Fabulously, Fucking Weird: Michael Jackson as Video Game Zombie

M.J., phone home.

The day before Michael Jackson died, my daughters and I played Plants vs. Zombies, a lighthearted video game about the eternal conflict between heroic plants and goofy zombies. Suddenly, a tiny Michael Jackson Thriller zombie whirled about to our delight. We were happy to whack him with butternut squash and frozen green peas, but that’s how it’s always been for me. Michael appears at the oddest of times, like a strange relative who’s done fabulously well, and is fabulously, fucking weird. I’m not hating, I’m just a conflicted fan, who admired his accomplishments and then became freaked out from his descent into gothic celebrity madness and tragedy, an Othello in whiteface. 

In the mid-’70s, fame seemed almost common in black Los Angeles. I went to high school with Soul Train dancers and singers. Richard Pryor jogged on the median of Santa Monica Boulevard. Marvin Gaye was shot dead not far from the house I grew up in. I knew people who went to high school with the Jacksons, but Michael just ascended. His metamorphosis into the King of Pop was something that made us proud. Then we learned that he thought of himself as a child, that he could sleep with children and nothing would be said, that the rules governing the behavior of adults didn’t apply to him. As a consequence, we learned more than we ever wanted to know about the peculiar discoloration of his genitals. The worse things got for him, the faster the transformation of his appearance: the bleaching of skin, the endless plastic surgery.

In the ’80s, I cleared brush at a ranch in Santa Ynez, not far from Neverland. A close friend knew Michael’s personal chef there. My fantasy of Michael’s life grew into a novel about what it must be like to be in his world. Though it still sits in my drawer, it’s a novel I’m particularly happy to have written.

When I taught at Cal State L.A., I put together a panel on Michael, with artist Martin Kersels, UCLA Professor Richard Yarbrough and L.A. Times Opinion writer Erin Aubry Kaplan. The idea was to consider Michael as an art object, a phenomenon and not just an entertainer. The panel members had their say. And then a birdlike woman who wore a colorful robe stood up in that packed house and said, “You do not understand him. Michael is love. He is like Gandhi, like Buddha, or Jesus. I was raised in the Middle East, and without him I would have killed myself.” 

No one on the panel could say a word.


Sponsor Content