I’m going to break with my normal postings here for a film review of Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT.
Although I pride myself on having few limits to my musical tastes, I’ve never been a Michael Jackson ‘fanatic’. Although ‘Thriller’ was the very first cassette I used to demonstrate the power of my very first serious JVC sound system at the age of sixteen or so, and burned the tape thin on the player inside my navy blue ’74 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, I never joined an ‘MJ craze’. Although the beats to ‘Billie Jean’ incorporate a complex exponent mathematical system used in the ancient pyramids and throughout history, while I certainly enjoyed the music, dancing and stage artistry of the King of Pop, I dismissed him as ‘too mainstream’, ‘too easy’. Although I never jumped on a Jackson bandwagon, after seeing ‘THIS IS IT’ last night at the late showing, I think I may have missed a few things. In fact, I know I missed a few things, and Michael Jackson played it that way.
First, I will try to never, ever, ever again make judgements on anyone based on media reports. After his passing, the newsjackals had me believe that all that had really occurred was the washed up King of Pop, who couldn’t even sell his jackets at an auction, had overdosed in an exhausted, sad state of misery. He may have been sad. He may have been broke and miserable. But from what I saw onscreen last night, Michael Jackson was not even close to exhausted or washed up.
I watched with my jaw on the floor as ‘MJ’ danced and rehearsed and sang like never before. I kept saying ‘Fifty, fifty…’ under my breath. At fifty years old, this man was out-singing, out-dancing, out-living everything that Pop music now hypes, combined. Love, hate or indifferent, this man was the very best our Pop culture had to offer, and even the high-brows should take notice of his professionalism and skill. He demonstrated a knowledge of music, arrangements, choreography and positive project management we’ll ever witness. All the contemporary conspirators — from Madonna (who couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag), Boy George (who has to wear a paper bag for attention), and newer vermin like Justin Timberlake, Spears, and the choirs of oversinging deep throats who claim their ‘art’ as R&B — none will ever get near Michael Jackson, even on one of his off days, if he actually had one.
So, the question begs, why wasn’t I a fanatic? Why did it take Michael Jackson’s passing for me, a man who watched the very first MTV transmission in my Aunt Susan’s bedroom (she had cable), to finally appreciate the man who would define the medium? The answer is on the celluloid.
Like many others have commented, ‘THIS IS IT’ revealed a human side of Michael Jackson, and showed something far too obscure in the entirety of our current society — process. In this age where ‘everyone’s a winner’ in schools, and everyone wants to be a star after graduation, no one tells you how or what it takes to get there. I think the most poignant thing I saw in Jackson last night was the humanity of being human — how he connected the dots, the dance steps, the notes and the logic of being at the center of the biggest performance machine in history, and keep cool.
So, why all the witch hunts, controversy, rumours, hatred and speculation of a criminal? Because he refused to be controlled, and too many in society hated him for it. And after last nights’ film, I’m not sure that Michael Jackson’s life in obscurity served him well. Perhaps, if the world had gotten to witness some of the process revealed in ‘THIS IS IT’, history would lend a kinder hand to Jackson. But at it’s root, for me are three or so distinct reasons why, as Madonna put it at he video awards “While he was trying to build a family and rebuild his career, we were all passing judgement.”
First, Michael Jackson was a homosexual, or at least bisexual. Big surprise. I, for one, do not believe it was his duty or responsibility to address his sex life in public, and give him a lot of credit for leaving the details to our imaginations. As for the nauseating trials and day to day coverage of his alleged ‘relationships’ with young boys, this for me was a lower point than the OJ Simpson farce. If Michael Jackson was indeed a paedofile, it wasn’t proven, and I believe the prosecutors knew it never could be. Pedarast, perhaps. Paedo, no – by definition. All profited, mainly the newsjackals, from the affair. And older-liking-younger is nothing new — shall we debate the lyrics to Learner and Lowe’s ‘Thank Heaven for little Girls’? Or talk about Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage, a-gain? Why not have a chat with Don Bachardy on his relationship with Christopher Isherwood? In a new documentary, Bachardy states: “…the [obsurd] idea of this middle-aged man deflowering this young boy…it was exactly what the boy wanted.” Incidentally, Bachardy and Isherwood’s relationship lasted over thirty years, til’ death did they part.
My point: as with the death penalty for murder, we have to be incredibly careful before lynching the bogey man. Innocent people die in Texas, and elsewhere, everyday. Today’s cries of ‘Paedo’ to incite the angry mob is yesterday’s ‘Commie’ — the newsjackals need an enemy to feed on, and we’re all too happy to give them one — real, imagined or conveniently coincidental.
Second, is the fairytale life of Jackson. While I can never see myself building a ‘Neverland Ranch’, I don’t see why it is anybody’s business that he did. There’s no doubt that Jackson suffered an incredible amount of child abuse at he hands of his father, and even if he hadn’t, the gruelling schedules and demands of a child star would have been enough to make him weird. I remain convinced that all Michael Jackson had on his mind was hugs, milk and cookies. So what? We don’t have to look very far at the similar tragic stories — from the cast of the Little Rascals, to Mackenzie Phillips, to Judy Garland — to gain insight on this one. The real tragedy? A society that allows the Hollywood and Music Industry machines to exploit these children, however talented, and then leaves them to fend for themselves as adults — we’ve all got guilt on our hands for turning our backs on him/them, as Madonna also observed.
Third, drug addiction. The heroin of the newsjackal masses. Sidestory SOMA, brave new nothing. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Elvis, Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, Billy Holiday, Edith Piaf…just to name some of the addicts with actual talent. Now, Jackson joins the list. Do we really need a half-wit primetime special to understand this one? Is it really surprising, that the alcohol and cigarette companies funded a lot of these people’s addictive careers? Does anyone else out there get the connection? Ugh.
For me, the problem with celebrity is akin to other us/them blights on our culture, and begins with what Michel Foucault describes in his book, ‘Madness and Civilization’, as the ‘Hopiteaux Generale’ or ‘General Hospital’. Before it’s institution, the sick, mad, crazy if you like, all existed within their societies. After, they were removed and labeled as ‘other’ and sent away. It’s frightening to me to think that this same logic, while originally well intended, was a component behind things like Hitler’s final solution and Pol Pot’s Cambodia: other, other, other. Everyone’s a winner’ needs to be sent to the scrap heap, lest we repeat.
What I saw last night in ‘THIS IS IT’ removed a layer or two of Jackson’s ‘otherness’ and brought me one step closer to a human I could, in turn, further comprehend. ‘ Instead of continuing our current vapid culture of celebrity — other, other, other, now turned to me!, me!, me! — and coveting the positions of ‘others’, and turning ‘others’ into demigods destined to fall — we need to demand change based on talent, and burst the bubble of fake celebrity. By doing so, those who follow Jackson won’t necessarily be arriving at an early grave. In order to do this, we need to invest more in arts education and incentives, and allow the most talented to do as Jackson did up to the last day of rehearsal – and instead of putting people on pedestals, put them on stage — within reach, for all to relate to.
I wish a large number of younger people knew a range musicians from Mozart to Thelonius Monk. I wish we educated them to appreciate quality in the arts, as opposed to size, volume and quantity. Jackson has quantity, but could stand alone and captivate tens of thousands at a time, with quality. And for all the criticism, I cannot understand why the ‘powers-that-be’ didn’t rush to canonize Michael Jackson in an artistic sense. He didn’t use profanity in his music, and sang about positive things while telling stories. He probably gave more money to charity than Bill Gates, and tried to bring attention to our dying planet. His work was sexy, not sexual. No one was called a ‘nigger’, ‘ho’, ‘bitch’, or ‘motherfucker’, in his repertoire. He never ‘smacked his bitch up’. Curiously, he avoided all this guttering, and retained millions of fans young and old, without being branded ‘vanilla’ or ‘goody-goody’. Another mark of genius.
A large part of society and especially the newsjackals hated Michael Jackson because they could not get their claws around him, and for that, I am eternally grateful. There are few who actually get to live, even intermittently, as we all cry out for: free. I guess after seeing ‘THIS IS IT’ I have to be honest, while I even have a lump in my throat, and admit I’m still not a fanatic. But my gosh do I have more respect for Michael Jackson than ever before – it is a rare, rare moment to be able to witness anyone who is and was truly the very best at what they do. The rehearsal footage was far better than a lot of concerts I’ve been to. And for those who wish young people had good role models in Pop culture, they did, and he’s gone. If we are lucky enough to get a ‘next one’, we’ll have to take care of them.
Whoever this may be, like Jackson said to his guitarist “This is your time to shine. We’re with you.” Well, some of us, anyway.
–Martin Belk 2 November 2009