Stray thoughts, unfinished paragraphs and meandering ruminations on the frightening, fascinating and ultimately unsatisfying subject of Michael Jackson, 20 years after his album "Thriller" first began to climb up the pop charts.
1. Michael Jackson: He makes the Weekly World News seem true, every page of it.
2. Michael Jackson: The tawdriness involved with just looking at pictures of him, the leering and uncomfy feelings, the what now? of Michael Jackson.
People will look anyhow. He is powder and synthetic hair and paint and so much frailty. Where the nose used to be, there is now an exposed piece of plastic that looks like part of a tiny, tiny ice cube tray, revealing the architecture of his proboscidean desire -- the upturned nose of the pretty starlet. It has eroded away.
If supercelebrity facilitates the creation of a family of those who adulate and those who are adulated (the other uneasy family Michael Jackson belongs to, aside from the one to which he was physically born), then he is like a relative we cannot help. We are LaToya to him. We seethe like Jermaine. We surpass him like Janet. He rejects us even as he needs us. There is the urge to intervene, to understand him as a celebrity, to contemplate his very success and failure and existence. But to do any of that, you have to first see him, on some level, as a human being. This is where it all goes wrong.
3. Michael Jackson: Dangling his shrouded baby from a hotel balcony! Stop that!
4. Michael Jackson: Often refers to or sings about or disparages "the lies" that are printed, broadcast and otherwise uttered about him; all those untruths spinning around poor Jacko, lies on top of lies. Maybe nothing about Michael Jackson is accurate. Maybe there can never be a single true thing about him anymore. He is 44 years old, truthfully, but also he is 12. Or 83. Or embryonic, chicklike, wet with membrane.
5. Michael Jackson: A study in phobia. (His, ours.)
6. Michael Jackson: Was, the story goes, driving a van that broke down in Los Angeles traffic in 1992. A man helped Michael Jackson move his van, and that man's 12-year-old stepson soon became a good friend of the pop singer. They got together for sleepovers and played video games. The plot points of Michael Jackson's worst dramas always start out so simple: In this one a boy trapped in the body of a man seeks out the company of boys. Often it is the raw naivete that turns people off to Michael Jackson.
7. Michael Jackson: It took, by one count, 49 lawyers, a dozen investigators, 200 possible witnesses. It took the cash-for-gossip accounts as told by four housekeepers and two bodyguards to various tabloids. It took what is believed to be $20 million in settlement fees to the divorced, bickering parents of the child (who refused to testify and is now 22 years old). It took all this and a couple years of hyperventilating TV and newspaper stories for Southern California prosecutors to decide that there was no case against Michael Jackson as a child molester. By then it was too late to make the world go away.
8. Michael Jackson: Researchers may one day find more direct links between celebrity and mental illness; that being one causes it, but also that seeking fame after you already have it is a specific illness as well. It takes a certain kind of imbalance to call a news conference for the purpose of insisting upon your privacy, the way Princess Diana did, and Michael Jackson has done. The celeb malaise is an inability to turn away from it all. (Garbo didn't play the game and thereby still played the game.)
9. Michael Jackson: If he's the Howard Hughes of the 21st century, what, then, is his Spruce Goose, his giant bloated aircraft that won't fly? Where does it fly to? What would be his equivalent of wearing Kleenex boxes on his feet? (The mask he wears?) What germs are out to get him? What voices does he hear? What did he mean to us, come to symbolize, leave behind?
10. Michael Jackson: Or try this: Think about Madonna sitting on the toilet. This seems at least possible, courtesy of Madonna's occasional transaction with the media, in which she manipulates them and they manipulate her, revealing an agreed-upon "real" side, letting us in on an idea of her life as it is lived. Now imagine Michael Jackson sitting on the toilet: This seems so much less likely that it nudges toward the implausible, at least not without personal physicians, or animals to console him, or a supportive visit from Liz Taylor or Macaulay Culkin or a trusted spiritual adviser. Something mildly disastrous awaits Michael Jackson at every moment, and even the simplest processes become somehow unlikely.
A spaceship lands behind the mansion and one of his minions rushes to meet it, carrying a small, vacuum-sealed plastic bag with the carefully inspected, chemically treated fecal matter of Michael Jackson, and then the spaceship flies away. This you'd believe.
11. Michael Jackson: A spider has bitten him in his house at the mythic Neverland Valley Ranch -- a spider that was not one of his pet tarantulas -- and so he arrives on crutches Dec. 3 at the Santa Maria, Calif., courthouse where he is being sued for $21 million for not performing two concerts at the turn of the millennium.
It's such a mess to be Michael Jackson. It hurts in a very precious way. He's like the man in a body cast who goes careening out the back of the ambulance -- a fragile punch line in a slapstick comedy. He reports himself, once again, to be in such pain that "it hurts very much right now as I speak." Always in a most delicate kind of pain. His skin condition, which he told us about seven years ago, continues to transform him so hurtfully, and has turned him the color of the inside of a fedora. He is more about pain than anything else. He always sang about pain: broken hearts, lonely and starving children, traitorous lovers, and abstract concepts of disharmony and war.
12. Michael Jackson: Sang and danced! It was on television. With his gorgeous brothers in their Afros and sequined suits. That's really all that happened, in summary form. Growing up is what ruined him, like the Peter Pan he pined to play on the movie screen, but Hollywood wouldn't allow it.
What is truly striking about Michael Jackson's tabloid adulthood -- everything that came after "Thriller" -- is the way in which even the casual junk-culture consumer can enumerate the peculiar lows. The Elephant Man bones, the hyperbaric sleep chamber (a hoax, in fact), Bubbles the chimp, the pyrotechnic mishap with the hair, marrying Lisa Marie Presley, the surgery, the surgery, the surgery, the surgery. It loosely comes together in story form and still manages to not have a plot, or a thread of meaning. It is a story you'd start to tell the kids and then think better of it.
13. Michael Jackson: A very basic question, or two, or three, about the facts of life as they relate to Michael Jackson. Who are these babies? Why and how are there babies? (They were born "in the natural way," Michael has whispered.) Why did he name his sons Prince Michael I and Prince Michael II? A crowd waits below and wonders who will catch the babies, if they fall. The whole world claims to be waiting to catch his dropped babies.
14. Michael Jackson: A few days after the dangling episode, and the outcry, and the statement from Michael Jackson's camp that he is very, very sorry for what happened, you can play the video game version on the Internet. You, the player, are represented by Adolf Hitler, scuttling back and forth, trying to catch babies as Wacko Jacko lets go.
15. Michael Jackson: Meanwhile, the nefarious Gloria Allred, the grandstanding Los Angeles attorney, campaigns for state intervention on behalf of these strangely made babies. "Tell her to go to hell," Michael Jackson then tells reporters waiting outside the courtroom last week. But Allred is onto something, at least, in noting the world's discomfort with Jackson as single parent. We want to know about his babies the way we want to know where our own kid found a piece of candy on the playground: What's that? Where did you get it? Who gave it to you? Give it to me.
16. Michael Jackson: Did not have the happiest childhood, which we learned from the TV movie. To encourage one's children to become pop singing sensations -- it is not punishable by law, however. In some corners, it is a national folk art, like in the plazas of shopping malls, where trussed-up, glittery little girls and boys brandish karaoke microphones and try to eliminate one another.
17. Michael Jackson: His transformation indicates that cosmetic surgeons can't do everything you pay them to do, at least not right away. ("He got bad advice," a cosmetic surgeon tells Larry King, looking back on it.)
18. Michael Jackson: Naked. (Discuss.)
19. Michael Jackson: Ruined his life by having the audacity (and talent) to record an album, "Thriller," that sold 45 million copies around the world. The triumph in this is somehow negated by the frightening reality of a world in which 45 million of anything could be sold, and that this defining trinket would be a highly produced, slick, ultimately empty pop record. It is played in rain forests where there shouldn't even be radios. The gyration and movement and beat become irrelevant, commonplace, not so special.
20. Michael Jackson: His martyr complex is no mere paranoia. He really is dying for someone's sins, in little pieces. This is the position most closely adhered to by his endearingly loyal fans, who don't believe any of the lies but believe very much in his persecution. When they compose letters to entertainment magazines in his defense, they no doubt type in all capital letters, with exclamation points, and they cannot be appeased.
21. Michael Jackson: Among the biggest lies, according to Michael Jackson, is the one about his being homosexual, as if there could be no worse thing. Which leads to an obvious hypothesis, if he were gay: Perhaps Jackson would have been less likely to spend his millions retreating into his fixated, fantasy childhood if someone close to him -- maybe one of his brothers, or Quincy Jones -- had simply told him that it's okay to be a gay black celebrity in America? (And would this have been true? Is it okay to be a gay black celebrity in America? Or is it somehow easier to become Liz Taylor, a layer at a time?)
22. Michael Jackson: The records don't sell, in the sense that "Invincible," his 2001 release, can be considered a bomb for selling a mere 2 million copies. This summer, Michael lashed out at his keepers, Sony Music and its chairman, Tommy Mottola. He accused the record label of systematic racism against black performers and songwriters.
23. Michael Jackson: Black activist. This was something to consider, given the remarkable change to his own appearance in 20 years. Al Sharpton, unflappable to the end, flinched and tried to smooth things over after the attack on Sony. Two days later, Jackson appeared at Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters in Harlem for a seminar on black artists' rights -- the Music Industry Initiative Summit -- every bit the angered black man.
This got to something unintentional and profound and correct in the most insane way: A black man is a black man, underneath it all, no matter where life takes him, even if that man is Michael Jackson. It started to sound like a Michael Jackson song -- the guttural bursts of ack and yack and ye-hee-hee, with a fondant of Feed the World, Rescue the Children, Make the World a Better Place candy-coated over it. After another angry speech about his oppression, summoning the ghosts of Otis Blackwell and other unheralded, uncredited, unrich black songwriters, Jackson left the seminar, escorted by Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran. They were chased by screaming fans, who, in their excitement, almost toppled a stack of public-address loudspeakers onto Michael Jackson.
24. Michael Jackson: Things appear to be getting worse. It is now widely speculated that the money is gone, in the sense that one can still have millions of dollars left and be thought of as teetering near some financial brink.
25. Michael Jackson: In all of this, you're forgetting the little kids of 20 years ago, with cassette tapes of "Thriller" on the boombox, jumping off their chairs and moonwalking across the kitchen floor in their pajamas. Punk rockers will tell you without irony that it was their favorite record when they were kids.
26. Michael Jackson: Ignoring his original contract with God and mankind (who collaborated to make him a pop star), he instead tunes his ears to far more distant signals. Sometimes, in the photos, you can see it in the darkness of his eyes, the only feature he has not altered. There's a sound out there and he hears it.
27. Michael Jackson: The story continues to merely melt away, our greatest and most meaningless icon. Our appetite for it is inexplicable, and yet very primal.
28. Michael Jackson: Another person will no doubt have cause to drag him into a courtroom for some reason or another. At this metamorphic rate, what will respond to the summons will not be a man at all, but something contained in a jar, carried to and from the proceedings by an attorney or two. The jar will be speaking in a whisper, and cameras will be clicking in disbelief. Michael Jackson engenders a kind of disbelief that, on the whole, isn't the worst thing a man could be remembered for. The jar of goo will weep and not exactly answer the questions asked of it. The jar of goo will say all it ever wanted to do was help the children.