When contacted by Sony Legacy last year to write the liner notes for the reissues of the Jacksons’ CDs Destiny and Triumph, as well as a new Greatest Hits collection, I felt two emotions: fear and excitement. This wouldn’t be me introducing an artist or new music to an audience. This was music with which I already had a deep, personal history but that a whole lot of folks knew far better than I. But somewhere in my mind the dozing fanboy was stirred and I thought of this as a chance to stitch a thread that would do some heavy-duty connecting: from the younger me who’d religiously watched the J5 Saturday-morning cartoon; to the young me who’d watched his diaper-clad toddler cousin, Lesley, bend at the waist to smack the floor with her palms for emphasis as she sang I-I-I wun-duuuuuh who’s lovin’ you; to the preadolescent me who’d been so dazzled by the Jackson (and Sister Sledge) concert in support of the Destiny CD that when I returned home and my mother asked how it was, I stuttered and grinned like a fool; to the teenage me who’d watch his sister wash dishes and sing along to “Bless His Soul,” “Push Me Away” and “That’s What You Get for Being Polite,” and be moved and a little frightened at her wistfulness as she sang; to the me who instantly got sick of “Beat It,” but could play “Rock With You” over and over, and over again.
I wanted to draw a thread from all of me to all of the Jacksons, and express something of what their music had meant to me. I’d never wanted to be Michael, or be anything like him; never imitated him in a mirror or “performed” him for family entertainment. But I’d closed my bedroom door, turned up the music and fallen in.
Excerpt from the Destiny notes:
“The Jacksons were the flowers of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Pride movement. Their exquisite, perfectly round afros and stylized street attire celebrated a proud, new aesthetic. Their stop-on-a-dime perfect choreography drew from the hottest moves of the day while simultaneously harkening back to black performing traditions gleaned from masters like Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown and the artists at the Jacksons’ first musical home, Motown. In their own relentlessly honed and perfected artistry, they paid homage to those who had come before them, while updating the blueprint for future generations. They were the carriers and embodiment of so many hopes, fantasies and dreams — cultural and political ambassadors just by virtue of their being: smart, talented, visionary, hard-working young black Americans, coming into their own after a decade of bloody struggle and sacrifice. The Jacksons seemed to be pointing not only black and white America but the world at large toward new possibilities of expression and being.”
Michael was blackness and maleness, soul music and pop culture, all forged pre-hip-hop, pre-Reagan, pre-crack, pre the implosion of short-lived civil rights–era idealism and hope. That’s an important point to help understand the thick strands of optimism, possibility, aesthetic and political vision that ran through his work. And that makes the darkness and paranoia that marbled so much of his later music all the more heartbreaking, especially as it roughly paralleled the shifting tenor of the times. He never lost his humanitarian streak or his belief in the overall goodness of humanity, but the evolution of his own relationship to the world and his feelings about how he was treated darkened noticeably.
The beauty and power of Michael Jackson, particularly in the first 30 or so years of his life, was that he was black. It’s important to stress and explain that because in this “post-race/post-black” moment, it’s become obvious that a lot of Negroes rushing to free themselves from the so-called shackles of blackness, aided by “colorblind” and “progressive” non-Negroes, don’t even know what blackness is: Working like a dog while mired in poverty in Gary, Indiana — endless rehearsals, mastering backbreaking craftsmanship, sweltering under the heat of a father’s dream deferred — all while aiming for a big time mapped out by sweat, hope and faith; that’s black. Not letting your lack of material comforts impede your forward motion; that’s black. Being rooted in the working-class/struggling-class vortex of innovation, perseverance and resilience that has birthed all the Negro musical r/evolutions in this country; that’s black. Building effortlessly on the past and setting a whole new bar for the future; blacker than black. Exercising the prerogative of organic genius by laying claim to shit that already exists and just making it your own; B-l-a-c-k. Mapping the template and setting the pace that will govern the globe; b-b-b-b-black. Coming of age amid proud shouts of “Black is beautiful” and effortlessly embodying the adage, but somehow getting infected with the centuries-old disease of white supremacy and internalized racism that will have you repeatedly take a knife to your natural-born beauty . that’s so very black. Being universal in your struggles and triumphs just by being you: black.
Many of the tributes being written, especially by Negro males, think they’re bestowing the ultimate praise on him by positioning him alongside conventional, traditional soul men or icons of Negro male cool. Make that unquestionable hetero Negro male cool. But the thing about Michael was that he resonated so powerfully precisely because he upended and shimmered beyond gender convention. It seems especially noteworthy that he cemented his solo superstar status during the gender-bending/gender-fuck era of the early ’80s, alongside Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, a funkily reinvigorated Grace Jones — though he was a seasoned old pro in comparison to all of them. (It was his second start at a solo career.) Because his gender tweak was subtle relative to those artists, it doesn’t really get commented upon. But Michael evolved from childhood mimicry of the masculinity of soul titans to something more complex and more layered. And it eventually housed a much more problematic sexuality. It’s difficult to know the ways in which his abusive childhood, the adult responsibilities carried on his childhood shoulders, and the paradoxically sheltered and wide-open pop-star lifestyle he had at an early age all contoured his sexuality, and to then fully know what inclinations and fetishes might have been innate and which were externally shaped.
Curiously absent from the praise and aesthetic roll-call being put forth for Michael is one name: Diana Ross. It’s a glaring and telling omission that has much to do with the low critical regard in which Ross is held, and the reluctance of critics to own up to not just the deep influence that diva Ross had on boy wonder Jackson, but on the ways in which her persona and performing style play out in him.
Michael Jackson was layered metaphor and walking commentary/cautionary tale, so the bifurcated coverage of his death leaves both sides with an incomplete picture. The sensationalists ignore the power and beauty of his work while wallowing in the sordid. Michael tapped into something transcendent that reached from Gary, Indiana, to Selma, Alabama, to Moscow to Paris to Hong Kong. His soulful, heartfelt music and poetic athleticism were otherworldly, resonating with all kinds of people. They soothed and inspired. At the same time, he was a man who had an obsession with childhood and his idealized notion of its trappings of innocence and playfulness, extending all the way to his hosting sleepovers with young boys that were, at a minimum, creepy as hell. He was damaged, thwarted in crucial ways. It seems to me that the same impulses that manifested in his divine art also manifested as questionable (to put it mildly) predilections for companionship. It should all be put on the table at once. That’s the only way to get a truly complete picture of the man, to glean something of both the sublime and the darker elements of his life and work, and to make sense of the fact that a wealthy, immeasurably influential, unfathomably talented global icon was seemingly so unhappy, so pained, and so unable to combat it.