing if Michael Jackson had continued to make valid music. With the release of Bad in 1987, it was clear that he had in some way lost touch his own talent.

By the time the even more comically-titled Dangerous appeared in 1992, Michael Jackson was a dead issue for pop culture. Sure, he remained a megastar around the world - as much of a capitalist icon as Ronald McDonald (or, indeed, Mickey Mouse) -- but Dangerous was simply a feverishly over- produced effort to keep pace with the glossy trickery of New Jack Swing.

Jackson's singing had become a catalogue of irritating quirks: squeaks and hiccups which had once been incidental but now topped and tailed every line.

Nor was it just pre-pubescent thespians who were seen with Jackson: non- celebrity "buddies" were often invited to sleep over at the singer's Encino mansion. If Michael genuinely had no sexual interest in these boys, it was naive to think no one would attempt to use such sleepovers as a chance to extort money from him.

The timing of the Jordan Chandler allegations, in August 1993, couldn't have come at a worse moment: Jackson had just founded the Heal the World Foundation to raise awareness of children's suffering. A month later, LaToya - that perpetual thorn in the Jackson family's side - told the press her brother had often spent nights with young boys in his bedroom.

Perhaps what most scandalised America about the whole affair was the discovery that Michael Jackson was a sexual being at all. For so long we'd grown used to an idea of him as a sexless Peter Pan that suddenly to see him as a man trying to get his rocks off did not compute. When he talked of the extensive examinations police had conducted on his body in December 1993, it was hard not to feel a shiver of pity. On the other hand, it stuck in the craw that he was able to buy his way out of the hot water simply by paying the Chandler family $26 million. Nor did his charade of a marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley in August 1994 inspire any feeling except contempt.

It also stuck in the craw that when Jackson returned to the pop fray two years later, it was with the hideously self-important double album HIStory, Past Present and Future, Book 1. Half greatest hits, half insipid new material, the set did little to re-establish Michael as the pop messiah he evidently thought he was, instead revealing the grotesque scale of his self-delusion (A 60-ft plaster statue of Jackson was towed along the Thames before being exhibited in various European cities).

Jackson's career trajectory is a uniquely American tragedy. In a country where black singers and sportsmen are marketed as gods, this ageing wunderkind has been worshipped to near-death, then sacrificed on the altar of fame.

It's a tragedy that's symptomatic of a culture entranced by stardom but systematically designed to destroy the lives of those it blows up into cartoon colossi. As America's entertainment becomes progressively more unreal, the stars who survive will be those who never had any inner lives to start with - virtual icons like Rei Toei in William Gibson's 1996 novel Idoru. Michael Jackson will look like a throwback to the age of vaudeville.

Life Story

Origins: Born 29 August, 1958, in the midwestern city of Gary, Indiana.

Vital statistics: Aged 40. Married to Deborah Rowe. One son, Prince (a.k.a. "Baby Doo-Doo"), 18 months. One daughter, Paris, four months.

Primary influences: James Brown, Fred Astaire, ET.

Heroes: Diana Ross, the late Princess Diana.

Religion: Sometime Jehovah's Witness, asked to cease doorstopping after satanic "Thriller" video.

Mikey says: "Wacko Jacko... where'd that come from? Some English tabloid. I have a heart and I have feelings. I feel that when you do that to me. It's not nice. Don't do it."

(To Barbara Walters, 12 September, 1997)

Critics say: "Can you remember the time... when Michael Jackson was a viable musical force? It's hard to believe, but once Mikey was not just a freak, but a freak with skills." (Amy Linden, Microsoft Music Central review)