When I heard the news that Michael Jackson had been rushed to the hospital, I was just about to leave work. I had a feeling that by the time I arrived home later that evening, he would be gone. And even though I was right, it still hit me in shock. Out of that shock came two sudden reactions: They came from two different parts of me that I think were equally meaningful, but equally opposite. In a way, they seemed to parallel the two different images of Jackson that dominated his image over the last two decades. One was the brilliant singer and dancer. The other, the face-shifting weirdo living a life seemingly out of control. Like Michael Jackson’s life, my emotions were in a state of Jeckyll and Hyde. So here are my two “tributes”: first, the sad anger of Hyde, then the quiet reflection of Jeckyll.
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This is a sad end to what turned out to be a sad life.
This is going to get extremely ugly, folks — and not just in the way that Elvis became a kitsch messiah when he passed. Like Elvis, I wouldn’t not be surprised if the “Michael is alive” sightings start pretty soon. Then there will be all the people claiming his estate: people he owed money to, family members, record companies, people coming out of the woodwork saying that “the kid IS his son.” And the people who bought tickets to the O2 shows: Do you think they’ll get their ticket money back? Not bloody likely.
Part of me is so unbelievably cynical that I would not surprised if it turned out that he knew that he was dying, and scheduled the concerts as a way of paying off part of his debts, knowing he wasn’t going to survive to make the shows. Considering he had already postponed the first few weeks in advance, I have a feeling he was just going to keep postponing shows until he finally passed. Is that a lousy attitude to have? Perhaps, but considering all that has happened in the last twenty years or so, you also have to remember this: all the weird shit that we’ve heard about him — all the stuff he told us not to believe in the tabloids — he put it in the tabloids (or at least, approved of his people letting the stories get out). It was his belief that he could control his image, while refusing to adapt to a more salacious press over the course of his career, that ending up tipping his image from eccentric genius to weirdo. It would be another way — his last and greatest feat of media and cultural manipulation — to announce a series of comeback/goodbye concerts that would never take place, and then die while working his ass off to rehearse for them. At the end, it would be all about the music again.
As I said, it’s cynical — because it’s so sad. I’m just at that age in life that I grew up in the midst of Thriller mania during my formative years, and don’t look at that time or that music as “oldies” the way those 30 and under might. And that’s why this news hits me in such a raw place inside, because the reality is that for someone who was such a combination of brilliant and big all at once — who actually WAS a superstar and actually deserved all the critical acclaim that he was given — the last twenty years ended up being a string of worsening stories and very little music. His musical legacy ends up almost a side note: distorted by the non-musical events over the majority of his adult life. And now that his life ends like this — with both a bang and a whimperâ€¦itâ€™s just sad.
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Now that I’ve taken care of my “Mr. Hyde” post, I think I need to give due time to “Dr. Jeckyll”:
The thing that always struck me first about Michael was his voice’s malleability, and I mean that in the best of terms. While Off the Wall may very well be a stronger overall album than Thriller, the earlier album mainly stuck to mid-tempo dance music and ballads (with a slight exception for the more funky, horn driven album closer, “Burn This Disco Out,” which would make an awesome tribute track for Lost in the ’70s (hint, hint)). On Thriller, you had the tribal rhythms of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” the “yacht rock” of “Human Nature,” the percussive funk of “Billie Jean,” up-tempo pop of “P.Y.T.,” and even hard rock with “Beat It.” And the unifying ingredient was that Michael could sing his ass off on every one of them. To paraphrase his pal Eddie Murphy’s comments about James Brown (one of MJ’s idols): he meant that shit.
I think it was Mel Torme (or maybe Tony Bennett?) who said that the reason so many singers from previous generations like Michael Jackson was that “he [was] one of the only modern singers who actually sings.” It took me a while to figure out what he really meant, but I finally got it: Michael can take a song and make it his own, because he actually got into the words, the music, and how the voice should bridge both of them, to being out the emotion in each and accentuate the best of both. He got into the songs with real emotion — not the pseudo-emotion that many pop singers (especially today) have, where they trill, or get loud, but have no connection to the song below the surface. Michael actually got so into “She’s Out of My Life” that he started crying at the end of the final take. He didn’t just sing the song: for those three minutes, he was living it. That’s something so wonderful, so ineffable, so fearless, that you can’t really teach it. You either have it as an instinct or you don’t; it’s why pop music is an art when done right.
That when, when I think about the descent his life took in the last 20 years of his life — which probably started the moment I saw the cover of the Bad album for the first time and said “What the hell? Who IS that?!” — I can still find redemption in the music, and those moments where all the world seemed to be listening to and singing the same songs. When elementary school music teachers were hanging posters of MJ in their classrooms (mine had the one of Michael in the sleeveless yellow sweater with his hands in his pockets) and gym teachers were having classes do aerobics presentations to “Beat It” for their families.
My cynical side is just disappointed and angry. My other side just says “I’m sorry, Michael. Sorry it ended like this. Sorry for the life you got pushed into by your dad, and probably fucked you up big time for the rest of your life. Maybe that push, and that childhood stardom, ended up awakening the genius as well, but that’s no excuse. I just hope now you’re at peace.”