Michael Jackson has been back in the spotlight this past month to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Thriller. He’s riding a wave of nostalgia powerful enough, it would seem, to make people forget/ignore what he’s become in the intervening years. People love Thriller (and what Thriller represents) THAT much!
Part of me is very excited about this. I have been a BIG Michael Jackson fan for a long time, and it’s gratifying to see him recognized for something other than kookiness. And Thriller is awesome, an incredible piece of work.
But there’s “another part of me”(!) that, frankly, resents the revival and sees it as fair-weather friendship, one that fundamentally misses the boat when it comes to Michael Jackson.
What do I mean? For those of us interested in the practical ramifications of the Christian Gospel – a.k.a. how judgment, demand, scrutiny and conversely, love, forgiveness, and mercy play out in everyday life – there is NO more interesting case study than Michael Jackson. (No, not even Britney Spears!). And not Thriller-era MJ, I’m talking about Michael Jackson in the 90s. Dangerous-era, HIStory-era, Lisa Marie Presley-era, etc.
The 90s also happen to be my favorite period of his, when I would argue he produced his greatest music. I realize this is a controversial opinion, so let’s be clear: Michael Jackson is strange, strange man, full of contradictions, and a true megalomaniac. Deranged? Perhaps, I don’t know. I may have agreed with the not-guilty verdict re: the “allegations”, but I would never go so far as to label him innocent. Not knowing him personally, I don’t feel qualified to comment more than that. What I do feel qualified to comment on, however, is his art: his music, his dancing, and his videos, but especially his music.
By 1990, Michael Jackson had been in the public eye for over 20 years, roughly since the age of 10. This includes the 1980s, when he may well have been the most famous person on the planet. And his fame was well-deserved: he was that rare celebrity whose creativity and talent matched his charisma. (People often forget that Michael wrote and co-produced nearly all of his major hits). But if his 90s output is to be taken at face value, the success brought with it unbearable pressure and scrutiny. Suddenly everyone (in the world!) was entitled to have an opinion about him. Judgment with a capital J!
Take the Free Willy song, “Will You Be There?”, released in 1991 on the album Dangerous. After a truly ridiculous choral intro, we hear Michael plead with a gospel choir for love and understanding, crying “I’m only human!” over and over. It’s powerful. The exhaustion continues in “Black Or White”, where he (and Slash!!) tells us, “I’m tired of this devil/I’m tired of this stuff/I’m tired of this business”.
The final masterpiece on Dangerous is “Who Is It”, another in his series of paranoid anthems (“Billie Jean”, “Smooth Criminal”, “Leave Me Alone”, “Ghosts” etc), where he confesses, “the will has brought no fortune/still I cry alone at night/don’t you judge of my composure/cause I’m lying to myself” and then finally, “I can’t take it cause I’m lonely!” It’s the sound of a man hanging by a thread.
Of course, elsewhere on the record is “Heal the World”, a song so sappy it makes “We Are The World” look edgy. (Sidenote: the absurd range in quality found on a Michael Jackson album, with nigh-perfect tracks alongside ones so bad they produce secondhand embarrassment, is one of the many ways he reminds me of Brian Wilson.)
As dark as Dangerous gets, it doesn’t hold a candle to the second disc of 1996’s HIStory. Which is ironic, considering that the first disc of HIStory (a defacto greatest hits) has got to be one of the most overt attempts at self-deification ever unleashed. The cover depicts our hero in statue form, for crying out loud! It’s not subtle.
But HIStory disc two, or HIStory Continues, is Michael at his most personal and vulnerable – his Plastic Ono Band, if you will. It opens with my all-time favorite MJ single, “Scream”. Over a chorus of breaking glass and slamming doors, he and his sister Janet yell, “stop pressuring me/just stop pressuring me/stop pressuring me/[you] make me want to scream” before finally begging, “somebody please have mercy cause I just can’t take it!” Woah.
I don’t see how anyone who’s actually listened to “Scream” could argue that it’s not operating on a deeper, more profound (albeit less fun) level than Thriller. Sadly, he made it impossible for us to just listen – we had to look too, and his appearance, by this time, had become way too bizarre. Just check out the video, where he unfortunately looked EXACTLY like the alien he was trying (not?) to portray:
The second track on HIStory, right after “Scream”, is another blast of disaffection called “They Don’t Care About Us”. Then comes the inspired “Stranger in Moscow”, the loneliest of all his lonely songs, where he mentions his “swift and sudden fall from grace” and asks, “how does it feel/when you’re alone and you’re cold inside?” As if that’s not intense enough, he also makes reference to Stalin’s tomb, the KGB and nuclear Armageddon. We’re a long way from “Rockin’ Robin”.
Michael’s solution to all this pain and fear: Peter Pan-style retreat to childhood, a place he associates with the unconditional love, joy and freedom he’s never known. I know I’m treading on (very) shaky ground here, but taken out of the courtroom context, doesn’t this seem to jive, at least a little, with Jesus’ words in Mark 10 about little children and the kingdom of God? On second thought…
I could go on – don’t get me started on the brilliance that is the Blood On The Dance Floor EP – but my point is this: when St. Paul tells us that “the letter kills” (2 Cor 3:6), he’s not kidding. The fruit of the law here, i.e. “thou shalt be the King Of Pop”, is alienation and loneliness, anger, depression, writer’s block and, yes, in all likelihood, more sin. A starker contrast to The Traveling Wilburys one could not find.
The burden of being Michael Jackson is something no one should ever have to bear. That he would crack up under that kind of pressure, that he would even try to transform himself into a different person, was a foregone conclusion. (Substitution, anyone?!). I’m just grateful his talent didn’t abandon him in his struggles. I hope he finds the mercy he’s dying for.