The Man in the Mirror: Remembering Michael Jackson


Long before anyone could read into Michael Jackson's cubist,etiolated face a work of performance art, the wounds of internalizedracism, or the excess of boredom and wealth, all those things thatwould make us either look away or gawk, there was his voice.

The thing that Berry Gordy heard from the 10-year old boy was"knowingness", he said, "feeling, inspiration, and pain". There was anearly protest song, "The Young Folks", that now seems telling. But astime went on, Gordy and his songwriters gave Michael songs in whichloss loomed large, the better to exploit that glorious instrument ofhis. And for that voice, he lost his childhood.

Or more precisely, he gave it to us. Many of his most affectingperformances were about distance and displacement, the desire to besomewhere else, the inability to return to a lost past. Think of thesongs that the hip-hop generation adored so much: "I'll Be There", "IWanna Be Where You Are", "Who's Loving You", "Maybe Tomorrow", "All IDo Is Think Of You", "Ready Or Not". On these songs, Michael's"knowingness" sounds more like fragility. (On the other hand, buthardly balancing the scale, is the joyous Bronx summer break of "It'sGreat To Be Here".)

If you want to wonder how ambivalent this boy-dream, thisincarnation of all our notions about youth and beauty, felt about thelimelight and wanting to be "normal", listen to him sing "Got To BeThere". When he sees the girl of his desire walk into the morninglight, it's as if he has transferred the shine away from himself toher, imagining a perfect love above the blood and grind of the dailycelebrity-making machine. When he hits that high "me" (matched later bythe word "home"), he has given all of it up to all of us.

But as an audience, we were insatiable and ruthless. Years later,after the satisfaction and ease of his 20s, after he had been broken byself-mutilation and bizarre scandal in his 30s, Michael Jackson wouldreveal a tragic, pathetic emptiness, pleading, "Have you seen mychildhood?" By then, many of us had either turned away or turned onhim. The transaction was done.

In the end, he lost even his voice, autotuned first by lawyers andother keepers of his dissipating wealth, consumed by MickeyMouse-sounding paid-TV defenses and overproduced songs, before finallygoing silent forever. Time will restore the greatness of MichaelJackson's artistry. May it also cause us some revulsion at ourcomplicity in his fall as well.

Jeff Chang writes frequently about culture, politics, the arts and music. A version of this story appeared on his blog Can't Stop Won't Stop and Salon.