Skip to comments.Beyond the Pale ... Mark Steyn on Jacko
Posted on 07/01/2009 6:08:14 AM PDT by Rummyfan
For a while, the weirdness exercised a global fascination. The prestigious Oxford Union invited him to address their members, and Michael Jackson flew in to Britain wearing his trademark surgical mask, a wise move considering the country was then in the grip of Mad Cow Disease. On an official tour of Blenheim Palace, which must have been a bit of a comedown after Neverland, they rolled out the red carpet, but he insisted it be heavily disinfected, and it squelched under his crutch. Crutch, not crotch. Due to some domestic mishap, he was grabbing the former rather than the latter. At Oxford, he called on the world to adopt his Childrens Bill of Rights, including the right to be thought adorable and the right to be listened to without having to be interesting. The right to a $30 million out-of-court settlement, won by a 13-year old former playmate of his, was not mentioned.
Michael also revealed the pain of his own lost childhood, as tears rolled down his cheek - or whoevers cheek it was originally. It was a constant motif in his work. Have you seen my childhood? he sang in Childhood, the theme song from Free Willy. (Free Willy, by the way, is a motion picture and not another demand from his Bill of Rights.) The artwork of his 1995 double-album, laboring under the titular burden of HIStory, Past, Present & Future - Book 1, includes a self-portrait of Michael as a young boy clutching a microphone and huddled in a corner:
Before you judge me Try hard to love me Look within your heart and ask Have you seen my childhood?
If he was that aware of what was wrong with his childhood, why couldn't he see his adulthood was even more luridly screwed up? You had to try hard to love the "grown-up" Michael, even before he started outpacing his Fleet Street caricature of Wacko Jacko. He spent his childhood singing adult love songs with the Jackson Five. He spent his adulthood pretending to be a child. For a while, he liked to hang out at Disneyland with Mickey Mouse, one of the few A-list celebrities with whom he had anything in common - not least the white gloves, squeaky voice, snub nose, bizarre albino face bearing no relation to the jet black surround, and a penchant for hanging out with kids even though youre well into middle age. Later, he was friends with Home Alone cutie Macaulay Culkin: they liked to go shopping together wearing buck teeth and false noses. But Macko outgrew Jacko and moved on to broads and booze, and Jacko turned to less worldly companions. A couple of years back, he visited London accompanied by Omar Bhatis, a 12-year-old boy who came first in a Michael Jackson look-alike contest in Norway. If you check into the EconoLodge with a prepubescent lookalike wearing matching white gloves and surgical masks, the gal at the front desk will give you the fish eye and buzz the house detective. But at the Dorchester Hotel its not a problem, at least for pop stars.
After the court cases, he belatedly found a couple of friends old enough to shave: the celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the illusionist Uri Geller, for whose renewal of marital vows Michael served as best man. Mr Geller is best known for his ability to take a spoon and, by all but imperceptibly gliding his finger over the surface, bend it into a different shape entirely. You could also do that with Michaels nose, of course, but he tended to get annoyed. Still, the sight of Michael Jackson in the company of men old enough to be the fathers of his previous friends prompted the tabloids to ask Is the Peter Pan of pop finally growing up? Maybe. Maybe not. But by this stage few cared other than the last hardcore fans and those mysterious Saudi and Emirate money men who, with the Middle Easts unerring instinct for popular culture, tossed gazillions into the ruins of his career. It was like a racial variation on Dorian Grey: He got whiter, but his finances were an ever blacker hole.
Born in Gary, Indiana in 1958, young Michael enjoyed eight relatively showbiz-free years before being forced with his older brothers into a singing quintet. According to the authorized biopic The Jacksons: An American Dream, his ambitious father isolated Michael from other boys, so that his only company was a small rodent who scurried around the kitchen floor. Will you be my friend, Mister Rat? he asked, and Mister Rat, no doubt cynically contemplating the prospect of a massive sexual harassment suit down the line, twitched his nose in agreement. But, a few nights later, the Jackson Five won the high school talent competition, and Michael came home eager to show off his trophy, only to find his little chum under the kitchen table, dead in a rat trap. He was my friend. Somebody killed him! wailed the young singer, racing around the house accusing members of his family and trembling on the brink of inverting the old Jimmy Cagney line: You dirty brother, you killed my rat! He remains the only singer ever to get a Number One record out of a song about a rat (Ben).
At Tamla Motown, the Jackson Fives first four records went to the top and one of them, I Want You Back, with an 11-year-old Michael wailing about an intensity of passion he knew nothing about then and seems unlikely ever to have experienced in the years since, is as good as anything Motown ever released. He didnt think anybody would want him without his brothers, but Thriller (1983), produced by Quincy Jones, artfully fused soul, rock, Vincent Price and the nascent video form to become the worlds all-time best-selling album. Yet, while still just about recognizably African-American, Michael was already considerably less black than on the cover of his previous album, Off The Wall. He was also rumored to be hanging out with chimps and llamas. In an in-depth interview with Oprah Winfrey, the King of Pop pooh-poohed the preoccupations of the press. If I had a chance to talk to Michelangelo, he squeaked, I would want to know about the anatomy of his craftsmanship, not about who he went out with. Thats what's important to me.
How much plastic surgery have you had? responded Oprah, less interested in the anatomy of his craftsmanship than the craftsmanship of his anatomy. You can count it on two fingers, replied Jacko, holding up two hed made earlier.
But, as with Michelangelos David, Oprahs eye was drawn to one region in particular. Why do you always grab your crotch? she asked, alluding to his principal choreographic innovation. It happens subliminally, he said, although a more plausible explanation is that he was just checking on the one bit of him the plastic surgeon hadnt got to. I remember running into the critic John Simon after some terrible musical: I enjoyed one couplet, he said. When did Michael Jackson/Become Anglo-Saxon?
There are former friends who say Michael changed after his hair caught fire while filming a Pepsi commercial. There were stories that he took female hormones to keep his voice high, that he slept in an oxygen chamber, that he lightened his skin. By the Eighties, his celebrity pals were mostly post-menopausal women such as Katharine Hepburn and Sophia Loren. When asked whether hed proposed to Elizabeth Taylor, his lips remained sealed, although that may be just an unfortunate side-effect. It could be that the marriage story was simply a misunderstanding: he asked Liz for her hand and she said: Why not? Youve already got Diana Rosss nose. By the time he eventually married Lisa-Marie Presley, it seemed to owe more to the King of Pops dynastic ambitions, a desire to mate with the essence of Elvis and sire the greatest pop star of all.
But there was no progeny or even, by most accounts, much heavy petting. And Jackson had to settle instead for the Presley career trajectory descent into parody and premature demise. The final act had little to commend it: By the mid-Nineties, he was in the papers mostly for settling out of court with two boys and prompting California prosecutors to fly to Australia to interview another. Eleven-year old Brett Barnes told investigators he and Jackson had slept in the same bed together but insisted the singer had behaved properly at all times. Reeling from the allegations and hooked on painkillers, Jacko checked into Beechy Colcloughs Charter Clinic in Chelsea, west London, where Beechy weaned him off his addiction by substituting tea and English biscuits for the tranquilizers. In Jackos later videos that may look like his crotch hes grabbing, but maybe he was just checking on his packet of Hob Nobs.
He fathered various children by Debbie Rowe, the nurse hired to treat him for his alleged pigmentation disorder. Both of his sons were at one point called Prince Michael Jr, prompting Michaels brother Jermaine Jackson to up the ante and name his own son Jermajesty. Michaels daughter was called Paris Michael, her dad evidently having spent enough time in London to know the name Princess Michael would be likely to expose her to ridicule. The proud father, wearing a surgical mask over his surgical mask, was present at the birth of all three children. Whether he was present at the conception remained the subject of much speculation. When a distinguished New York Times cultural critic published a book called Margo Jefferson On Michael Jackson, she meant the title in the sense of a 19th century scholarly monograph rather than as a position few, if any, ladies are known to have assumed.
There is nothing natural about the making of child stars, wrote Ms Jefferson. They are little archaeological sites, carrying layers of show-business history inside them, fragments of history and tradition.
Lovely stuff, Im sure. But isnt there less to it than meets the eye? Isnt that just a fancy way of saying you can place every new star in the context of his predecessors? And, come to think of it, isnt that true of pretty much everything? Isnt your Toyota Corolla a little archaeological site, carrying layers of car-industry history inside it, fragments of history and tradition? Finding cultural significance in the rubble of celebrity self-destruction is tough work - an archaeological dig in an empty hole.
What about the music? There was a brief phase, between the boy and the man, when Michael Jackson distilled the cultural moment - the joyous intro of "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough", when the man-boy found his voice. But, even at his peak - the Thriller videos, a quarter-century back - he was mostly a shrewd mélange of pop culture allusions: the hoofers hat, the Fosse gloves, the Sgt Pepper uniform Surely the only thing sadder than living in a fantasy world is living in a second-hand fantasy, looking for J M Barries Neverland at a California ranch.
Indeed, that may be the only real significance in Michael Jacksons degeneration. The release of Thriller marked the apogee of big-time universal popular culture and poor Jacko became the living embodiment of pops paradox, corporately gargantuan and eternally infantile. After Thriller, Bad was considered a flop, though what wouldnt be? If Jacksons weirdness symbolizes anything larger, its the insanity of an industry where selling 25 million copies makes you a loser. You could argue that his ever more pallid complexion made him the pithiest shorthand for pops history: in splendid contrast to Little Richard and Pat Boone, he was the first black singer to become his own lucrative white cover version.
Did he ever look in the mirror, recall that little boy with the Jackson Five and think I Want You Back? Don Black, who wrote the aforementioned Ben, Michael's first big solo hit in 1972, is married to his childhood sweetheart Shirley - they grew up together in the East End of London - and is famously one of the sanest men in showbiz. The teenage Michael used to go round and see them at their place in Hollywood and Shirley would put on a nice cuppa tea for him and Michael would make some fey zonked-out observation and Don would respond with one of his old London music-hall gags and theyd play snooker with Dons teenage boys and Michael would spend the rest of the afternoon drawing pictures with Shirley. And you realize that, in the end, even for the most famous and famously damaged celebrities, wackiness is a choice. Michael Jackson made his. In the years ahead, well remember the freak show, but not much of the music.
“You dirty brother, you killed my rat! “
By the way, Ben is my favorite MJ song.
Great writing, sad subject
Chopped up and run through the tenderizer.
Awesome as usual.
The guy who wrote the music for Ben had quite a career...
I love Steyn; but this piece needed an editor. It’s too snarky even for MJ.
I've completely avoided every single Jackson until now. I knew Steyn wouldn't let me down.
s/Jackson until/Jackson thread until/
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