Sooner or later anyone interested in the subject of identity is going to have to reckon with Michael Jackson. You just can’t get around him, especially not this week, which brought the release of his second posthumous record, Xscape. No one has delved more deeply or compassionately into the questions of identity posed by the King of Pop than journalist Margo Jefferson. In her penetrating treatise On Michael Jackson (written while MJ was still alive), she confronts the, er, white elephant that dogs every tribute to the Gloved One:

Michael-Jackson-in-2000In the past two decades we’ve watched Michael Jackson morph from a slender brown-skinned man to a slightly anorexic white-skinned… what? Look at the face and you might see a transsexual, while the wardrobe suggests a gothic dandy. Often he wears a military uniform or suit. Always an armband, almost always a medallion. Brocade shirts and ties, often in pastel colors. But it’s the face. Is it black or white, male or female? There is no realism here, only mythology. The face is a ceremonial mask, gorgonlike. It is affixed; it was achieved through surgery.

Never have so many people around the world–but especially in the United States–had plastic surgery of some kind. The Swan, Extreme Makeover, Dr. Beverly Hills 90210–television had to catch up with real life to put on these docudramas of extreme need and desire. But most people want an improved version of themselves, or at least something they could call a beautiful relation. Michael’s face is in another zone altogether. It has nothing in common with him anymore. We look. We shiver. We want to turn away. He was not supposed to expose this kind of need. What is it: Self-hatred? Fear and loathing of human beings? A passion to escape the conditions of life and human exchange so fierce that he is willing to be reborn through science? The desire for a kind of perfection most of us cannot see and that he will not share with us? A will to change reality that is a postmodern version of hubris?

I’d go with “F. All of the Above”. We can only speculate, of course, but it’s safe to say that Michael’s transformation doesn’t really have a precedent–and I doubt we’ll see it repeated any time soon. Hubris is written all over it, but so is self-recrimination. And so is narcissism and despair, transcendence and retreat, self-sabotage and self-deification, even creativity and vision. Who can know for sure what was behind it. All we know is that it happened.

Clearly Michael Jackson wasn’t content to simply curate or manage his identity a la Madonna (or you and me). Maybe it was his Jehovah’s Witness background–though he was baptized in a Lutheran church!–but in a roundabout way, no pop star has ever taken the Law of Who You Must Be more seriously, especially one who, at one time, had redefined its parameters. Like his artistry, there was nothing casual about Michael’s identity. Which may be inevitable when all you know of life is performance (Jefferson suggests elsewhere that Michael was never not performing, or rather, that he couldn’t not perform). Whatever the underlying psychology, he took identity politics an uncomfortable step further than any celebrity ever has.

You could say that his transformation was a process of emptying himself of all recognizable traces of identity, and you wouldn’t be mistaken. But you could just as easily claim that he was dead-set on incorporating everything he could into who he was, on building the perfect beast, and you’d be equally right. Instead of settling for an ideal version of himself, he sought to become an ideal version of everybody. Think about it–categories of race, gender, sexuality, even species, hardly seem to apply to what MJ became. The surgeries may not have been a negation of who he was as a black male so much as a (misguided) assimilation of everything and everyone he wanted to reach. Jefferson references a quote from artist Keith Haring along these lines:

24s_layer-1A 1987 journal entry [of Haring] reads, “I talk about my respect for Michael’s attempts to take creation in his own hands and invent a non-black, non-white, non-male, non-female creature by utilizing plastic surgery and modern technology. He’s totally Walt-Disneyed out! An interesting phenomenon at least. A little scary, maybe, but nonetheless remarkable, and I think somehow a healthier example than Rambo or Ronald Reagan… I think it would be much cooler if he would go all the way and get his ears pointed or add a tail or something, but give him time!”

In this light, it’s possible that Michael Jackson was the first person to take St. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 (“there is now no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave or free” etc) as an imperative rather than an indicative, to read those words as an impossible edict rather than a beautiful promise, Law rather than Gospel. Then again, maybe he was just an insecure guy with addictive tendencies, too much money and too many yes-men surrounding him (who’d had a strange, strange childhood). We do know that Michael was a huge fan of Walt Disney, so maybe he was cognizant of what he was doing. But lord knows the man was a jumble of contradictions–to put it mildly. If he was indeed using himself as a canvas, the proposition wasn’t a straightforward or strictly happy one. Jefferson again:

By the early nineties everything was being acted out and hidden–flaunted and denied at the same time. Yes, he said in interviews, he’d had plastic surgery. But only a few operations, not the reported fifty. No, he told Oprah Winfrey in 1993, he had not had his skin lightened, he was suffering from vitiligo and had to wear makeup to even out the tones. It was very painful for him. Above and beyond all that, his life was about healing race divisions. But he couldn’t heal the truth-versus-damage-control split that everyone watching him sensed.

It’s a powerful illustration of the human condition: you cannot separate Michael’s insanity (or, more generously, his lack of balance) from his brilliance. The same thing that made him great was what destroyed him.

But back to the new record. Xscape has at least two things going for it right off the bat, before a single note plays. First, it boasts the best cover art of any MJ record of since Dangerous, which is no small feat. Having his face on the cover–that Face–was likely a non-negotiable, but which vintage to use? It’s not a simple question. The image adorning Xscape steers clear of the explicit (and somewhat dishonest) throwback we saw on the cover of 2011’s vastly underrated Michael, which went for a Captain Eo look (below). The people behind it were appealing to the nostalgia (and grief) the entire planet felt for the pre-allegations MJ of 1984. But choosing a young Michael for that initial cover meant that people were confused and disappointed when the songs on the record were more in the vein of his ‘difficult’ later work, full of paranoia and agonized self-pity (and messianic schmaltz), rather than the care-free dance floor anthems of his post-Motown youth. The angst-ridden, Lisa Marie Presley-doting, hanging-babies-out-of-windows Michael was the Michael most of his audience wanted to forget.

Michael Jackson 01

The designers of Xscape opted for an image from the King of Pop’s final decade, then wisely obscured the lower half of his face–the creepier part–by putting him in a turtleneck of stars, thereby incorporating the cosmic aspect of his artistic vision. In a mirror image of what came before, Xscape‘s cover references the skeletal Jackson of This Is It but contains music which is much more in keeping with the breezy exuberance of his 80s records. They inverted the presentation, in other words, and it works.

The second thing the record has going for it is the title. Escape was such a dominant theme of Michael’s music, especially toward the end of his life, albeit not in the “transporting power of art” sense that the liner notes wishfully claim. Many of his final recordings found Michael gripped by fantasies of escape: from persecution and scrutiny, from adulthood, from sobriety, yes, even from himself. Just listen to the second half of Invincible or watch the Ghosts “short film” if you want to know what I’m talking about. Michael wanted to get away, and you can hardly blame him. The world represented nothing but demand and accusation and need (and adulation, which is a form of need) from the time he was six years old. Certainly his addiction to the painkillers that killed him was not a coincidence.

Xscape doesn’t contain a single moment as strong as “Behind the Mask” on Michael, but it comes close in the disco-fied “Love Never Felt So Good”. Not surprisingly, the vocals for both songs were recorded pretty much concurrently. Perhaps the chief difference between Xscape and Michael would be that the all-star producers and ‘collaborators’ here very much rise to the task, improving on the demos without exception while remaining loyal to the spirit of their hero.

“Chicago” would’ve been a welcome addition to Invincible; the resetting or “contemporization” transforms it into a convincing “Billie Jean” rewrite. “A Place With No Name” is a brilliantly off-beat synthesis of America’s “A Horse With No Name” and Bad‘s “Leave Me Alone,” which finds a broken-down Jackson pining for heaven–somewhere that not only lacks a name, but where he lacks one as well. It’s the first song to touch on the themes suggested in the album’s title, and as such, works as a perfect follow-up to Michael‘s excellent “Breaking News”, where MJ decried the prison his name had become. There’s something prayerful about it. Of course, one can’t help but wonder if Michael was aware of the irony of using an incredibly recognizable song to riff on the freedom of anonymity. Another wrinkle.

Last but not least, there’s the masterful title track, an ominous “Scream”-like number which contains a prescient bridge about how soon “this problem world won’t bother me no more.” You can hear plenty of the tensions Jefferson describes in the song–Jackson sounds genuinely desperate, expressing his desire to ‘fly away’ from the pressures which hound him, but doing so in a forum designed to bring him massively back into the spotlight. The song has a strong “this Michael, whom you crucified” vibe, too–it’s unsettling but fascinating. The producers knew what they were doing in putting it as the closer.

Are there any larger lessons to be learned here? Laying aside the fact that pop records aren’t exactly vehicles for ‘teaching’ (thank God!), a couple takeaways do stick out, neither of which are particularly revelatory. First, Xscape is further testament to Michael Jackson’s genius. His voice, his phrasing, his instincts, his ambition, his melodies–even in what he left on the cutting room floor–are simply unparalleled. If only such talent weren’t such a burden! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we shall not see his like again.

But secondly, the record serves as an unpleasant reminder that the identity project that MJ devoted himself to with such maniacal determination has only one possible end, and it’s not one of escape. You can’t become everything without becoming nothing. Not even the King of Pop. But that doesn’t mean the story is over–and I’m not talking about the inevitable, further posthumous releases from the Jackson estate (keep ‘em coming!). As the late great Robert Capon once wrote in reference to a different king: “He came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.” Can I get a ‘shamone’?!