I actually wasn't very surprised this afternoon when the news came out. There have been quiet reports for a long time--ill health, painkiller addiction, financial straits, downward spiral. I was more surprised that he didn't collapse in the middle of the upcoming tour, that he didn't even make it that far.
I remember being five years old and sitting on the couch with my parents watching a half-hour thing about how they made "Thriller"--this was a very big deal, because they were going to show the video FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER right afterwards--and I was fascinated. Particularly by the dancers rehearsing and the wolfy makeup stuff. And then the video itself came on and I hid behind the couch. I liked the red jacket, though.
For someone who nurtured such a childlike image--the soft falsetto, the boyish thinness, the gentle save-the-world ballads, the constant company of children--there was a strange undercurrent of aggression in his music. Beat it. I'm bad. Dangerous. Leave me alone. Give in to me. And for decades, even before the really ugly levels of crazy set in, he indulged in a strange paramilitary motif--the jackets, the buckles, the epaulets. (Don't even get me started on the giant statues.) And then, the crotch-grabbing--that delicate body's weird masculine assertion. "The Way You Make Me Feel," for example, is a great song with a disturbing video, unless you're actually turned on by a gang of wolf-whistling guys shadowing you down an alley and refusing to take no for an answer.
It's hard to watch the early Jackson 5 performances now--a time when he seemed to be happy, joyous, unconflicted, normal--and know that his father was beating the kids.
I can't explain why "Smooth Criminal" is such an amazing song, because 85% of the lyrics are some variation on "Annie, are you okay?," and the clearest film clip of the choreography is the centerpiece of a weird little tangent in Moonwalker about Joe Pesci kidnapping little kids to hook them on drugs, but it's okay because Michael turns into a car and a spaceship and a giant Transformer or something, I don't even know. The blurry, sped-up/slo-mo version actually has some great little editing touches (mostly from about 3:00 forward), even if it's mostly... blurry. (I do remember reading that the reason he always had contrasting socks and too-short pants was so you could see his feet better.) The famous anti-gravity lean comes in around 7:37 in the full, clear version, but for my money, the best part is 8:20 or thereabouts, when the other dancers are slowly absorbed into the routine, like they're just magnetized to him.
I'm not sure at what point we all realized that Michael Jackson had actually turned white--at what point the balance tipped and we all went, "Holy shit--I don't know how he did it, but his skin is not the least bit black anymore, at all." I mean, yes, I know: lupus and vitiligo. That doesn't explain the way everything male was also being whittled out of his face; maybe vitiligo really was causing the (incredibly even) skin lightening, but it was easy to believe that he was trying to bleach himself on purpose, that somehow he just hated the face he'd been born with, even as the rest of us wished more and more fervently he'd go back to it. Comedians had fully run this into the ground by the--late '80s? Early '90s? ("He started out a black man and now he's a white woman!" There, I just saved you ten years of jokes.) The really off-putting thing for me was the way his nose seemed to melt until it was like that last sliver of soap you can't quite bear to throw away. The last few years, I couldn't stand to look at pictures of him at all.
I was standing there behind the recliner earlier this evening, a plate of (un)frozen pizza in hand while all the news channels waited for the family press conference, watching Keith Olbermann make the point that one of Michael Jackson's great regrets was that he had not become an equally gigantic movie star. The last I heard, he was trying to get something called The Nightmare of Edgar Allan Poe off the ground. The article is dated 1999, but I swear I heard something about it (...still being stalled) in the last two years or so. The idea of Michael Jackson playing Poe--yes, he was actually going to star as Poe--is bizarre on a number of levels, perhaps the strangest being that it was almost a little bit fitting. If nothing else, there was no way he could have played a conventional hero today; his face was way too far gone for that. I'm hoping he's somewhere now where he doesn't hate himself anymore.
He was formally accused of molesting a child--twice, actually. There were weird rumors about what went on at Neverland Ranch, and gossip has it that various former child actors of his acquaintance have implied that bad things happened, but I can't find sources for any of it. Even the Corey Feldman thing turned out to be about someone else. He was not convicted; he was not found guilty. It's not for me to declare, "Well, but clearly he was abusing children." I think bad things probably did happen. Bad things to him, we know, and bad things that he might have done. And if people were hurt, it's disrespectful to them to deny it; but if a man is innocent, it's unfair to insist that we just know he wasn't, somehow we just know. That's the elephant in the room. I don't know what else to say.
If I'm recalling this correctly, "Remember the Time" came out in February of 1992--the video did, at least--and despite a great deal of Egyptian-themed silliness (what, you don't remember the great pharaoh Eddie Murphankamun?), I was pretty sure the song itself was the best thing ever. I have a very strong sense memory of being thirteen years old and walking home from school--well, not home; walking down to the church parking lot where my friend's mother picked us up in the afternoons. The residential road sloping down from the school was maybe a block long, but it was walled by tall trees that reached across the street and formed a cathedral roof of leaves, and every afternoon I would walk down that sun-dappled asphalt to the church. There were also a few houses on the edge of the parking lot, and I always passed an open garage--whoever lived there, he liked to tinker in the afternoons, and he always had the radio on. More often than not--due to the cyclical nature of radio playlists--"Remember the Time" would come on while I was waiting under the crape myrtles, hoping Melissa's mom would take a little longer to show up. I associate it very strongly with deep golden afternoons, amber autumn foliage, a road roofed with mystery, with feeling like the radio was always lucky for me. It's still my favorite Michael Jackson song.