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The King And Us

By Margo Jefferson
Saturday, June 27, 2009 7:41 PM

Michael Jackson loved epic symbols. In his shows and his videos, he always destroyed or salvaged worlds; he was the hero of parables about street violence, sexual combat, war and natural disaster. It was always apocalypse or apotheosis now.

So it makes perfect sense that he arranged his final concert tour with metaphoric precision. Fifty shows. One for each year of his life. After that -- Exit, the King of Pop.

Now we're left with this final exit. I keep remembering the infamous 2002 photograph of Michael, lying still as death in what looked like a casket (actually an oxygen chamber). That image tempts me to wonder whether, in some way, he stage-managed his own death. But that's too easy a metaphor. We all watched as the white body bag was placed in the coroner's van. There was only one meaning to that image.

I first wrote about Michael Jackson in the 1980s. His skin was growing paler, his features thinner and his aura more feminine. Some called him a traitor to his race. Some fussed about his gender fluidity. I saw him as a post-modern shape-shifter. But the shifts grew more extreme and mysterious.

In 2003, I started writing a book about Jackson. I watched every video, read every biography, tracked every crisis. I was obsessed. Who was the performer? Who was the man? And what remained of either? Why did he embody so many of our conflicts and fantasies: about children and sexuality; about race; about fame, beauty and the ability to reinvent oneself over and over. I wanted to consider all that and I very much wanted to give him his due as an artist.

Now there is no time left for shape-shifting or reinvention. And I am finding it painful to imagine what it must have taken to prepare himself for his last tour. It wasn't just a matter of designing a great show, it was about getting a middle-aged voice and body in top working order. And what about the work required to face the doubts and sneers of so many people? (The adoration of those ever-loyal fans wasn't enough: This time Michael wanted to bring all those deserters back into the fold.) Surely he knew that these performances were his last chance to escape the ghetto of scandal and disdain he'd been confined to since his 2005 trial for sexual abuse.

Death gives him that chance. It's no longer those eternally loyal fans who weep and say corny things like, "He brought love to the world." Now somber-faced commentators and politicians urge us to put aside unworthy thoughts about his private life or his plastic surgeries and his whitened skin and celebrate his genius.

I'm all for that. Michael Jackson was one of popular culture's greatest artists. Nobody danced better. Few sang more compellingly. No one understood more about stage spectacles or music videos. He was an innovator. His reach was global. Was he post-racial, as some say? I'd call him trans-racial. He never left the classic elements of black style behind; he kept mixing them with new material and bringing them to new audiences.

But Michael Jackson was also a tortured soul. Time and again, he spoke of his unhappy childhood, of how he feared and mistrusted most people. He loved children, he said, because only they were truly innocent. We know all about the roughly $17 million he spent just to buy his Neverland retreat. Think of the emotional and imaginative cost: 2,800 acres crammed with animals, statues, foliage, a mansion and amusement castles. It took all that for one man to construct a vision of safety and happiness.

His temperamental extremes served his art well for a long time. The angry adult, the playful child; the victim and the conqueror; the dandy and the sentimentalist; the savior and the demon; the macho and the girlishness. He was a male and a female impersonator. A collector of gestures and costumes. He was a wonder.

We all remember our disillusionment though, as his skin paled and his features narrowed, then caved in beneath the surgeon's knife, as he stood trial on sexual abuse charges. We don't have to relive any of this. We needn't wallow in it anymore, haul out the old charges and judgments. But we can't tuck it all away neatly and pretend that it never happened. There's nothing like celebrity scandal to make us pious and spiteful. And there's nothing like a celebrity death to make us pious and forgetful.

We Americans are childish about our celebrities and icons. We worship, then we denounce; we identify passionately with them and then, if they do something -- anything -- we dislike, we cast them off. We actually have a chance to treat Michael Jackson differently. We can live with his outsize torment and self-abuse. At the same time, we can bask in his outsize talent and artistry. They aren't a well-matched pair. They don't have to be. He was flawed, and he was sublimely gifted.

The rest is silence.

Margo Jefferson is the author of "On Michael Jackson."

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