Lost in the Movies: Michael Jackson 1958 - 2009

Michael Jackson 1958 - 2009

With Jackson's face (or several faces) all over the news, one would expect that we'd be hearing a little more of the music and (especially) seeing a little more of the dancing. Sadly, this is not really the case. We get clips but rarely get to enjoy a whole piece - I understand MTV suspended regular programming for several hours after his death in order to play his old videos, but now they're back to reality shows. So I have embedded a You Tube clip, probably his most famous moment, below (it follows the rest of my thoughts).

I was too young for Thriller, which became a worldwide phenomenon the year I was born (it was released the year before), but by the time of Bad in the late 80s I was 4 years old and completely captivated by Jackson's songs, particularly "Man in the Mirror." I still distinctly recall dancing frenetically (imitating Jackson's signature staccato style) as the boom box blared that tune loudly. He was probably my first-ever "favorite person."

Then I remember him becoming less "cool" over the years, even before the disturbing allegations. I recall having a premonition, as a little kid, seeing him on the cover of a magazine and thinking, apprehensively (because he was one of my heroes at the time), that sooner or later something was going to come out to show his bad side...

Even as his reputation was riddled with bullets, one would periodically be reminded of his musical legacy and admiration would resume, even amongst notoriously freak-averse and homophobic schoolchildren. I remember a teacher trying to force us to sing a Michael Bolton song for some presentation, and instead the tough-minded group suggesting a Michael Jackson song instead; one of the more sentimental numbers no less ("Heal the World"). And this was after the androgyny, racial morphing, and even brushes with the law had hit their saturation point. Something of the old magic remained, and could not be swept away by all the scandals.

One of my aunts remained a steadfast Jackson loyalist through all the tumultuous years. She was the one who introduced me to his music in the first place, so it was somehow appropriate that I was the bearer of bad news, calling her quickly upon discovering his death to deliver the shocking message. I'll let her have the final word on the King of Pop himself, via Facebook. Though I myself cannot ever completely return to that wholehearted admiration of the man as well as the artist, I find there to be something touching about those who can:

"Tonite..I grieve for a Man/boy GENIUS...Who so completely + trustingly shared Himself with Us, his audience... Mind, Body & Soul... May You catch, the first shooting star on You're flight to the Heavens...like the Star You Are,,, You leave a trail of glittering Brilliance...that this girl will never forget !:)! White Glove, Gleaming shoes, moving with the precision of a Master Magician... Thank You,,, MICHAEL !"
Anyway, here is Michael Jackson in 1983 at the 25th anniversary celebration for Motown, inventing the Moonwalk. That backwards-gliding moment only lasts a second or two, but for the rest of the song, even when he's virtually standing still, his body is convulsed by a kind of pent-up kinetic energy - Jackson dances like electricity is coursing through him. Much has been said about his tragic life, his gift for songwriting, his unequalled pop-culture iconic status, and that unforgettable voice. But above all...

Jesus Christ, could this man move!


Sam Juliano said...

Yes Movie Man, indeed. The man's ability to move is his supreme legacy, even if THRILLER, some of the later work and the trend-setting Jackson Five output will always keep him firmly entrenched on the musical landscape. And the allegation sand the weirdness can never strip him of his iconic status and the eternal sympathies from those who loved him and his music. The incomparable grief continues.

Daniel said...

A very nice tribute, MovieMan. I'm just a couple years older than you but I experienced an almost identical fan development with MJ over the years - yes, even singing "Heal the World" in school.

And watching nearly all of his videos again over the weekend, what struck me almost more than his dancing was that of his background dancers. Just imagine how good all of those dancers, throughout the years, had to be to keep up with him and copy his movements so well. I wonder where all of those people are now, and if they realized what they were involved in at the moment.

Joel Bocko said...

I remember so many ups and downs with Jackson over the years. Starting with being a fan as a little kid, than sort of succumbing to the bad publicity (plus I seem to remember some consternation about excessive crotch-grabbing in one stage show, to the point where it looked like he was playing with himself) and deciding he was too weird. And the funkiness that had drawn me to his music in the first place suddenly seemed suspect when I was in elementary school - besides his appearance, even the falsetto voice and lithe dancing were aspects I recall people making fun of.

But, as I indicated with (my perhaps) false memory of the "Black or White" premiere, the music was always irresistible. By the time of Free Willy (remember he did the song for that?) I think I had turned around again and accepted Jackson back.

Then, of course the molestation charges. His personal reputation could never really come back from that, as far as I was concerned, and for a while even the older music was shunted aside. But I think the "Heal the World" concert (which was actually for CCD, come to think of it, which is kind of funny - and ironic - if you think about it) happened after that downfall if I'm not mistaken, and indicates that his popularity had not completely taken a nose-dive.

The later songs I was never really into, and I recall people making fun of - and not thinking much myself - of "You Are Not Alone" (written by - guess who - R. Kelly) but not so much that jr. high kids didn't still dance to it.

At some point I saw a special on his work which unveiled - for the first time - a lot of his early videos, particularly Don't Stop and the songs from Thriller. From this point on, I think his musical legacy was secure with me (plus I was now old enough to separate the person from the music).

But Jackson the person continued to plummet in my estimation. By the time of the early 2000s, with his mediocre new single, the personal appearance which had gone from being weird and offbeat to astonishingly frightening, his unintentionally hilarious charges of "racism" when his album didn't sell, and all the antics like dangling his baby off a balcony, I was just tired of the man. I used to joke that it would have been better from him and everyone else if, like Buddy Holly, he had died in a plane crash in the late 80s, in his prime. Seems quite cruel now, but I was hardly alone in feeling this way. Even now, from a more compassionate angle, I wonder if it would have been better for him and everyone involved if death hadn't taken so long to string him out. But that's neither here nor there.

Joel Bocko said...

Oddly enough, I seem to detect renewed sympathy in the wake of his trial. While his behavior was obviously inappropriate with children, I remember reading about the trial and thinking he would get off because the mother of the boy seemed so conniving (I don't remember why I thought this anymore). Plus Michael had descended so far into his own private freakish world that it was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for him.

Yet I was essentially done with Jackson. Then, the other day I was planning to watch a movie but had to check something with the DVR...while I waited for it to start, I sat down at the computer and went to Sam's site. They were discussing a movie and I thought I would head over to IMDb to check on its release date.

Then, lo and behold, on the right-side news feed, the entire column was taken up by the headline (and text underneath) "Reports - Michael Jackson dead at 50."

I was surprised, but I don't know if shocked was the right word. In the scheme of things, it seemed like it was always heading in this direction but Jackson had not been on my mind at the moment, and so I was taken aback. It kind of crept up on me - for a few seconds I thought I'd proceed with the search I had come to the site for, but of course instead I went to the message boards and read through them.

After all the antipathy, hatred, and sneering contempt the man had engendered over the years, most of the comments I could see were positive and mournful. I turned on the TV and kept it on for most of the evening, but everyone was focused on Farah Fawcett's death (I had only found about hers reading about Jackson's) mostly because they'd been caught completely offguard with nothing prepared for this unexpected event (I don't get the live cable channels right now, so this was network coverage).

Over the weekend, I was at a house with TV and did watch more of the coverage, but was a bit disappointed with the fact that, despite their attempts to accentuate the positive, scandals dominated music. A clip of the moonwalk here, a snippet of Thriller there, but for the most part it was Jackson the celebrity being mourned more than Jackson the musician.

Finally, Sunday night I spent hours on You Tube, watching all his videos (in order) and the vague sense of my own connection to the man and his music began to be reawakened. Before I had been tipping my hat, but now I began to recall the long, tumultuous emotional journey that I and many of my own and older generations had taken with the most popular entertainer of our lifetimes.

Yesterday I read a few pieces on Jackson, and then began working on a CD compiling my favorite songs of his. As I listened to the poppy and upbeat "The Way You Make Me Feel" I felt sad for the first time about the whole thing. I remember how Jackson was once, how far he had fallen from grace, and the fact that he was gone now. Most of all (and this was a cumulative process, beginning with the announcement of his death and climaxing as I listened to the music again) I remembered what he meant to all of us once, and what it meant that now he was gone.

A ridiculously long comment, but I wanted to indulge myself as this is the comments thread and thus the place to do so. I didn't really manage to convey what I'm getting at, but hopefully it's suggestive enough. I've scattered comments over a few blogs mulling over this topic, so perhaps I should gather some of them here, though there'll definitely be some overlap with what I just wrote.

Thanks, both of you, for sharing your own thoughts.

Daniel said...

Yes, this is definitely the place for a comment of that length. I won't try to match it, but I'll add that I had a similar reaction to his death as you did, at least the shock of it. But gradually I began to think that at least he DIDN'T die in his prime, because aside from being a literal global disaster, it would have prevented me from ever having experienced his music. So I'm surprised to hear you say that about Buddy Holly, but understand where you're coming from in terms of what it would mean for his later life.

For what it's worth, HIStory is actually includes some of my favorite songs - "Earth Song", "They Don't Really Care About Us", "Scream", etc. That was after the allegations but before the trial, and I guess I just brushed off the charges because I either didn't believe them or just expected them. The truth of the matter is that I never really considered Jackson a role model at the time, so it wasn't like he had "let me down" or anything.

But now, thinking about his life, in some ways I actually have a lot more respect for him. Considering the pressure he was under for so long (and considering this was the 70's and 80's!!!!) he never had a drug or alcohol problem. Under those circumstances it's absolutely incredible, at least in my opinion. Not that he was a saint, but still.

Anyway, I did have access to the cable TV coverage over the weekend but instead spent hours watching, with my girlfriend (also a big fan), his videos on the satellite MTV and VH1 stations. I think we saw almost all of them over the course of Friday and Saturday, and in that sense my remembrance was much more about the musician (and dancer!) than it was the person. Like you, I wish that was the case with the public sentiment. (That being said, I did focus on his celebrity in a post I wrote earlier this week.)

Joel Bocko said...


Thanks for returning and continuing the discussion. I'll keep it brief, as I need to go to bed, but I have some comments I've posted elsewhere that I think I may deposit on this thread, as they help sort out my conflicted emotions about the man.

By the way, I definitely did not mean to imply that it was a good thing Buddy Holly died at such a young age (hope you did not think this is what I was saying)! Just that if Jackson had done the same, his legacy would be so much more secure, sadly. At least the personal one; the musical one still seems unshakeable.

Also, since I got into him at an early age this would not have robbed me of discovering his music, but rather stopped in his prime, before he let me down...which I guess is the point of that rather cruel feeling.

I find it hard to see the positive side of what he didn't do - would rather he was alcoholic or junkie than a possible child molestor - yet, statements of the obvious aside, I do actuallyknow what you're getting at, and it's something I've thought about to.

In a way, he was very innocent - until the allegations (and even, by some readings of his psychology, after) his sins were not the usual celebrity ones. He seems to have had been genuinely compassionate and sensitive in many ways. This was a part of what made his personal failures and weirdness so disappointing - but I'll stop as I've already covered this ground, better I think, in the comments I'm going to re-post here later.

On another note, wasn't it great to watch those old videos? Even without all the noticeable physical changes from clip to clip, they served as a reminder of his gigantic presence in popular culture - as an entertainer not a "celebrity"/"freak" - once upon a time. And, of course, they just work on their own terms. I wish I could have seen them in better quality on my TV, but even on You Tube it was immensely refreshing.

Shucks, this was supposed to be a short comment...

Joel Bocko said...

I promised I would try to gather up the thoughts I've dispersed all over the Internet. So here's my attempt, sorry for any redundancies:

On the personal fall from grace -

"I had basically dismissed Jackson years ago. I can't really believe that nothing inappropriate happened between him and his many child friends, given the history of abuse, the clear signs of mental illness, and the extent to which he invited disaster, letting them sleep in his bed, holding hands, etc. Now, of course, none of this automatically makes him guilty. (I'm quite impressed by Rush for bringing this up; but then I guess his hatred of the liberal, er, "drive-by" media trumps all.)

But what I'm struck by recently is the extent to which his behavior and the accusations felt like a personal betrayal, not just some foolish celebrity scandal to which we could all gossip about and brush off. I eventually developed a cold and exasperated attitude towards Jackson, which was not entirely unjustified, but it grew out of completely different feelings: he was a hero of mine as a little kid, and I think his exposed flaws and weaknesses were the first fall from grace I'd ever witnessed. As I've said elsewhere, I think for me and many others, contempt was initially bred by anger and disappointment: why couldn't this man who moved us so profoundly keep his side of the bargain? Why did he have to let us all down so brutally?

This feeling was only heightened by the singer's own vulnerability - he seemed so easy to crush and in our frustration, we were happy to do so (but let me note here before this line of thinking gets too overwrought, I am not suggesting that "we" killed Jackson - nothing so maudlin; my concern is more with our own, particularly my own, psychology in relation to his persona rather than its impact on him, which we can't really know). The childish naivitee perhaps reminded us of our own lost innocence, and this was perhaps Jackson's primal sin, the one which enabled the mean-spiritedness of all the attacks on him later. Nobody goes after Roman Polanski the way they go after Jackson - because Polanski is an adult, and one suspects he would be unmoved by our loathing of him, so what's the point? Jackson never really seemed to be an adult (despite a by-all-accounts sophisticated ambition and a lyrical and musical edge which I would like to hear someone reconcile with the childish, soft-spoken offstage celebrity, but that's another matter) and we lashed out at him in a cathartic display of our own tough-minded maturity.

All his soppy ballads about healing the world and not being alone and finally a pathetic plea for "one more chance" were just like blood in the water, making the sharks even hungrier for a piece. He was soft, and his compassion and sentimentality and innocence only made us hate him all the more. Eventually, for me and many others, dislike ebbed into indifference and only his death could shock us out of our apathy.

I seem to have come full-circle from considering primarily the music in the wake of Jackson's death (and feeling frustrated that others weren't doing the same) to regarding the persona with renewed - and transformed - fascination, but there you have it.

The first time I recall any premonition of Jackson's downfall was in the late 80s, when I was still a fan (and still in preschool). I saw his picture on the cover of People Magazine: the story was about his generosity and kindness and the photo had him hugging a child who was sick with some disease. Right then and there, I got a funny feeling, a foreboding - it was too good to be true, this King of Pop who was also a sweet, nice guy, and sooner or later the other shoe was going to drop.

That it did is something all of us can never forgive him for."

Joel Bocko said...

On "Bad" -

"As for Bad, you are right to locate the beginning of the end there. From the historical perspective (as I noticed watching his videos in order) that's the point at which a line is crossed, albeit subtly. The Jackson of Thriller would have fit in OK in Scorsese's epic video for Bad, but something about the lighter-skinned, more feminine-looking Jackson that just rings false in the director's Johnny-comes-home-to-the-ghetto-storyline (of course, the Jackson of Dangerous and '91 would have been ludicrously implausible in the scenario).

But if it was the beginning of the end, it was also the beginning, period, for me, and so that colors my view of the period - I tend to see it as a height reached rather than a slowly building decline."

More on "Bad" -

"K-punk points out the utter strangeness of Jackson’s sexual aggressiveness in The Way You Make Me Feel and I agree, but at the same time the song itself – and even Jackson’s desperate attempts at normalization (as a horny hetero) – remain somewhat moving – perhaps because there’s something desperate about it.

The production is so upbeat, yet there’s something relentlessly aggressive and assertive – or struggling to be agressive and to assert – in Jackson’s vocal. Listening to the song the other day, it was the first time I felt genuinely sad since the announcement of his death…somehow it seemed to crystallize what we’d lost, and what he lost. I think today Bad can retain some interest for standing at the crossroads. Here the Wacko Jacko and the King of Pop met, with the former receiving the baton from the latter and never really looking back. By Dangerous, it was an awful strain to pretend that Jackson’s iconic status surpassed his weirdness, and the stunts of seducing Egyptian princesses, gyrating with Naomi Campbell, and shooting hoops with the other Michael J. only serve to emphasize the weirdness, which within a year or two would come to completely dominate the public image of the singer.

In Bad, that aspect is there, but so is the pop-culture icon whose status and excitement supersedes such concerns, and the buried poignancy of the super-polished pop is perhaps in the feeling that things are beginning to slip out of hand, that though the worst is yet to come, a line has been crossed and there is no return. It may best represent Jackson’s ability to inhabit a polished, plastic sonic – and visual (though this was increasingly undercut by his own deviations from acceptability) – universe and yet convey a raw, unnerving emotionalism; here Pop has the power usually found in rock and folk and other more consciously “authentic” forms. This perhaps – aside from his glorious ability to move – was his greatest talent."

Joel Bocko said...

On remembering/mourning Jackson -

"By the way, I couldn’t really understand Sam’s reaction (though I take it as genuine) until today. I’d watched a bunch of the videos last night, read some of Kaleem’s pieces, and had been thinking about Jackson and remembering, long ago, how I once felt about him when I was a little kid and an unadulterated fan – before all the bad press got too heavy. I hadn’t remember that in years (see the thread I directed Sam to for a more in-depth explanation).

I was burning a CD to play when I visit my family this weekend (my aunt was a Jackson devotee through thick and thin) and when I played the upbeat, energetic “The Way You Make Me Feel” I suddenly felt…sad for the first time about the whole thing.

Of course it’s silly to “mourn” someone you’ve never met as if you knew them, but I don’t think that’s exactly what’s going on here. The death is just a trigger for something else…for me, I rediscovered not just Jackson but a lost part of my youth, and the disappointment in the direction the pop star took certainly has its parallels elsewhere in my life (and everyone’s). We mourn our own lost innocence, and passing lives, and frustrated, disappointed relationships. Just as a movie or a piece of music can sometimes epitomize and mythicize something buried within us – a memory, an emotion – so sometimes individuals do too, and sometimes it’s the individual AND their work, or the fusion of the two.

And of course, that’s what art’s all about."

On the music videos -

"I’m coming fresh from a viewing of every Jackson video I could find on You Tube. It’s a surreal experience watching them, seeing the development of his music, the development of pop music in general, the development of the video (you really get a sense of how the form, and the pop culture milieu changed from the early 80s through the early 90s) – and especially the strange and sad “development” of his look.

It’s been gone over a million times and I witnessed it happen in real time (well, starting from the Bad point where the process had already begun but was still subtle enough) but it’s still shocking. That “Jam” video, where he shoots hoops with Michael Jordan is surreal. One Michael J. is black – what the hell is the other one?

Also strange how they pair him up with hot women in so many of the videos and it just rings false, especially once he’s become so feminine looking himself (like that one where he’s in Egyptian drag). Dangerous seems to have arrived at a time when Jackson had gotten really, really, irretrievably weird but he was still accepted in pop culture – almost like people were pretending not to notice. The ‘93 molestation accusations pretty much changed all of that, of course.

Some of the videos are pretty interesting. “Leave Me Alone” holds up as an interesting example of the late 80s animated video trend (not to mention it’s one of the few times a Jackson video acknowledges his reputation instead of trying to hide it) and the sharpness Scorsese brings to the silly plot of Bad (can we really buy Jackson in the ‘hood) lends the whole mini-movie as much conviction as it can muster.

God, I have to get up in 4 hours. Goodnight."

Well, that should do it!

Sam Juliano said...

Geez, if this isn't the most comprehensive examination of this tragedy I don't know what could be. You have covered all bases here, including some broach on other threads and on e mails. It hasn't lessened the pain, but it's enabled us to be distracted by reflection and perspective. It's really all we can hope for at this point.

Tony Dayoub said...

"I was too young for Thriller, which became a worldwide phenomenon the year I was born (it was released the year before)..."

Damn you, MovieMan for making me feel so old. I was in fifth grade when that came out.

Great write-up on the man you've got here. I love his music, but had to separate the music from the man after working on his trial (in my previous career) and learning some things I'd rather have wished weren't true.

Joel Bocko said...


In what capacity did you work on his trial? Sounds fascinating - if also disillusioning.

Joel Bocko said...

One more thought for this thread. I called Michael Jackson's 2001 single "mediocre," which was my impression at the time. To be fair, the overwrought video which buried the music in pointless skits involving Marlon Brandon and Chris Tucker didn't do the song any favors.

But "You Rock My World" is quite an excellent pop single and it just goes to show, I guess, that sometimes even the music got lost in the shuffle.

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