Sunday, June 28, 2009

Beyond Bad


Michael Jackson by Pants


On a parky winter’s day in 1982 I ran into NME photographer Bleddyn Butcher in Oxford Street. He had just emerged from the Virgin Megastore clutching a freshly-pressed copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller about which he was gleefully enthusing. This struck me as unusual for a number of reasons. It was unimaginable that anyone who worked at the NME would ever buy a pint much less a long-playing vinyl platter and wasn’t Michael Jackson, you know, one of those glittering disco type people? I never heard Bleddyn enthuse about anything at all after that day so at least something reverted to normal.


I never got into Michael Jackson. By the time The Jackson 5 started having hits I’d exhausted my taste for novelties on Cab Calloway and Mel Tormé and chose instead Hendrix, Joplin and The Doors as the soundtrack for my early angst. I did go to The Monkees concert in 1968 but they at least were not children. Then came the watershed year of 1976 and the choice between the mirror ball and the safety pin. I went for the pin. Try mending your knicker elastic with a mirror ball. Black was always a better look for me than gold lame and punks made their own, very much superior fun.

By 1982 Jackson was all grown up and there was no avoiding Thriller for the next eighteen months. I dutifully attempted to learn the moonwalk at a Christmas party in 1983. The Royal Ballet dancer who tried to teach it to us, looked quite stunning gliding across the varnished timber floors in his crepe soles but I collapsed in a heap in my stockinged feet. With the whole world seemingly under the Thriller spell, I wasn’t convinced. The niggling question for me was why would you want to listen to Michael Jackson when you could have Marvin Gaye? His Midnight Love album came out around the same time. Marvin had been ladling out his uncompromising blend of sex and politics in exquisite sound chunks for a decade. This jittering, squeaking, gyrating poppet just wasn’t in his league. It’s worth noting that it was Midnight Love that the NME named its 'album of the year' in 1982 and not Thriller.

It was twenty-five years ago last April 1 that Marvin Gaye died in genuinely tragic circumstances. He was shot and killed by his father just as his troubled life and career seemed to be on the upturn. That’s not to say that Michael Jackson’s death isn’t tragic in its own sad way but as Paul Morley concludes in this measured piece in one’s beloved Guardian, inevitable. The pathetic figure who needed an autocue to string three words together to announce a series of fifty demanding all singing, all dancing entertainment spectaculars, was not very likely to be still standing after more than one or two lacklustre performances. His sudden death may have been a kindness to all involved.

Like everyone else in Britain, I was parked in front of our rented television when the John Landis directed Thriller video was premiered in the wee hours. Revolutionary? I didn’t think so. More like The Rocky Horror Show meets Grease. But perhaps it was prescient in retrospect. When he tells Ola Ray he’s not like other boys and then acquires the face of a ghoul, well you can’t help but conclude it was a foretaste of things to come.

Most people are saying nice things about Michael Jackson at the moment but there will be dirt soon because it’s most assuredly there. Anyone who doubts that just needs to look very closely at Martin Bashir’s 2003 interview again. The county coroner may have finished with Michael Jackson but the real autopsy has only just begun.

My own curiosity is most piqued by his unchallenged attitudes towards women. He was clearly a misogynist of the first order but was never accused of it. Why? Because he appeared so infantile and vulnerable and one normally associates misogyny with brutes? What kind of father purges children’s mothers from their lives, names them all Michael, even the girl and then forces them into purdah for no good reason? It’ll be interesting to see how well-adjusted those kids turn out to be after an early childhood with Daddy Dearest. And what’s this about a surrogate mother? Last time I checked the dictionary, a surrogate mother was a woman who carried a child on behalf of another woman. If it’s her own embryo and there is no infertile Mommy, then she's it. The mother of Michael Jackson’s third child knows who she is and will emerge from the woodwork roughly about the same time as the value of his estate is announced I should think.

Michael Jackson’s misogyny was enabled by a mafia of clichéd grotesques with car bomb private lives (yes Liz & Liza, that would be you). These unsightly distortions of femininity so often associated with extreme gay iconography represent a version of self-inflicted victim-hood and chronic narcissism which appears comforting to men who, for whatever reason fear and/or dislike strong women. I often wonder why gay men don’t idolise Jeanette Winterson, k.d lang, Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag. I’m not suggesting by the way that all gay men hate women and/or love Liz and Liza or that Michael Jackson was indeed gay – although that might explain some things. I do know a few gay men though and none of them read Jeanette Winterson.

The protection provided by these doughy dowagers may also have masked, even sanctioned some sinister behaviour. Going back to the Martin Bashir interview where Jackson candidly revealed that he regularly shared his bed with visiting children, it’s apparent he did not think he was doing anything wrong. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t, it probably means he felt no obligation to bother checking on his legal and moral obligations as the responsible adult. It’s a unique belief in personal entitlement that only someone who has never known anything but celebrity could hold.

I don’t own any Michael Jackson records and I won’t be buying any now. I don’t think my restraint is going to alter the estate's fortunes. Once the Amazonian frenzy for available material subsides, expect a slurry of previously unreleased tracks to hit the market. There’s at least one shopkeeper in New Jersey sitting on sixty demo tapes he won in a legal action along with other Jackson memorabilia.

For the last couple of days I’ve been listening to Prince. Everything Michael Jackson could ever have hoped to have said is contained in one Prince song, When Doves Cry.

P.S. By chance I received an email today from one Luke Jackson asking me to aid in the promotion of his new release. Normally I would greet such brazen cheek with a bad-tempered stab at the 'report spam' button but in the circumstances I can't pass up the opportunity to urge you to listen to an entirely different Jackson. Besides, it's called Goodbye London and it contains clever and amusing animation. Ootoob your way to happiness with my compliments.