The Culture’s Canary
None of Michael Jackson’s albums ever made it into my collection, although I did have the “Beat It” jacket — red leather with zippers everywhere. Soon, the “Thriller” jacket was the height of coolness, but most of our parents weren’t willing to establish the precedent of buying an expensive new fashion item every time Jackson put out a video. As it turns out, “Thriller” was the height of Jackson’s coolness, and within a decade, he would transform himself into a figure of strangeness — so bizarre, even the most rapidly spreading vicious jokes that made the rounds already seemed too obvious.
One can’t deny Jackson’s prominence in the development of pop music or his transformation of music videos as a genre. “We Are the World,” the album for which I had on vinyl, without knowing how integral Jackson was to the project, was a big-name milestone in supporting worthy causes, replete with a catchy tune and who’s-next video intrigue. Although I don’t know how much direct responsibility Michael Jackson bore, as an artistic act, the song was brilliant.
Watch the video, for example, and beyond the white/black pairings of alternating lines — with overlapping vocal harmony — one can observe a gradual crescendo from melodic singers like Lionel Richie to rock belters like Bruce Springsteen, culminating in Cyndi Lauper’s explosion — as if she couldn’t contain herself — before the unified chorus, which then received the blessing of the icon’s icons, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles. The song used, in short, the collection of vocal personalities itself as a musical instrument, just as it made their celebrity an activistic instrument.
During the ’80s, Michael Jackson’s videos were like earthy Broadway musical miniatures. I use “earthy” mostly to evoke the image of zombies emerging from their graves to dance a number on the street. He translated a higher-brow genre for a crowd that would never enter a theater to see The King and I and had only seen West Side Story because the music teacher filled a couple of periods showing it to the class. Admirably, the content was often an argument for elevating disadvantaged people through art, and it does present an interesting exercise of the imagination to ponder what Jackson might have done if he’d turned cultural, as Elton John has been doing recently, rather than spinning out of control like, well, Michael Jackson.
One could argue that, when the kid from Home Alone blasted Norm from Cheers through the roof with a stolen gag from Back to the Future at the beginning of Jackson’s farewell to creativity in social conscience, “Black and White” — Western civilization jumped the shark. In the video, Jackson proceeds to dance through the full extent of multiculturalism’s intellectual content, the final statement of which comes with the digital morphing of differently hued attractive people into each other, until a large black cat morphs into Jackson for his utterly bizarre dance indulgence in vandalism and gratuitous self fondling. All vestigial pretenses of seriousness dissipate when the Simpsons — the Simpsons — get the last word. PC had arrived so fully that it had even engulfed a cartoon specializing in the anti-PC.
What stands out is that Jackson’s real-boy fantasy of destruction of an urban street finds him totally alone. Contrast that with “Beat It,” in which his character moves from staring at the wall on his bed to breaking up an actual knife fight for some gangland choreography. Think of it! About the time of “Black and White,” news people began pronouncing “harassment” as “hairussment,” and workplace re-education of males had begun apace, while only three years earlier, the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel” had made a compelling statement about adolescent feelings of inadequacy with Jackson’s posse chasing a model down dark alleyways. Jackson leveraged the incomprehensible image of himself as a sexual threat to point to feelings that can become endearing when developed in a healthy way or menacing when left to corruption. Significantly, the older video ends with a hug, not a kiss.
There was this sort of discordant grit to Jackson’s work during the ’80s. In the early ’90s, he indulged in Disneyfication in preparation for our vacation from history. In the culture, grit bifurcated into grunge. Development and cultural reinvention gave over to saccharine banalities, on one hand, and raw expressions of impotent frustration, on the other. Some switch had been flicked, and if there are historians around centuries from now, perhaps they’ll discern what it was.
Michael Jackson did not cause these seismic shifts, of course. But at the pinnacle of his success as they progressed and characterized most profoundly by his apparent fragility, he reflected them like a canary in a coal mine. This reflection continued, horribly, as the corruption of his own emotional expression surrounded him with an aura strongly redolent of pedophilia. What, in the culture, this stomach-churning development might have been reflecting is chilling to ponder.
In that light, it would be as frightening as it would be presumptuous to make a metaphor of his death. Both with respect to him and to the culture that shaped him, it would be better to rewind and rewatch in the hopes of reclaiming what’s been lost.