The final legacy of Michael Jackson
I wanted to write an article about Michael Jackson this week. But as I sat down to do it, I found myself at a complete loss. There are at least four different articles I could write about the man, some of them contradictory. But perhaps contradiction is what defined the ‘King of Pop’ who died last week. Michael Jackson was a singing, dancing contradiction.
Here, after all, was a black icon who spent much of his later life trying to become white – while proclaiming that it really didn’t matter if you were black or white. Here was a superbly fit dancer who overdosed his body with so many medications that they finally consumed him. Here was an obviously warm-hearted lover of children, who was unable to shake off persistent accusations of perversion. And here was the most successful artist in history, who died leaving half a billion dollars in debt behind him.
I could write an article about his astonishing commercial success. About the fact that the ‘Thriller’ album, one that I came of age listening to, went on to become the biggest seller ever known. About the fact that Michael Jackson was at times a one-man music industry; when he boomed, the industry boomed; when he sneezed, the industry fell down sick. I could tell you about the amazing boost to his sales just after he died, and how his songs have taken over all the charts in the world. Or that 80 per cent of all records sold in the UK last weekend were MJ songs. But that is not the article I want to write.
I could write about the leeches and parasites who attach themselves to any brand that sells, and refuse to let go. About the agents, promoters, aides, advisors, guards, courtiers, managers, doctors, consultants, and trainers who smell success in others and latch on to divert the takings their way. About the fact that MJ was at least a supremely talented artiste who deserved his success – but that the world also rewards performers whose collective ability could reside in Michael’s little finger. I could write about the farce that was the O2 London concerts, a hallucination being sold to a gullible public that wanted to hope against hope that their man could still sing and dance. But that is not the article I want to write.
Or I could write about the loss of authenticity and how it destroys so completely. About how an exceptionally handsome young black man managed to turn himself into the grotesque caricature of a white woman who spoke in the whisper of a child. About how a man went to war with his own nose. About how we should all be scared when we try to deny our own roots and take on the looks and accents and manners of others, for that way lies insecurity and madness. About how the world’s most successful performance artiste could, by the end, only relate to chimps and children, and went everywhere in a mask. But that, too, is not the article I want to write.
After much agonising I realised that there is only one article I want to write about Michael Jackson, and that is about his art. That is his legacy, and that is what will last for generations, possibly centuries, beyond him.
Like so many of you, I grew up with MJ’s music. It had a verve and exuberance I had never seen before. I observed the moonwalk for the first time, and thought it was a camera trick. And when, much later, I heard the young Michael sing “Ain’t No Sunshine” I knew I was in the presence of a supreme vocal talent.
Whether you like that kind of music or not, MJ was simply one of the best performance artistes ever to grace this planet. His singing voice and his dance energy surpassed virtually any peer you care to name. When he put his mind to it (and avoided the syrupy schmaltz that he occasionally put out), he could write edgy and very unusual lyrics. His appeal was universal: there is hardly a corner of the earth where his music is not played daily. That, ladies and gentlemen, is success. We can mock the man all we want, but none of us are ever going to clock that level of achievement.
The artist is not the art. Art – words, music, images – is a collective flow that finds expression in the hands of one unique individual who can channel it and refine it until it is something sublime. But the artist, no matter how accomplished, is always a just a human being at the end of the day: flawed, insecure, petty. That need not diminish the art in any way.
Perhaps the death of MJ was necessary. For the past ten years, the freak show prevented me from ever listening to the music. Now that Wacko Jacko is gone, we can all go back to the one-off art of Michael Jackson.