Michael Jackson: ‘Little freak, who made you?’
On Michael Jackson: We don’t talk about how we treat child stars, writes Margo Jefferson
Pop singer Michael Jackson performs at ‘A Night At The Apollo’, at New York City’s landmark Apollo Theater in the Harlem section of Manhattan. Photograph: Reuters/Mike Segar
On Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson: the ultimate Rorschach blot for culture pundits and pop psychologists. From Bowie to Gaga, Prince to Janelle Monáe, writers love a perverse polymorph, and Jackson was a man of many masks.
The youngest boy in a family of nine siblings, he made one of the most rapturous entries in pop history, soaring into frame in the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back. Flash cut, and he’s an afro-haired Fred Astair sliding down the bannister on the back of the magnificent whoop that heralds Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. Swipe again: Thriller casts him as the first black star to cross the MTV colour bar and become a multi-multi-millionaire. Swipe once more and we see the paranoid black blade of Bad and Dangerous, suffering from corrosive career neurosis. And then the long decline, from the first botched plastic surgery op right up to his last great song Scream, and those final, awful Howard Hughes years of court cases, controversy and ruin.
Originally published in the US in 2006, Pulitzer prize-winning critic, academic and memoirist Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson is an insightful and original reading of that trajectory. Less a book than an extended essay, it begins with a riff on the performer-as-carnival geek, identifying the subject’s predecessors not just in the realms of black popular entertainment (Sammy Davis jnr, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross), but Hollywood phantasmagoria (PT Barnum, Walt Disney, JM Barrie, Tom Thumb). “Little freak, who made you?” Jefferson asks in the audacious piece-to-camera that concludes the first chapter. “. . . Genes made you. Disease and illness made you. Religion made you. Show business and science made you. History made you: the norms and needs of your time and place made you. Your family and your psyche made you.”
Of all pop’s lost boys, the author suggests, Michael Jackson had much in common with Brian Wilson, a fellow child genius brutalised by his father and forced to carry his family’s dynasty on his puny shoulders. “The two shared not just a love for studio effects but a gift for luminous self-pity,” she observes. “And I’m not being snarky. Self-pity was part of their performance arsenal, as braggadocio and preening are part of Mick Jagger’s.”
Jefferson knows her pop-art. There’s a short but shrewd precis of Motown’s standards and practices (“music’s version of great genre fiction”), and she’s equally at ease deconstructing Jackson’s dance moves, fashion sense and vocal style. But she’s also sharp on psycho-sociology. Addressing the allegations of paedophilia that plagued Jackson’s later years, she turns the spotlight on the entertainment industry itself, and we, the carnivorous crowd, as complicit witnesses:
“We talk about how we think, believe, suspect Michael Jackson treats children. We don’t talk about how we treat child stars. Child stars are abused by the culture. And what’s more treacherous than when the rewards of the child’s stardom issue from the abuse? Child stars are performers above all else. Whatever their triumphs, they are going to make sure we see every one of their scars. That’s the final price of admission.”
So, if all child stars, from Jackie Coogan to Shirley Temple, are at once spoiled and neglected, Michael Jackson was no exception. Pre-sexualised and pimped out for the stage, exposed to elder brothers rutting in hotel rooms and burlesque bump-and-grinders with hearts of gold or otherwise, his childhood was thieved early on.
“The 1970s were an interesting decade for child performers,” Jefferson observes. “The culture was clearly obsessed – let’s say conflicted – about children. Hardly surprising. Feminists and gays were upending the standardised vision of Man, Woman and Family. Children could hardly be left out. Little-girl movie stars made tattered childhoods attractively perverse. We got the manipulative pseudoadult without a mother (Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon). The exquisitely decadent child prostitute without a mother (Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby). We got the jaded child with absent parents (Jodie Foster in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and the cynical child who serviced johns (Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver). This may seem distant from The Jackson Five, but it is not distant from Michael. He was as much an object of sexual fantasies as any of these girls.”
Jackson’s fall from grace is an allegory for the inherently corrupt nature of the American dream
Ultimately, Michael Jackson’s story (HIStory) takes the form of a sort of postmodern American gothic. “When Michael and his sister La Toya are photographed side by side,” Jefferson writes, “it’s as if ghostly twins have just floated out of a gothic mansion. They could be Roderick and Madeline, the tormented siblings in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.”
And, much more than just another messiah-martyr tale, Jackson’s fall from grace is an allegory for the inherently corrupt nature of the American dream, a fallacy that begins with the father’s bootstrap ambition and ends in Neverland Ranch isolation. The reader realises its protagonist was always cursed to become a recluse, hiding in his mansion like Charles Foster Kane; his final descent into self-loathing, body dysmorphia and cosmetic surgery suggests some awful degenerative disease of the psyche, echoing Updike’s definition of celebrity as a mask that eats into the face.
Never mind the prosaic title, On Michael Jackson is a frightening journey into the dark heart of American pop.
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels “John the Revelator” and “Shall We Gather at the River” (Faber). He is currently working on his third book